By Ellis Waller-Walker

I am a boomer and confronting getting older. The irony is that I happened to have a background in aging as a “gerontologist” or the multidisciplinary study of aging. People ask, what does a “gerontologist” do? Working in the field, I find myself stymied as to what to tell them. We do not medically treat elders. Mostly, we provide education, administer social service programs, advocate on behalf of seniors, and are involved in caregiving support and research.

Boomers have a particularly hard time growing older, mostly because of ageist ideas and stereotypes we adopt. Boomers deny growing older because we are still the people who love Rock and Roll; we are the “me generation”; the anti-war protesters; the advocates for civil rights. We are the ones who are impacting and changing the view and culture of aging. We are the “age deniers.”

We are age deniers because we believe the stereotypes that society has put upon us. You know them….

  • You can’t teach a dog new tricks.
  • Aging is a time of depression and loneliness.
  • We are all in danger of getting dementia.
  • People who are older are grumpy and grouchy.
  • People who are old don’t like change.

If these are stereotypes aren’t necessarily true, why do we come to these conclusions and what can the boomers expect as we grow older? Developmental psychologists such as Robert Havighurst, Robert Peck, and Erik Erikson have identified several transitions that boomers must face. These include:

  • Adjusting to the empty nest
  • Changing our perception of the work role.
  • Dealing with reduced income.
  • Accepting physical changes—the baggy eyes, sagging skin, and arthritic aches and pains
  • Caregiving for our parents
  • Coping with the death and illness of friends
  • Considering down-sizing our homes 
  • Widowhood

The predominant theme of growing older is one of loss. No wonder we have negative stereotypes and fear growing older! However those of us who have a faith life have the key to coping with these changes and reframing these losses in to a more positive and optimistic light.

Losses are an opportunity for new beginnings. Compensating for the loss of a work role can be an opportunity for giving back to our community, or for starting another pathway related to our calling. Pastor Mike Smith in Snohomish County, Wash., was initially a lawyer and was called to be a Methodist Minister. Retired at age 70, he went back to school to become a Chaplain and is using his experience as a Vietnam Veteran and his pastoral capabilities to work with veterans suffering from PTSD at the VA hospital. Pastor Paul Graves, on the other hand, founded “Elder Advocates” and provides workshops and education pertinent to elders. There are many examples of how people are using the second half of life as an opportunity to start an “encore career.”

Downsizing is another opportunity of freeing yourself from the “stuff” we collected over the years. Letting go of the material and focusing on the important things of life. Dealing with physical problems is impetus for moving to an assisted living facility or continuing care retirement community, such as Wesley homes. Here we have the opportunity to meet new friends, and rebuild a community of elders who still have much to give.

Learning to compensate for those losses, known as the “Selective Compensation and Optimization” model of aging, stretches us and reminds us to look to God for guidance. Our faith and friends can help bring us from depression to optimism, grief to acceptance, loneliness to community, and from fear to hope.

We need to be reminded that although we think we know the pathways that lie ahead, it is important to remain in the present moment and to be grateful for the gifts we have been given. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself,” from Matthew 6: 33-34. To age successfully, we must acknowledge the changes we face, share them with confidants, and recognize that life as we grow older is difficult. Sharing this journey with others, reframing the difficult things that cross our paths, learning to be gracious for the opportunities that come our way, and letting go of our ego can help us embrace growing older. We need to think not dwell about our past but embrace who we are now–instead of “who we were.” Only then can we truly understand what the late neuro-psychologist, Gene Cohen, calls, “the creative age.”

Ellis Waller-Walker is serving as a guest writer for the Rev. Paul Graves.

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