Thanks to the confidentiality of my career and personal coaching practice, I’ve been privileged to hear hundreds of older people speak candidly about their aging: their cognitive functioning, energy, work fears, sexuality, and health worries, The following are composites of their disclosures.
There are countless articles recounting the vitality of some older people — 70 is the new 50 and so on. Writing another one adds little value. So here I focus on the negatives experienced by many people as they age.
Cognitive functioning. “I love movies. Now, I usually only can follow simple plots. Making it worse, my hearing isn’t so good so I lose a lot of the words. And ask me, a week later, to describe the movie, I’m lucky if I can say two sentences.
“I often run into someone I should know and can’t remember their name or, sometimes even that I know them. I get so embarrassed.”
“I try to hide my aging brain as much as possible but I’m always scared some client or lawyer in my office will realize. Maybe they do already. I’m scared they’ll fire me and then, who in the world will hire me? I can’t afford to retire.”
“I’m afraid my husband will know. Maybe he already does. And he won’t respect what I’m saying. He didn’t respect my opinion that much before! I’m scared.”
Energy: “My employers paid me poorly when I was young and now when I get paid well, I’m always afraid they’ll replace me with someone half my age who costs half as much and works twice as hard. I keep thinking about Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman yelling at his boss: “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away –a man is not a piece of fruit!” I’m rehearsing saying that when they fire me. I really think they will. That’s why I’m seeing you. What should I do?”
Interests: “Maybe because my brain isn’t what it used to be, I find myself spending more time on simple things: watching TV, knitting. I used to laugh at old people for spending so much time reading Reader’s Digest and staring at the stock market ticker. Now I understand.”
Looks: “No one flirts with me any more. No one even looks at me any more. They look through me. I’m irrelevant. Sometimes, I think young people look at me with pity—“Wow, she’s old!” They’re right. I look in the mirror, at the sags. I know I’m supposed to accept aging with grace but I look and I think, ‘You’re disgusting.’”
Family: “I want to spend more and more time with my grandchildren. It’s not as rational as, ‘I want to see the next generation.’ It’s just a feeling.”
“I’m starting to think of things like, ‘I’ll need her when I can’t take care of myself.’ Or, “Maybe I should divorce my wife but who’s going to watch out for me when I have to go the hospital? People who go to the hospital without someone hovering, die.'”
Sex: “Until maybe 10 years ago, I loved sex. Now, I avoid it. My husband still wants to do it but I dread it. I take estrogen even though the doctor says it slightly increases my risk of cancer. I don’t want to be all dried up. That would be really giving up.”
Health: “I used to backpack three times a year. Now I don’t do it at all because I’m scared if something happened to me in the boonies. I don’t even take a walk without my cell phone, just in case. I used to go for my annual physical and not worry about it. Now I’m terrified. I’m one blood test away from a death sentence.”
One of aging’s few silver linings is that we realize time is limited and we better make the most of it. Thus, some people allocate as many of their remaining heartbeats as possible to making the biggest difference they can. Aware of your mortality, do you want to play more, contribute more, or are you satisfied with how you’re living your life?