Getting older can be a real challenge to our sense of self. Our memories become less sharp, we may suffer numerous aches and pains due to long-term wear and tear, and our functional abilities may be affected by illness and disease. All of these developments are downsides that could have a major impact on the quality of our lives, but getting informed and activated can make a big difference—and aid us in our goal of healthy aging.
Informed, activated people recognize the limitations that age or disease force upon them, work to come to terms with the fact that life is just not fair, and resolve to do what they can to adapt to the hand they’ve been dealt. And “adapt” doesn’t just mean lie back and take it. It means becoming an “educated consumer” and knowing all you can about any disorders or disabilities you may develop. It also means using this knowledge to modify your life and circumstances so that seemingly insurmountable obstacles become the smallest barriers possible.
Healthy Aging: It Starts with Attitude and Outlook
Coming to terms with our challenges is often the hardest part of aging. You can deny them, but this rarely helps. For example, I love to read—when I was a child I always had my nose in a book. As I grew older, however, my vision succumbed to my age and grew blurry. I went through a denial phase, and it took me a while—and several doctor visits—to reconcile with the fact that this was life and I couldn’t take a pill or get a single pair of glasses to fix it. So I accepted the challenge and adapted to it—I used brighter lights, wore reading glasses, and occasionally listened to books rather than read them.
Some years later, I developed cataracts. When I began to notice more than a simple inability to focus on my book or newspaper without reading glasses, and that I also required more light by which to read, even with my glasses on, I adapted further.
The next step was cataract surgery, and it was only after the procedure that I became aware how much the cataracts had affected my sight. I’m now able to read again without needing bright lights, and I don’t need to wear my glasses as much as I once did.
In short, I coped and changed. All of us—including those with seemingly disabling conditions—have an amazing capacity to cope and change.
Reinvention Is a Key to Healthy Aging
I remember reading about a woman who lived the last 25 years of her life with progressive multiple sclerosis. She was eventually wheelchair-bound and could move only one arm—yet she continued to work, dying at the ripe old age of 77. Her secret? As her partner noted in her obituary, “She reinvented herself every year of advancing physical disability to stay active and working and joyous in her life.”
This reinvention is key, because adapting often means letting go of your previous mental and physical abilities and embracing your “new normal.”
You may not like the fact that you can’t do as much as you used to, but take it from me: If you accept the condition, figure out what’s within your control, find support (both personal and professional), and adapt, then healthy aging is possible—and older adulthood can and will be a very special time in your life.
Rosanne Leipzig, MD, PhD, is Professor and Vice Chair of the Brookdale Department of Geriatrics and Adult Development at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York, N.Y. She also serves as Editor-in-Chief of the monthly publication Mount Sinai School of Medicine Focus on Healthy Aging. Visit her website at rosannemd.com.