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Aging Gracefully:
Enjoy a Vital, Fulfilling Life Regardless of Age

by Mary Maddux

A quick web search on the term "graceful aging" brings up phrases like:

"Combat the signs of aging..."
"Who said that we have to age..."
"Defy the aging process..."

More often than not, aging is viewed as something to be fought off for as long as possible. Regardless of how liberated we've become, many women and men still experience aging as a threat to their sense of self worth and quality of life. It is pretty much expected that middle age will bring a "crisis" and far too often we hear seniors lament that "I thought these were supposed to be the golden years." Whole industries are built on the attempt to stay young - from hair colors to face lifts to Viagra.

Elderly Woman

Women really come into their greatness after menopause.

There is a place for all of these things, of course, but if your reaction to the aging process has you racing to beat time, I'd like to ask you to take a deep breath, relax, and give yourself some space to shift into a different perspective on aging.

What if aging were equated with "getting better" rather than worse? What if you lived in a culture which reveres the elderly and views them as a repository of power and wisdom? What if it was understood that women really come into their greatness after menopause? Since how we age has so much to do with our attitudes and beliefs, such a shift in perspective could make a world of difference.

Aging Well in the Culture of Youth

To age "gracefully" in a culture which idolizes youth requires inner strength and wisdom. In this article I'm hoping we can ask questions together about our common notions and experiences with aging.

I think what we'll find is that we can not only do away with some myths about aging which limit our quality of life, but also discover some of the "perks" of aging that we often ignore. There are lots of role models who have led the way for us. Did you know, for example, that:

  • Martha Graham danced professionally until she was 76?

  • Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals at the age of 78?

  • Georgia O'Keefe continued painting well into her 90s?

Vitality in "later life" is not just for the famous. Undoubtedly everyone knows at least one person who is living a vital, fulfilling life "despite" their age. This is really the way it should be - life should become better as we age.

What I've discovered is that there are two "basic requirements" of graceful aging. To borrow from the "Serenity Prayer," graceful aging requires the "serenity to accept the things we cannot change; courage to change the things we can; and wisdom to know the difference."

Certainly acceptance of aging is a key to aging gracefully - but which of the changes that commonly come with age are the "things we cannot change" and which are the "things we can change?"

What You Can and Cannot Change

These two major requirements of successful aging - accepting the aging process and not accepting what we can change -- may at first seem contradictory.

Sometimes success in life involves the ability embrace the paradox that when we accept life at it is at the moment, it paradoxically opens a doorway for positive change. A common example of this is the couple who finally "get pregnant" when they've given up and decide to adopt a child.

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The bottom line, as I see it, is the ability to relax with whatever challenges us at any given time and that includes the changes aging brings. When we are relaxed, we are open to different ways of looking at things.

We come out of the "fight or flight" mode that causes us to act impulsively, and have the ability to reflect. Instead of running our to buy some new anti-aging product, we can spend some time examining our fears and learning whether they are based in reality or on some "cultural programming" that we'd be better off ignoring.

It's been discovered that attitude has an enormous role in how we age. Much of the decline that people experience with aging comes about due to the belief that decline in function and quality of life is part and parcel of aging.

In addition, many of the problems of age are not due to the process of aging itself, but rather due to the effects of a lifetime of stress and poor health habits. Later in this article I will outline 5 common "myths" about aging which we can "debunk". But first, let's look at what we cannot change in the hopes of beginning to "make peace" with aging.

One thing we absolutely cannot change is the fact that every day brings us closer to death. This one fact alone may account for a great deal of our difficulty with aging.

Coming to Terms with Our Mortality

As soon as we see signs of aging, we are reminded that this body is eventually going to die. As we age, we come face to face with our mortality, and to deal with this we are thrown upon our "spiritual" resources. Our "spiritual health" may well be measured by how we face the fact of our mortality.

With the rest of the things we cannot change, there is more of a "gray area," as we are only now starting to make scientific discoveries about the aging process. Nevertheless, it's safe to say that aging will bring change.

With menopause, both male and female, we begin to live with a different "hormonal" environment. The appearance and function of our body changes and requires that we adapt. Our roles change dramatically as our children grow older and leave home, and we become grandparents rather than parents. At some point, many of us become parents to our parents as they enter their final years.

Growing older also brings more loss. Not only is there loss of many aspects of being young, more people we know die. This may be one of the most difficult aspects of aging.

If we haven't learned to grieve earlier in life, the all important task of learning to live with loss must be learned to avoid psychological and health problems. (I plan on writing an article on this very subject.)

Now that we've outlined a few of the inevitable aspects of aging, let's look at some of the "myths" about aging in order to free ourselves to live happier, more vital lives as we age.

Debunking Some Common "Myths" about Aging

Myth #1 - The older I get, the worse my body will feel. The increasing stiffness and aches & pains that often come with age are not a result of age, but are due to lack of movement (if you don't use it, you'll lose it). Although there are some changes in our tissues as we age, we can continue to remain remarkably flexible and free of pain through something as simple as regular stretching.

Myth #2 - It's too late to start taking care of myself ... it won't do any good at this age. A healthy lifestyle has been found to be one of the most important factors in how we age. Improvements in lifestyle (with the 3 key areas being good food, exercise and regular relaxation and rest) will bring improvements at any age.

Myth #3 - I'm getting too old to learn new things ("You can't teach an old dog new tricks") Research shows that older people can, and do, learn new things. Attitude plays an important role here - if you think you can't, you won't try. People who believe they can learn new things do!

Myth #4 - Sex is only for the young. People can, and do, continue to enjoy sex well into their senior years. We are sexual beings throughout the life cycle, but sexuality is experienced differently at different ages. Changes in hormones will affect our experience of sex, and we may need to find different ways to be intimate. Relaxation is key here so that we don't panic when things don't happen the way they used to. We're not "over the hill", but simply need to give ourselves some "breathing room" to become familiar with our changing physiologies.

Myth #5 - The older I get, the less attractive I become. There is nothing more attractive than someone who has "aged well". Haven't you ever noticed that special "radiance" of an elderly person who is at peace with themselves and life? Attractiveness has absolutely nothing to do with age!

It's never too late to change the two most important ingredients to graceful aging - attitude and lifestyle.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record to those of you who've read my previous articles - there are two very simple but essential lifestyle "ingredients" for successful aging - relaxation and stretching . You can start with either of them right now, and incorporating these two simple things in your daily routine can make a world of difference in how you age!

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