Dealing with the Unknown: Transitioning into Old Age Gracefully

Growing old means letting go — and that’s a beautiful thing.

Our Western world encourages control and independence under the guise of individualism: being financially self-sufficient and living alone are seen as desirable for both men and women; people are marrying less and embracing singlehood longer; we have technology available at our fingertips that entertains us wherever we are, and without the need for another person; when we’re lost, we don’t ask for directions — we just pull out our phone and there’s the answer.

This is all well and good when we’re young, and even into adulthood. There are many ways in which being self-reliant can fuel personal growth and be wholly fulfilling. And yet, as we round the corner of our time here on earth, a new perspective appears on the horizon: as we age, we inherently start to need people in unfamiliar ways. Losing faculties like sight or motor skills is challenging, and near impossible to get through alone.

elderly woman in room
Growing older requires us to be courageous and vulnerable.
Image source: Magnus Fröderberg via wikimediacommons.org

On the other hand, many Eastern countries in the world do not subscribe to our Western ideal of individualism. Instead, they place greater value on long-term bonds with family and local community. When people grow into old age, they are cared for by younger members of the family and community throughout the entire process.

Letting people care for us can help mitigate the level of fear attached to the aging process: “Medicine is only one part of the picture. As people get older, we need to look at a whole host of solutions that can keep them healthier and happier for their entire lives.”

two elderly people in Bhutan
In the East, the aging process is intertwined with community and family.
Image source: Steve Evans (Citizens of the World) via wikimediacommons.org

As it stands, aging in the West is challenging if we’re accustomed to an individualist mindset, where we have been taught to rely solely on ourselves for self-care, financial stability, and daily enjoyment. In this way, aging provides us with a wonderful opportunity for learning and personal growth: we are finally required to let go of our need to control situations and be self-reliant; we must open up to accepting help from other people, and let life naturally run its course.

“The challenges of aging can, however, stimulate emotional growth. (…)  [People] can become more accepting of flaws in others. They may feel a little more vulnerable and have a keen awareness that they cannot always control events.”

There are many ways to make the transition from a lifestyle of control to a lifestyle of courage. For example, we can consider encouraging our loved one to continue living at home, and hire home care to help with health issues. This is a gentle way to slowly shift from complete independence to embracing outside help. Living in our familiar environment maintains a sense of comfort (along with the important feeling of ‘home’), while a professional caretaker ensures that all health needs are being consistently met.

group of seniors gathered
There are many benefits to entering a nursing home, including community.
Image source: Jan Jankovi? via wikimediacommons.org

If and when we do decide to transition into a nursing home, the process will likely be smoother if family members are involved throughout. But at the end of the day, the elderly person whose life is undergoing this significant change needs to feel that the final decision is under their control:

“The less control people perceive they have over the move and the less predictable the new environment seems, the greater the stress of relocation. People should become acquainted with the new setting well in advance.”

It is most people’s wish to remain independent as long as possible. However, we know that at some point this may no longer be an option. Inviting this beautiful time of transition with open arms and a positive attitude can make all the difference in their experience. Accepting the vulnerability and courage required during the aging process can be done through speaking honestly with friends, family, and professionals. By embracing the limitless opportunities for personal growth during old age, we can begin to shift from fear to welcoming the experience with open hearts.

If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one make a significant transition, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you examine available options and select a course that is right for your family. Contact us to find out more.

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Institute on Aging

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