Let’s Talk: About aging preparedness

The other day as I was gingerly finishing my shower at the gym, I was mildly stunned … was that really my gnarly, liver spotted hand holding on to the grab bar in the shower?! How did that come to be?

When were those slick catalogs with the fancy pants latest styles and spike heels replaced by notices announcing the latest in hearing aids, wheelchairs, senior travel tours, and heaven forbid, funeral and estate planning, and reverse mortgages? I worked for more than 20 years as a gerontologist, a mental health specialist in aging, and now as I turn 70, I am a fully certified “geront”! It’s hard to believe.

All this to say, as our body changes with time … no … let’s be honest and say, as time takes its toll on our body, it’s important to pay attention to our mental attitude about ourselves. I must say I do wince when I hear a lovely 30-year-old complaining about how “old” they are looking.

Developmentally, when we are “young,” we often don’t appreciate our youthfulness. We can’t imagine not having enough energy, enthusiasm, or ardor for the things we love to do. So it’s true that “youth” is wasted on the young.

Then as we hit our middle stride, we are sucking in our paunches, searching for the magic potion to stop wrinkles, painfully trying to avoid wearing sensible shoes, or checking out the latest mojo from Japan that will keep us young, you know, some special konbu or mushrooms or magic kale. The fight is on!

But finally at some point, acceptance is essential. You begin to realize that your younger brother, or maybe even your son is sprouting some gray hair! Your friends are looking rather old and heaven forbid that you attend “Sansei Live” only to find that even the former beauty queen is looking like a senior citizen. Whoa! It’s time for some Daruma Psychology about now. Research in aging has repeatedly shown that positive relationships and a sense of purpose is what distinguishes the emotional well-being of most seniors from those who suffer depression and anxiety.

This information is an important clue for the best aging preparedness steps that can be taken. Both positive relationships and sense of purpose require positive thinking, and a conscious awareness of the value of both. I once asked a man on the eve of his 99th birthday how his life had been. He said, “You know, I think it was a good life, but I wish I had been there.”

So positive relationships doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a lot of friends and family, but it does mean addressing unresolved issues that have been ignored and unspoken. It does mean minimizing the time with folks who are negative or disrespectful. It does mean arranging your priorities so that those you love can benefit from your time and affection. As we age, material things and physical beauty tend to lose their meaning, but a kind word, time taken, lesson shared, history spoken, become the touchstone for being remembered for more than a life time.

Now, sense of purpose transforms significantly as we grow older. We shift from having to be productive, at the top of our game, to finding ways to contribute. This doesn’t mean we have to donate to, or attend every Nikkei event or cause, but it does mean that we benefit emotionally from giving to others. It could be reflected in attending a grandson’s basketball game or fixing some Japanese soul food for someone who is ill, or sitting with a student and sharing your life history. It could also be as simple as watering your garden, giving a compliment, or encouraging someone to try something new.

The interesting thing about positive relationships and sense of purpose is not only that it helps you to feel better about yourself, but if you are feeling down and despairing, reaching out to others and doing something for others can work to improve your own sense of well being.
Aging gracefully is not for sissies. Aging gracefully is not so much about our changing bodies, but more about the meaning we make of our lives and the way in which we share our lives with people we love. More than ever we spend each precious day realizing that time passes and never comes back.

Satsuki Ina, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Sacramento and Berkeley with specialization in intergenerational trauma. www.satsukiinatherapy.com. She is also a filmmaker (“Children of the Camps” and “From a Silk Cocoon: A Japanese American Renunciation Story”). The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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