Do you worry about ageing? You needn’t, argues Professor Rudi Westendorp, author of Growing Old Without Feeling Older.
On YouTube there is a video, titled ‘100’, in which people from Amsterdam look into the camera and proclaim their age out loud. It paints a wonderful portrait of their lives. In less than a minute, the viewer sees a parade of babies, children, teenagers, adults, and old people flash by.
In the YouTube portraits, the people in their fifties have a slightly more sombre look in their eyes than the rest. That is perhaps because they are confronted with a faltering body, which is something nobody exactly looks forward to at that stage of their lives.
But then a funny thing happens: people in the clip, aged 75 and over, all beam into the camera as they proudly announce their age. We have something to learn from them.
“I am often asked whether growing older without feeling old is possible. After many years of research, my conclusion is yes.”
Many people dread getting older. We imagine that with every year, joy ebbs away. But the research does not bear this out.
For a number of years I ran a major study of over-85s based in Leiden, Holland. Asked to rate their quality of life from 1 to 10, the average rating for them was a very respectable 8.
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It turns out that people’s happiness in their later life is not that different from their happiness in earlier decades—it will vary between individuals, but the onset of old age is doesn’t mean that unhappiness looms. On the contrary, old people can impress us with the way they cope with their lives.
I am often asked whether growing older without feeling old is possible. After many years of research, my conclusion is yes; but the way to achieve it doesn’t lie in any vitamin supplement, food fad or any of the other solutions that are so often sold to us.
Wellbeing, not perfect physical health, is key
How well someone ages is a complex question. And you might be surprised to learn that medical problems do not play a large part in it. Rather, it is determined to a large extent by the goal a person has in mind at a given moment.
The keyword here is wellbeing. Rather than being the product of bodily health, we are increasingly seeing that the feeling of wellbeing in age is linked to the quality of a person’s social relations and the environment he or she lives in.
Focus on vitality
Social scientists stress that vitality is an attribute that is important for achieving happiness in old age. Vitality—call it zest for life—is the ability to develop to full capacity, to get the most out of life. This will to make something of oneself depends on motivation and introspection: what do I want, and where am I heading? It requires both a positive attitude and the resilience to cope with setbacks.
There is nothing more frustrating than pursuing goals that are unachievable. You have to be able to adapt your ambitions to the prevailing circumstances, and then you can achieve the goals you have set yourself. And it turns out that old people are better at doing this, because they have so much experience to draw on.
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A study was made of people whose attitude to life was measured in middle age. When they developed an illness in old age, its progress was better among those who had a more optimistic outlook on life than did their peers in middle age.
Following a heart attack, optimists were less likely to die, and more likely to recover more quickly and to achieve a better level of functioning after rehabilitation.
As people get older, one source of happiness can be the shedding of expectations—they may feel that they can finally ‘be themselves’, that they are freeing themselves from social constraints.
Perhaps the over-75s in the video are smiling because they finally dare to show their true selves.
Set your own goals
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Our current thinking about increasing life expectancy is still too biased towards preventing and recovering from sickness and impairment, rather than concentrating on the day-to-day functioning and wellbeing of older people. This leads to a situation where the goals pursued by those involved in caring for old people do not always correspond to the ideas of those old people themselves.
Professionals should not just concern themselves with the question of how we can stay healthy longer, but also with that of how they can stimulate older people to use their vitality. Friends, family, informal carers, and professionals need to stimulate people to keep on having dreams, nurturing their relationships and ambitions, and achieving realistic goals, despite their age and their reduced functionality.
Learn from inspiring examples
Now in his 90s, my neighbour started working as a shipyard steelworker at an early age. In retirement he started taking lessons from a well-known local artist who was inspired by Zen Buddhism.
He learned to paint; and when his hands became too unsteady for him to be able to continue painting, he took up writing haiku poems. Some of his work was presented to the public in a small exhibition on his 89th birthday.
At 96 Aafje is a phenomenon. She can often be seen riding around the neighbourhood on her conspicuous scooter, which she handles with skill. You can see her outside the nursing home, or sipping an espresso on the café terrace. At the baker’s she chats with the other customers in the queue. On many occasions I have seen her whizz by in a taxi, a woman on a mission: to get her hair done.
She has faced many challenges: she lost her husband and has had to move out of her ‘gorgeous’ house. Dressing and undressing—let alone getting in and out of the shower—are no longer possible without help.
However, with her mischievous smile and her freshly coiffed hair, Aafje makes a fragile but unforgettable impression. Her outlooks is philosophical and positive. ‘Let it go,’ she told me. ‘You have to let it all go.’
Listen to Rudi Westendorp on our January podcast:
Rudi Westendorp is Professor of Old-Age Medicine at the University of Copenhagen and the author of Growing Older Without Feeling Old, which you can buy here.