Discovering Talents and Interests that Make Life Meaningful

We have all heard the expression: "Old age and cunning will defeat youth and strength every time." Well, there may be more truth to the saying than one realizes.

Thinking may slow down with advancing age but wisdom may well increase. It is true—the brain does change with the passage of time. We change in general ways, common to others of our age cohort, and in unique ways, based on our personalities and life experiences that determine our point of view.

Advisory Council member George Dicks describes "the time of life where... knowledge and wisdom is expressed for our own benefit and for society."

The general changes for the over-60 cohort are likely to include, among other phenomenon, the discomfort associated with arthritis; the need for corrective eye wear to compensate for presbyopia; mild hearing loss (I notice more of my friends asking me to repeat what I said); and evolving sleep patterns (you may have discovered the joy of naptime). These changes are normal and predictable. Most of us are well acquainted with these conditions and we easily compensate for the associated functional losses.

Compensation—our healthy and functional adjustment to change—is an important concept in the aging field. We adjust to loss with new strategies. We wear corrective eyewear to compensate for farsightedness. We learn to look directly at people when we want to hear what they have to say. We try to minimize background noise. We ask people to repeat. We are adapting to the changes in our body. We make notes and develop structured routines as we compensate for mild age-related memory loss. We avoid the harried pressure of traffic by driving to the market outside of commute times, taking less busy thoroughfares.

These strategies are well known and understood. They are widely practiced by most of us as we age. We have adapted. We continue to develop as conscious beings.

Individualized challenges occur with the passage of time. These may include the arrival of a grandchild, retirement (wanted or unwanted), downsizing, relocation, loss of friends or, most profoundly, loss of a life partner. Each of us responds to these social and intimate changes in a unique way, consistent with our experiences over our life journey.

Personal health problems will change for all of us in unique ways; some of us will have to deal with cancer (our own or that of a loved one). Some of us will develop late-onset diabetes. Perhaps we will have a stroke and have to live with its residue. Some of us will develop some form of cognitive impairment. The effect on the individual is idiosyncratic.

Well, so what! This is where all that life experience—that we have all so proudly referenced—comes into play!

Welcome to the "Third Age," an important era in the human life journey. You have been a child—you learned your language, culture, gender role, and place in your family. You have been an adult—you lived in the world of work, had a career, raised a family perhaps, and took care of your dependent elders.

Gwendolyn Coates, George Dicks, and Tekla Hagos participated in Senior Lobby Day in Olympia.

Now you are in the time of life where that knowledge and wisdom is expressed for our own benefit and for society. Elders have met life's challenges, often through very hard-won effort. Now we approach the tasks of living in a more comprehensive manner reflective of a synthesis of our life experiences. The aged brain organizes the world in a manner that reflects what it has learned from multiple life encounters. Another way to put it: Each new challenge elicits the knowledge of a lifetime.

Elders know that everything is not equally important nor is everything urgent. Wisdom allows us to put events and demands into perspective. Wisdom allows elders (grandparents) to advise younger folk (parents) in their lives on how to take a longer view of things—like that "stage" the 15 month old (or 15 year old) is going through. It will pass and the child will be better for the experience; we have to make mistakes and risks in order to learn; and, yes, it's scary for young parents.

In the Third Age, many elders discover the latent talents and interests that make life outside of the industrial/post-industrial economy (say "Rat Race") meaningful. Many elders involve themselves in political activism on behalf of their communities. Many elders discover their neglected aesthetic identities. Grandma Moses, the great painter; Carl Jung; and the great musicians, philosophers, and spiritual leaders of life—all elders!

The Third Age is a time for reflection on relationships with those we love; to be less critical and more supportive; to enjoy intimacy in a more giving manner; to reminisce with friends who have shared our journey; to develop an appreciation of a glass of good red wine a delicious meal prepared with love by friend or family; to laugh more at the absurdity of so many events; to laugh more at ourselves. Now is the time to find a place of peace within our selves, knowing the journey has a destination.

Never stop growing, until winters frost descends and puts us away for another season.

George Dicks, BA, GMHS, RCMHP, a member of the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services, supervises the Geriatric Psychiatry Service clinic at Harborview Mental Health Services.