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Your Health
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Elizabeth Wolfson: Aging as a Muse

Emotional flexibility and a focus on the positive can help ensure healthy aging

This article looks at the question: Can we be enriched and find inspiration from the process of aging itself? Can aging, in fact, be our muse?

Elizabeth Wolfson
Elizabeth Wolfson

Last month, I discussed what I believe to be the essential first steps on the path of “healthy” aging — the simple, albeit challenging, willingness to consider what our own aging means to us. Building on this, I suggest that attending to the reality of our own aging is not only healthy but can provide inspiration and enrichment to our lives both in the future and in the present.

How so? For those of us “resisting” the notion of aging, it is most helpful to arrive at a peaceful truce with the inevitability of aging and death. That acceptance leads toward discovery that opens to new and interesting perspectives and possibilities regarding the aging process. If we can become loving and nurturing to the new and changing self, inclusive of the accommodations our journey of aging may require, we will begin to see all that can be found on the open, unknown, unexplored terrain ahead.

Aging is about loss, there is no doubt. We lose acquaintances, friends and loved ones. We lose our youthful bodies, the ability to do things we used to do and with that, our previously held perceptions about our identity. These losses are also a gift since our very awareness that these experiences are destined to be lost may inspire us to truly value life and love, to feel compassion for others and to engage in the present more fully.

In this way, aging is our friend, and more so, our muse that beckons us to be fully present while we are here. This awareness dovetails in synchronicity with a waning of responsibility.

We are no longer climbing the stressful career ladder and have already established our work identities. For those without jobs or who are lucky enough to retire, it may be a time of developing a new “encore career,” embark on a new venture, enroll in an educational program or engage in a creative endeavor that had been neglected while raising families and developing careers.

This may also be a time to step back and consider personal values and reconsider how time and energy are prioritized. Perhaps there is opportunity to develop new relationships, spend time with family, enjoy grandchildren. It is also an opportunity for spiritual engagement with the self, to think about what makes life worth living and how one wants to live the years ahead in ways that involve spiritual and psychological development that engender well-being, contentment, satisfaction with the past, and hope and optimism in the future.

Positive psychology implies that one can make choices and engage in coping even when experiencing the predictable physical and psychological limitations that are part of aging. To be happy and healthy in aging involves the capacity to reframe perceptions and cultivate positive emotions to cope with the realistic dilemmas of aging. Even while recognizing that decline, loss and even one’s own death are natural parts of the life cycle, it is possible to shape how one interprets these events. In other words, it is possible — acting on the resources available — to modify one’s own aging experience.

As we look at what it means to modify one’s aging experiences, there are two important attitudinal stances essential to the process — flexibility and a focus on the positive. The good news is that even if we are not inclined to these mindsets, it is possible to adjust them, and the desire for “healthy” aging serves as a great motivator for attitudinal adjustment.

Flexibility presents itself throughout the literature on aging as the single most important factor in healthy aging. Emotional flexibility is a skill that can be acquired through practice and effort. Ironically, the older we get, the less flexible we become as we tend to develop our routines and know more about what we like. Routines offer us comfort in predictability and seeming confirmation that we are in control of our lives. At the same time, routine and rigidity reduce pleasure and limit opportunities. The aging process is an ever-changing terrain, and flexibility is key to successfully negotiating that terrain. Flexibility leads to further openness and creativity, which are themselves associated with well-being. Consider: How flexible are you? For example, might you be willing to reshape your lifestyle as you age?

Focus on the positive can be cultivated and can be a great source of satisfaction as opposed to focusing on the problems and difficulties of growing older. This, too, requires flexibility as one negotiates new challenges and learns how to turn challenges into opportunities — an attitude that leads to well-being and life satisfaction on many levels.

Research suggests that well-being and life satisfaction are relative states independent of one’s objective health, living situation or socioeconomic standing. This is an empowering notion since it means that regardless of what life circumstances will present, each of us has the opportunity to find the muse for designing how we approach the path of aging.

— Elizabeth Wolfson, Ph.D., LCSW, is chair of the Master’s in Clinical Psychology program at Antioch University and in private practice in Santa Barbara. Dr. Wolfson has been a licensed practicing psychotherapist for more than 26 years and is the author of several published articles. Dr. Wolfson is a founder of the recently launched Santa Barbara Village, a community membership organization supporting elders in their homes. Most recently, Dr. Wolfson developed the new Concentration in Healthy Aging within the Master’s in Clinical Psychology program at Antioch University Santa Barbara.

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