Spring Crocus

In this in-between time when winter and spring are playing their annual game of tag, Nature makes it clear that although her seasons are eternal and somewhat orderly, they can also be mercurial and unpredictable. In northern California, the past two months have brought snow to mountain tops, blue skies alternating with torrential rains and fierce winds, the waxing of sunlight and record lows at night, and spring flowers poking their way through the frosty ground. Winter/Spring is a wild time.

A similar overlap of seasons occurs in human life. In fact, in many of the world’s myth, the old woman is able to shapeshift into a young maiden and back again, as needed. Author Patricia Monaghan observes, “In the flux of seasons we see each one more than once…. Spring, we fancy, comes to us once, goes once, is gone forever. But [people] spiral though life’s seasons like the [natural] world: there are days of growth in youth, in midlife, in age, just as there are losses and cold in each.” 1

While old and young may appear to be opposites, they actually co-exist. With age, we become men and women of all seasons, at home in each, imprisoned by none. As author Madeleine L’Engle discovered, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”

Thai Woman

Current studies in human development suggest that we are  many ages at once, and that chronological age is relatively unimportant. Walter Bortz, a professor at the Stanford School of Medicine, for example, observes, “[Chronological] age is becoming increasingly irrelevant to how we live, what we experience, and who we are becoming.”2 Rather than a singular number measured in years, age is increasingly regarded as multi-dimensional, with chronological, biological, cognitive, social, and psychological dimensions. At any one time, we might be chronologically 77, while our other ages could span decades.

The differences between individuals are more pronounced with age, and the older we get, the less alike we become. People age in widely – and sometimes wildly – different ways. In fact, some gerontologists have described today’s older adults as “chronological non-conformists.” This is heartening news for those of us aging in America and other places where growing old is typically, though mistakenly, viewed as an inevitable slide into decrepitude and misery.

One of the reasons for loss-focused view of aging is that the earliest studies of late life were conducted with elders in hospitals. Decades of more recent research have established that emotional well-being often improves with age and that physical health, cognitive vitality, and passion, commonly thought to atrophy with age, in fact remain accessible.

Physical and Cognitive Vitality

A growing body of late-life research suggests that most of the physical changes once assumed to be part of the aging process are related to how we live, rather than how long ago we were born. Dr. Mike Evans, for example, writes, “The really exciting thing is that we used to think that problems such as reduced cardio-vascular and respiratory function, muscle wasting, and bone loss were just a natural part of aging, but it’s clear now that most are actually the result of inactivity.”3

Most so-called “problems of age” are the consequence of behaviors and attitudes, not chronological age, and can be prevented, delayed, or offset by regular exercise and other health-friendly practices.

There is also mounting evidence that cognitive loss is far less pronounced than previously thought.  Information processing speed does slow somewhat, but long-term memory, crystallized intelligence, and practical intelligence (sometimes called wisdom) often increases. Most heartening: debilitating cognitive decline is not a normal part of getting older. The late-life brain has a far greater capacity for continuing development, resilience, and rewiring than early studies suggested. In fact, as Dr. Gene Cohen observes in The Mature Mind, some changes in the aging brain enhance our capacity for contentment and equanimity. (For more on maintaining cognitive vitality in later life, see Ellen Langer’s Mindfulness and Hansen and Mendius’s Buddha’s Brain.)

Lifelong Passion

Studies also reveal that regular sexual enjoyment is the norm for healthy elders with partners, and that physical intimacy often becomes more satisfying with age.4 In their extensive study of sexuality in later life, Starr and Weiner note, “As a 72-year-old woman explained, speaking for many of our respondents, ‘Sex is so much more relaxed . . . I know my body better and we know each other better. Sex is unhurried and the best in our lives.’”5

In the majority of tribal and village cultures, sexual activity among elders is expected and tends to occur regularly until very late in life. According to Winn and Newton who studied elders’ sexual behavior in 106 indigenous cultures, women in very late life typically have greater interest in sex than very old men and often have younger men as partners.6

In industrialized countries, longitudinal evidence indicates that most healthy, older married couples report continued, regular sexual enjoyment. The primary reasons for a lack of sexual activity among celibate elders are the lack of a partner (especially for women) and poor health, rather than chronological age or a lack of interest in sex.7

Late-life passion can, of course, take many forms, and sexual activity is only one of them. Many artists and scientists are engaged in some of their most passionate work in the last decades of life or begin new creative endeavors.

As psychologist Dean Simonton points out, “Empirical research actually suggests that creative productivity can undergo a substantial renaissance in the final years, especially toward life’s close. . . .Some time after the late sixties a resurgence in output often appears . . . (contradicting) the supposed inevitability of the downhill slide.”8

 

Endnotes

1Monaghan, Patricia, Seasons of the Witch, 3-4.

