How to combat feeling ‘old’ and compensate for changes related to age

My husband and I live in a senior community and both are in our mid-80’s. I was surprised when he recently said, “I really feel old.” It stopped me in my tracks since that’s the first time I heard him say that. He has some hearing impairment and lip reads which supplements his high-tech hearing devices. Masks which people need to wear limit his ability to understand conversations which I understand. I am curious, when do people typically say they feel old? Many thanks. J. N.

Dear J.N.,

People who feel old are describing what researchers call subjective aging. 

Some feel “old” with declining health or aches and pains. Others may feel “old” when they have less energy, move more slowly, don’t hear well, forget people’s names or where they placed their keys. Assuming these are gradual, they are examples of changes that can occur with normal or usual aging. 

If we are lucky, we all are going to age and likely will lose a little bit of something along the way. Here are some tips to compensate for those changes or losses. 

Engage in physical activity: Physical disuse is considered a No. 1 cause in accelerating aging. That doesn’t mean you have to go to a gym or own a Peloton bike. Look for ways to have some daily physical activity. Walking works, gardening counts and having a fitness, yoga or Pilates coach — virtual or real — gets you bonus health and longevity points. 

Remain mentally engaged: Lack of mental engagement may rank as No. 2 in making us feel older. In our younger years, it is likely we had mental stimulation from work, family demands and responsibilities, community activities and more. Particularly during the pandemic, much of this has ceased. We need to initiate those cognitive opportunities with book clubs, learning a new hobby, taking an online class or attacking a Sudoku puzzle. 

Eat a healthy and nutritious diet: Enjoy fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein and portion control. According to “My Plate for Older Adults,” half the plate consists of fruits and vegetables, one quarter consists of whole grains and the last quarter consists of dairy (small percentage) and protein including nuts, bean, fish, lean meat and poultry. For more information on nutrition, read the column by the Southern California News Group registered dietician, LeeAnn Weintraub

The trick is to balance losses with positive moments, insights, experiences, relationships and accomplishments that can continue throughout a lifetime. Here are few recommended tips from the well-regarded HelpGuide.org.

Be grateful: Express gratitude for what we have. With advancing age, we may experience losses that make what we have even more precious. 

Accept things we cannot change: At later life stages, we likely are aware of those non-changeable aspects of life. The challenge is acceptance and controlling our responses to such changes. Adding a bit of humor makes everything better. 

Find meaning and joy: One can pick up a long-neglected hobby or find a new one. Learn something new such as an instrument, language or game. Remember learning anything new creates new neural pathways in our brain.

Get involved in your community: Giving is a way to feel good. It helps define our purpose and provides satisfaction knowing we have made a difference or furthered an important cause. 

Spend time outdoors: Research studies indicate that spending time in nature reduces stress, increases levels of vitamin D, improves sleep, strengthens the immune system, reduces inflammation and inspires creativity. 

Let’s talk about your husband feeling “old.” His hearing difficulty likely is due to the necessary masks we all are wearing making lip-reading impossible. The loss of communication can lead to feelings of isolation and being left out and is easily translated to feeling “old.” To compensate for that feeling, suggest some of these aforementioned tips. 

Perhaps feeling “old” reflects our preoccupation with youth. It seems inherently positive to feel young; feeling old seems to convey a different message. Yet to feel “old” or preferable “older” could suggest positive attributes such as feeling wise, appreciative, being more spiritual, kinder and introspective. It could mean being more motivated to learn, embrace new experiences and have deeper relationships. Perhaps we need to reframe what “feeling old” means.

Thank you J.N. for your good question. Take care, be well and be kind to yourself and others. 

Note: There are facemasks designed for lipreading you might try out. While this won’t help with many of the masked people you encounter outside, perhaps you might offer them to regular visitors to see if that helps your husband’s sense of connection. 

Another note: In response to the many impassioned emails I received on ageism and birthday cards, I will share my personal views on the subject next week. Stay tuned. 

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