Life Transitions

By: Betsy Pownall

There are these moments in our lives where we are fully aware that an abrupt transition is taking place, the death of hope, the birth of a new idea. The death of a leader, the birth of new leadership. The death of a loved one, the birth of a baby. And meanwhile, we live our lives bookended by the greatest transitions of all: birth and death. Both events require a profound letting go, and both hold with them our humanity. And between the bookends we live, going through transitions, some big, some small, but growing nonetheless.

These transitions quietly whisper into our lives. We may not realize it at the time, but something in us is changing. Our body is changing. Our soul is changing. What used to be humorous, may no longer be. Where once we felt loud, we may feel quiet. Such is the process of aging.

Aging is an organic process of growth. And the trick for us humans is to lean into our aging process, but not too far. You don’t want to age yourself out too young, and you don’t want to deny aging, as that can be perilous.

My father, who had a slow onset kind of Parkinson’s, would walk with a ski pole when we hiked into the mountain village, where he lived. As we approached the bridge that led into town, he would hide his ski pole before crossing. I would walk closely beside him as we crossed the bridge. He would say I was too worried about him. I would think, “I hope he doesn’t fall.” 

Studies have shown an association between older people’s negative attitudes about aging and cardiovascular problems such as strokes and heart attacks, and with mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. People who have a more positive outlook on aging do better on memory and hearing tests, have better physical function, recover from injury more quickly, and live longer.

There is honor in aging. An 85 -year-old has been on this earth for many years. Their body has carried them more or less to their 85th year. That, in itself, is profound. And yet, our culture isolates older adults. Older adults isolate themselves. There is segregation in the American Culture around aging, fueled by early retirement, age-specific housing, and a decline in social organization involvement. Our attitudes toward aging start when we are young. We were taught how to treat aging adults through our culture and our family system. And, our attitudes can change. It has been shown that programs that foster intergenerational understanding and experience have helped foster improved attitudes in both young and old participants.  Intergenerational programs can include toddlers playing with older adults, school-age children working with university students on climate change, Etc. 

A recent analysis of 23 intergenerational programs from nine countries found less depression, better physical health and increased “generativity” among aging adults. and increased “generativity” among aging adults. (Generativity refers to the desire to leave a legacy; a need to assist young people to create a better future that the aging adult won’t live to see.)

When I was young, I didn’t want to grow old. It didn’t mean I wanted to die, I just didn’t want to be old. Now that I am nearing retirement age, I have a dream that I will age gracefully. This will be challenging, though. The other day my daughter asked to carry something for me “because it was too heavy”. The back of my neck bristled and I wanted to say loudly, “I’m not old, yet!” Instead, I took a deep breath and said, “Thank you.”