2Bortz, Walter, MD. We Live Too Short and Die Too Long, 199.

3Evans, Mike, MD. Quoted in Allison, Malorye, ”Improving the Odds,” Harvard Health Letter 16, no. 4  (February 1991): 3-6.

4Elias, Marilyn. “Late-Life Love,” Harvard Health Letter 18, no.1 (November 1992): 1-3.

5Starr and Weiner, Sex and Sexuality, 11.

6Winn and Newton, “Sexuality in Aging,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 11, no.4 (August 1982): 283-98.

7Starr and Weiner, 13-14, 47-50, and 161-83.

8Simonton, Dean. “Creative Productivity Through the Adult Years,” Generations 15, no. 2, (Spring 1991): 13-16.

I’m taking some time off to enjoy being with family, friends, and Mother Nature during the Holydays. Returning sometime in January.

Blessings, Susan

Winter Sunset

The Winter Solstice arrives tomorrow, the shortest day and longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. Since ancient times human beings have honored the sun at its lowest ebb and celebrated the lengthening of days and the diminishment of darkness that immediately follow.

old antern

The sun and the element of fire play leading roles in a variety of winter celebrations around the world – among the Hopi and the Celts, for example, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and in Egypt, Japan, and elsewhere. The lighting of bonfires, torches, lanterns, and candles when the sun is at its weakest is thought to be both a ritual of encouragement for the sun and an expression of hope for its return.

Winter Solstice

Hopeful candles glow
in depths of darkness, herald
sun’s welcome return.

May your holydays, regardless of tradition, be blessed with spaciousness, slowness, savoring, and stillness. And may our hopes for a kinder and more peaceful world be realized.

One of the complaints I sometimes hear about aging is that it slows us down. It’s true that we process information a bit more slowly as we age and move at a somewhat slower pace. But overall it seems to me that slowing down is much more a gift than a loss – one that is especially welcome during the winter holidays (originally holy days) that tend to leave us feeling more dazed than holy (whole). Slowing down and its faithful partner, Paring Down, are inclinations in later life that enhance the quality of life as well as buffering us against the frenzy of the Holidaze.

Sipping Tea

Slowing Down Enhances Health and Well-Being

The pace of life at this time of year can be overwhelming, dizzying, and numbing. Doing too much and rushing around in an effort to get it all done is stressful, which can raise the amount of cortisol in the body to unhealthy levels that are associated with high blood pressure, compromised immune functioning, depression, cognitive difficulties, loss of emotional control, fatigue, and a host of other ills.

On the other hand, slowing down lowers stress and blood pressure, enhances decision making and other cognitive functions, and restores emotional equilibrium. In allowing ourselves to experience the present – rather than rushing toward the future – we become more attentive to what is happening around and within us and savor it: to taste the apple we are eating, to be moved by the music we are hearing, or to enjoy the glee of children as they climb trees or wade through puddles after a rain shower. Even so-called ordinary moments become extraordinary when we move slowly enough to notice and enjoy them.

Slowing Down Clarifies Priorities

The growing awareness of our mortality in later life helps bring our genuine priorities into focus and encourages us to let go of unimportant possessions, commitments, and activities. In a similar way, slowing down brings clarity and supports us in making choices each day that reflect our deepest values. As a result, life becomes more spacious, more meaningful, and more joyful.

In Graceful Simplicity, Jerome Segal notes, “The time we give to things reflects our values. When everything is rushed, then everything has been devalued . . . To live gracefully is to live within flowing rhythms at a human pace . . . There is time to pay respect to the value of what you do, to the worth of those you care for, and to the possessions you own. Gracefulness is not possible when life is frenetic, when we are harried, or suffer from overload, time crunch, and a vast multiplicity of commitments and pressures.”

Snow Walkers

Slowness Engenders Harmony

Moving at a slower pace brings a sense of calm and peacefulness and puts us in harmony with others, while rushing not only robs us of the pleasure of the present, it wreaks havoc on how we treat others. I’ve noticed when driving, for example, that when I’m moving at a human pace, I’m much more aware of pedestrians waiting to cross the street and cars that would like to merge into our lane. But when rushing, I sometimes only see them as I drive past – too late to extend them kindness. Much as I appreciate drivers who wait for me to cross or merge, I sometimes revert to rushing and need to remind myself to slow down for my own and others’ sake.

Slowing Down as the World Speeds Up

Slowing down – like paring down – is a unique process for each of us. Here are a few suggestions that might prove useful in recovering a slower, more human pace:

Take some slow, deep breaths when you find yourself hurrying – and let the exhales last a bit longer than the inhales

Take periodic breaks. It’s paradoxical but true that we actually accomplish more – and do a better job – when we give ourselves time off, rather than plowing through mounds of tasks without a break

Spend time in nature. As cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien points out in her book, The Second Half of Life,
“In our later years, there is a deep desire to simplify our lives and to return to the enjoyment of our childhood explorations of the natural world. We recognize that it feeds our souls. . . . Nature’s rhythm is medium to slow. . . . [and] there are two things we can never do in the fast lane: we can neither deepen our experience nor integrate it, both essential tasks in the second half of life.”

