One of the hard facts of aging is not only the loss of our physical ability (as I wrote in Parts 1 & 2 of The Travails of Aging) but also a loss of mental acuity. Our memory is less clear, our thoughts are less cogent and arguments less compelling. We tend also to forget, and little by little, we may lose our wits or our sense of humour as well!
We may even end up with psychiatric disorders – depression and anxiety, not forgetting dementia. Dementia takes place when brain cells die and there is a “progressive deterioration of memory, intelligence, behaviour and personality.” We become senile. And depression – when a low mood state becomes “prolonged, persistent and pervasive” (criteria for depression). There may also the problems of poor sleep, impaired concentration, loss of interest in life, social withdrawal, pessimistic thoughts, deteriorated self-care and undue worries over health and life circumstances.
From a socio-emotional angle, we may have to reckon with loneliness. In Psalm 142 (a ‘maskil’ or song to make us wise), David moans: “I look to my right and see, no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge, no one cares for my life.” (v. 4). Therapists tell us that we all need someone to care about us. As we age, we may wallow in introspection and lonely solitude, and express how David felt that no one cared for him. David is not alone in his loneliness. In this Psalm, many of us see our own loneliness.
As we age, people by our side will inevitably grow smaller and smaller in number. Our parents and grandparents would have largely all left. We may even have lost or are losing a sibling. Peers will increasingly find it harder to look after themselves and may not want to meet as frequently as you would like them to. The younger generation (our children, nephews and nieces) are probably too busy with their own life (and their children). And our spouse may depart earlier than you expect! We need to anticipate such days of loneliness and emptiness.
Society will also care less and less for you, no matter how good the efforts our Government may have put in. Another painful reality is a reduction to anonymity. No matter how glorious your previous career may be or how famous you were, aging will transform you to an ordinary regular old man or woman! The spotlight will no longer shine on you, and you may have to contend standing by a quiet corner to admire and appreciate the hub bard of youth.
It is possible for us, at such times, to be envious or feel rejected. We may also feel unwanted – 2nd hand, surplus, unasked for. At such times, it is easy to retreat into self-pity and think bad thoughts about oneself or others, and grumble. Many seniors do. They live with unexpressed sadness or depression that grows through the years because they feel cast off and uncared for. Disappointments also mount as colleagues, family and friends are involved in their own lives, families and activities that they forget we are around. No visits, no home calls, no e-mails, no cards.
Another emotional struggle may be that of living with regrets (guilt) – thinking that we have wasted much of our life and wishing we could live life over again (and hoping that we can do better!). Bitterness or resentment can also creep in as it’s possible to pour a good deal of effort, energy, and love into our family, friends and/or church members and receive little or nothing but ingratitude for our efforts. And it’s even possible that others may receive credit for the good we’ve done!
How do we cope with mental and psycho-emotional travails? Is there a possibility of turning these around and transforming these dark thoughts and emotions into something positive and constructive? There are no easy answers. But let me attempt to do so in Part IV of this series. Read on!