Aging - all that it is cracked up to be and more

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published March 16, 2012

Realizing that I'm single digits away from the age my Mom was when she died, I see just how young she was. We all know people who seem old in their 40's and others who seem young in their 80's. While physical health and genetics contribute, they aren't everything, and our mental health and outlook play a greater role than most realize in determining just how well, and how long, we live.

When we think of aging, our first thoughts are often negative – we envision our body falling apart, memory lapses, and loss in all aspects of life. In reality, as we age, we have the potential to become more comfortable with who we are and therefore more content within ourselves and in our relationships. We can choose to accept our past and seek pleasure, while creating our present and future.

Aging involves change in almost every aspect of our being and forces us to reexamine and redefine who we are and what we hope to achieve. Our bodies, thoughts, abilities and interests evolve with time. Our personality in large part determines how we respond to these changes and ultimately shapes how well we cope with, and adjust to, life's little surprises. We can choose to look at these changes with excitement and humor, or with fear, frustration, and sadness.

As I watch my beloved octogenarian parents-in-law with schedules far busier than most people half their age, I smile and hope that my aging is as gentle as theirs. Many of us have at least one issue (if not more) to deal with while still in our early forties or fifties! Headaches, sleep problems, muscle and joint pains, dental concerns, memory problems, digestive issues, high cholesterol, and tests checking out all kinds of unmentionable areas, not to mention vision issues and thinning hair, are just the tip of the iceberg.

Although Mom and Dad joke that they have frequent “organ recitals” with their friends (the kind where they sit around and discuss various body parts), they now sadly see themselves making more hospital visits and Shiva calls. Nonetheless, aging also involves many positive opportunities and experiences, and if open to these, we can enter our senior years feeling blessed with what we have attained and what we have to look forward to. Enjoying the empty nest with a partner, not having to prove oneself, attending classes simply for enjoyment, having time to indulge one's grandchildren, doing what one wants rather than meeting other's expectations, moving at a more relaxed pace, and enjoying being with loved ones, can provide clarification of what's really important in life.

As we attain greater sophistication in neuropsychobiology, we've started to realize that our attachment to, and relationship with, others, the anger we carry, and our ability to forgive and move on, play a vital role in both our sense of wellbeing and longevity. In other words, our own personal feelings of contentment are more relevant in good aging than we have imagined and brain scans now help support this. We also know that being positive and proactive, practicing relaxation and mindfulness, and being grateful and appreciative can all lower stress levels, which ultimately lowers your risk for developing diabetes, cardiac problems and other medical issues.

Judaism values aging and equates it with wisdom. Since we are all getting older, here are some suggestions for becoming wiser:

Take time for self-reflection. Do you like yourself? How does your attitude help you or get in the way? What do you appreciate now that you didn't a decade or two ago? How have you grown?

Make the most out of relationships. Surround yourself with people who you care about and make you feel good. Broaden relationships to include friends of all ages and those who make you laugh and bring meaning into your life.

Help your children and grandchildren tap into your talents. Spend time doing projects, reading, watching a movie, taking a walk and just being together. Each of us has something valuable to learn from another. Your experience and wisdom are incredible gifts to the younger generation.

Value yourself as a contributing member to society. Get involved by giving back to your community. Those who volunteer and help others are significantly more content.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Look after your medical, physical, emotional, and nutritional needs in order to feel healthy, safe and secure. Add spirituality, prayer, meditation and relaxation to your daily life and learn to be best friends with the new you. As you change, your relationship with others around you will take on new meaning.

Be positive. Look for the good in people and in everyday events. Appreciate the moment. Have an “attitude of gratitude” and take time to smell the roses. Focus on what you have and not on what is lacking.

Use your time wisely. Determine whether you control your time or time controls you.

De-stress. Notice when you feel calm and how your body reacts to stress. Let go of relationships and things that weigh you down and are unimportant. Forgive those you need to and don't carry around emotional baggage. Put your life in order. De-clutter your home, organize your finances, and simplify your daily routine so you can make room for the things you value.

Challenge your brain. Study, play scrabble, attend a lecture, or take up a new hobby. Be passionate and don't be afraid to dream.

Create a memory friendly environment. As we age, we learn more slowly, retain less information and our memory is less sharp and reliable. We may go blank when trying to recall a person's name, retell a story or enter a room. Utilize a calendar, watch, a daily journal and a "to do" list to keep organized. Minimize distractions and visualize your actions. Use repetition, rehearsal and reinforcement as ways to enhance memory, be it putting your keys in the same place or recalling someone's name after meeting them.

While aging has its ups and downs, with the right attitude one can feel blessed. Happy 80 and 85th birthday, to my very special Mom and Dad.