Treat yourself to reading Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness, a fine book about the high cost of chronic hurrying and the benefits of moving through life at a more human pace. It is a personal account of one man’s discovery of what musicians call tempo giusto—“the right speed”—and also a highly readable history of humankind’s relationship to time and the emergence of Slow and other deceleration movements around the world.

Remind yourself to drive slowly (stay in the slow lane though!) We share the road with drivers of all sorts, and slow-moving cars in the passing and fast lanes create stress for faster drivers – which often leads to increased lane changing, (illegal and dangerous) passing on the right, horn honking, or worse.

And remember to eat slowly –- it aids digestion and enhances the enjoyment of one of life’s simplest pleasures

Paring down is a natural inclination as we age, and it can be an ally at this time of year when too-muchness tends to expand exponentially. Several late-life trends move us toward simplification—our physical energy wanes somewhat; the nearness of death and the preciousness of life become more palpable; appearances, achievement, and acquiring tend to lose their appeal; and our capacity for savoring ordinary moments deepens. All of these help us to learn that less really is more – and to live accordingly.

The Art of Relinquishment

In the winter of life, we become more aware that we can no longer do it all. Our energy and our time on this earth are limited, and it becomes necessary to let go of what is no longer meaningful in order to free ourselves to pursue what is. It is no accident that in myths and folktales it is most often the old woman who is called upon to cut away or burn up the superfluous, inauthentic, and unimportant. The inner strength, courage, fierceness, and wisdom that often ripen in later life enable us to discern what is life-giving and what is not, and to allow what must die, to die. The spare winter landscape is Nature’s reminder of the beauty and harmony that letting go of non-essentials brings.

mountains with tree and full moon

Erik and Joan Erikson and coauthor Helen Kivnick observe that paring down in later life leads to greater aliveness. In Vital Involvement in Old Age, they write, “Old age is necessarily a time of relinquishing—of giving up old friends, old roles, earlier work that was once meaningful, and even possessions that belong to a previous stage of life and are now an impediment to . . . resiliency and freedom.”

Psychologist Robert Peck describes later life as a time of progressively letting go of limiting dimensions of our identity, beginning with the roles we have played in our families and careers. As we release our attachment to social standing and past accomplishments, we are free to discover and develop dimensions of ourselves beyond the borders of familiar roles.

Similarly, as we learn to work with and accept the limitations and losses of our aging body, we recognize that there is more to us than our physicality. Finally, says Peck, we transcend the ego, the limited sense of a personal, isolated self. This surrendering brings a sense of kinship with other people and species, and at the same time helps us come to terms with our mortality.

The fear of death typically wanes in the winter of life, and many have noted the paradox that befriending death brings us more fully into life. As Duane Elgin explains in his book Voluntary Simplicity, “Death, then, is an uncompromising friend that brings us back to the reality of life. . . . In consciously honoring the fact of our physical death, we are thereby empowered to penetrate through the social pretense, ostentation, and confusion that normally obscure our sense of what is truly significant. An awareness of death is an ally for infusing our lives with a sense of immediacy, perspective, and proportion.”

Child & Grandfather in snow

Savoring and Delight

As we simplify our life, relinquishing the nonessential and focusing on what matters most, we renew our acquaintance with the wonder, delight, and timelessness of early childhood. We become recipients of one of the sweetest gifts of later life: savoring.

In her late-life memoir, The Measure of My Days, Florida Scott-Maxwell describes the delight she experienced savoring ordinary moments in the winter of her life. “Now each extra day is a gift. An extra day in which I may gain some new understanding, see a beauty, feel love, or know the richness of watching my youngest great grandson express his every like and dislike with force and sweetness. . . . Who knows, it may matter deeply how we end so mysterious a thing as living . . . I’ve taken a long time to feel it as very truth: The last years may matter most.”

Paring Down as the World Gears Up

Simplifying is an ongoing process requiring flexibility, ingenuity, permission to change our mind, and the willingness to keep experimenting. Social visionary Duane Elgin explains, “This [simple] way of life is not a static condition to be achieved, but an ever-changing balance that must be continuously and consciously made real. . . . How we simplify is a very personal affair. . . . We each know where our lives are unnecessarily complicated. We are all painfully aware of the clutter and pretense that weigh upon us and make our passage through the world more cumbersome and awkward.”

At his time of year simplifying can free us from the burden of too-muchness and help us to rediscover the joys of paring down and savoring. Although we must each find our own way toward simplicity, here are a few suggestions that might prove useful for the winter holidays or for later life in general:

Keep to-do lists short and focused (limited to 2-3 high-priority items for that day only.)

Pay attention to your body, emotions, and dreams and take breaks when you need them – enjoy a walk in nature, share a cup of tea with a friend, take a nap if you’re tired.

Notice and savor “chance” encounters with other people and with animals and other creatures that happen to cross your path. All are potential messengers. (Jamie Sams’ Medicine Cards and Animal Speak by Ted Andrews are excellent resources for better understanding Nature’s inhabitants and what each has to teach us.)

Keep gift giving simple (less is more) and heart-centered. Rather than buying material gifts, consider making them, or sharing an experience, like treating a friend to a lunchtime visit or taking a walk together at the coast or in the woods.)

Follow the joy. I’ve found joy to be a remarkably accurate guide in helping me discern what matters most at present and what I need to relinquish. Joy is blessing in itself and is highly contagious. What better gift to give ourselves, our loved ones, and the strangers we meet?

Each year, from mid November through December, it is a challenge not to become swept up in the Holidaze – a shopping and overdoing frenzy that takes an enormous toll on bank accounts, physical and cognitive health, and emotional well-being. In the past few years, I’ve tried many strategies for slowing down and restoring simplicity, stillness, and silence to the weeks before and after the winter solstice, a time that humankind has long regarded as sacred.

And this year I’ve become increasingly aware that age can be an ally in freeing ourselves from the frenzy and rediscovering the blessings of winter. The holidays were originally holy days, honoring the return of the light during the darkest part of the year. Ancient celebrations among the Hopi and Celts and in Egypt, Japan, and elsewhere varied, but almost always included fire (a symbol of hope) and boughs of greenery, representing the eternal circle of creation. In the next few blogs, I want to explore how many of the developmental trends of later life can assist us in reclaiming winter as a time of hope, renewal, and joy, beginning with Coming Home to Ourselves. Later pieces will address the blessings of Slowness, Simplicity, Celebration, and Silence.

Older woman drinking tea and talking.

Coming Home to Ourselves 

Later life affords the opportunity to deepen our relationship with the authentic self and to become more attentive and faithful to its promptings. Decreasing demands of family and career allow greater freedom to discover our preferences and follow our own rhythms. Lessening social pressure to look and act a certain way brings a sense of liberation and a daring to live by our own lights, regardless of others’ opinions.

As we age, fitting in and pleasing others become less important than being at home in our own skin. And after decades of living by others’ standards, belonging to ourselves, at last, is a precious gift. In her book Plan B, Anne Lamott conveys the joy of coming home to herself as she’s aged. “Age has given me what I was looking for my entire life—it has given me me.”

Growing self acceptance and deepening trust in what we know in our bones enable us to make choices that are more congenial to our nature, our circumstances, and our values. As psychologist Abraham Maslow observed, becoming more authentic strengthens our ability to resist cultural prescriptions that don’t suit us. Age strengthens the Self so that we can say Yes to what we value and No to what we don’t.

Nepal man sitting in doorway

Shifting Toward Intrinsic Values

In the winter of life, materialism tends to lose its appeal, and intrinsically satisfying values like generosity and kindness become more compelling. Giving ourselves to what matters most and knowing that we are contributing in a meaningful way bring joy and fulfillment. This shift toward more intrinsic values may be one of the reasons that contentment tends to increase in later life.

A number of studies have revealed that material wealth can actually interfere with happiness, and that the most contented people are motivated by values like love and compassion. In The How of Happiness psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky summarizes her own and others’ findings. “Not only does materialism not bring happiness, it’s been shown to be a strong predictor of unhappiness. . . . [It often distracts] people from relatively more meaningful and joyful aspects of their lives, such as nurturing their relationships with family and friends, enjoying the present moment, and contributing to their communities.” Lyubomirsky‘s remarks seem especially important to remember at this time of year, when shopping and overdoing can so easily take us over, leaving little time or energy for enjoying loved ones and caring for those in need.

Increasing Selectivity

Growing awareness of our mortality in later life heightens the need to devote the time and energy we have left to what genuinely matters. Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen points out that older people become more selective about the activities and relationships in which they invest themselves, focusing on what matters most and letting go of what doesn’t. Thus, with age, we grow less willing to participate in what others are doing if it doesn’t feel good or ring true for us. If it does not suit us, we can say No to the frenzy and find more satisfying ways to spend the holidays.

The gifts of selectivity, intrinsic valuing, and authenticity each affect late-life development in a number of ways, but together they can also serve as allies in helping us say No to the Holidaze – a necessary first step in recovering the intrinsic blessings of the winter.  For more on the history and soulful celebration of light in the midst of darkness, I highly recommend John Matthews’ beautiful and inspiring and book, The Winter Solstice.

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