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Coping with Aging and the Changes it Brings

Taking a look at what it means to get older and how to love the journey at every stage
Micah Rakoff Bellman  ·
January 25, 2021  ·
7 minute read
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I'm not old

If you’re reading this, you might be wondering what business a 28-year old has trying to offer advice about coping with aging—and that’s fair! 

I’d be considered young by most standards. I’d also be arrogant to think I have any great wisdom of my own to offer about what it means to get old. For that reason, I’ll start with a story of my late sabba (grandfather).

About a decade ago, I was visiting home after starting my second year of university in another city. One thing I always looked forward to during these visits were lunch dates with my sabba.

Photo of a young adult man with a beard posed for a photo with his grandparents while eating lunch on a patio.

From left-to-right: me, my savta (grandmother), my sabba (grandfather) 

We were out at one of our usual spots eating and chatting, and we started talking about aging and the passage of time. I say something like, “Sabba, sometimes I can’t believe how old I’m getting. I’m living in a different city, paying rent, cooking and cleaning for myself, going to lectures—I feel so grown up, but then, someone farts and I can’t stop laughing, or I get way too excited about ice cream, and I feel like a little kid again—it’s so odd.”

My sabba smiles. “Micah,” he says, “that feeling—it never goes away. I mean literally, I’m 83 and I still feel that way all the time.”

I love this memory because it gives a clear snapshot of who my sabba was. On paper, he was a serious academic and psychiatrist, but to those that knew him, he was a silly, sweet, generous (he paid for lunch), joyful man. He never lost touch with his inner child. Even as he got older and his physical limitations increased, he held onto his sense of wonder.

Photo of an old man with a white goatee holding his grandson.

An older photo of my sabba and me

I also love this memory because it highlights an important truth about aging (and how to approach change in general). As we get older, we’ll experience changes that we can’t control, but we always get to be in control of who we are.

In the rest of this article, I’ve brought together advice on coping with aging and handling change from a handful of sources that are more qualified than I am. If you or someone you know is having trouble coming to terms with getting older, these perspectives could help. 

Coping with aging both physically and mentally

Specific changes might vary from person to person, but a lot of the things that happen to our minds and bodies as we age are standard parts of being human. Also—whatever you’re going through—you’re not alone. Almost everyone goes through most of the following changes as we get older:

  • Gray and/or thinning hair
  • Wrinkles and reduced skin elasticity
  • Decreased bone density 
  • Decreased circulation 
  • Reduced reflexes and senses
  • Memory loss
  • Slower digestion and metabolism

Reading this list might scare you, but luckily, aging isn’t something that happens all at once—it’s a gradual process. Also, these changes usually come with some positive milestones. In an article for Psychology Today originally published in November 1996, author Susan Scarf Merrell talks about these positive tradeoffs:

“The fact is that aging tends to be subtle and most losses come hand in hand with small, new rewards. For example, one's first gray hairs may arrive around the same time one earns a major promotion—somehow the equation of loss and gain nets out in a surprisingly satisfying manner.”

According to this, a big part of aging is learning to take the good with the bad. 

Maybe your memory isn’t what it once was, but you’re probably better than ever at staying organized with lists. Do you have sore joints now? That sucks—but you might also have grandkids to play with, who’ll one day make fantastic lunch dates (😉).

Whether these changes feel good, bad, gradual, or sudden, they can all feel stressful or disorienting—but according to Dr. Stephanie Sarkis, this is totally normal.

“Keep in mind that positive change can create stress just like not-so-positive change. Stress is just your body's way of reacting to change.”

Dr. Sarkis also says that fighting against change or denying that things are changing can contribute to that stress. Acknowledging the change is an important first step to coming to terms with it. 

Seeing the changes as milestones can be a helpful way to cope with some of the changes and reframe aging in a more positive light.

Coping with aging through self-awareness

No matter how old you are, you’re probably not sitting around worrying about your age all the time. It’s just one aspect of your identity. But it can stir up negative emotions when you notice changes to your looks or physical abilities.

Even if these changes have been happening gradually over time (wrinkles, hair loss, reduced mobility, etc.), they’ll feel like they came out of nowhere on the day you look in the mirror and see someone you don’t recognize.

That being said, some things that probably won’t change with age are your personality and values. In a 2016 article for the Harvard Business Review, organizational psychologist Nick Tasler provides the following insight:

“Focus on your values instead of your fears. Reminding ourselves of what’s important to us—family, friends, religious convictions, scientific achievement, great music, creative expression, and so on—can create a surprisingly powerful buffer against whatever troubles may be ailing us.”

Accepting the changes that come with aging can be hard, but knowing who you are at your core and what’s most important to you can be a helpful guiding principle for living a happy life at any age.

If you’re struggling with negative emotions around aging, this thought exercise from AARP Disrupt Aging might also help.

Coping with aging by planning proactively

While in some ways it makes sense that many people have a fear of aging, it’s also kind of odd. After all, getting older (if we’re lucky) is actually one of the only things that’s certain in life.

This is great because if you know that something is going to happen ahead of time, you can plan for it!

When it comes to aging, planning can include practical elements like finances, designing your space for aging in place, or installing grab bars before you need them. But planning for old age can also include more aspirational goals.

Once you retire, you’ll have time to pursue whatever you want. Susan Scarf Merrell says the following about planning for old age:

“[...] the most important thing we can do to ensure a comfortable and interesting old age is to plan for one. Not simply financially, although that's obviously important. Most of us will spend a good twenty years or more in healthy, active post-retirement, and just expecting to sit on one's heels and rest is hardly a realistic plan for happiness. Don't just daydream about planting a garden, learn about gardening, and be ready for the day you'll be free to spend all afternoon with your hands in the dirt.”

Coping with aging with healthy habits and routines

One of the most challenging things about coping with aging is relinquishing control—but there are some things you can control that can have a positive impact.

Aging.com recommends things like healthy eating, regular physical activity, and mental exercise (reading, puzzles, word games, or anything that keeps you mentally stimulated). These routines can be hugely helpful in staving off some of the harsher impacts of the aging process.

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata via Pexels

You can also stay ahead of the aging process by keeping regular doctor’s appointments, staying on top of vaccinations, and getting screened and tested for the following as needed:

  • Checking your blood pressure
  • Screening for colorectal cancer
  • Pelvic exam
  • Screening for diabetes
  • Eye test
  • Hearing test
  • Mammogram
  • Screening for prostate cancer (for men)
  • Dental exam

Another important ingredient to happiness as you get older is mental health. Whether that’s talking to a professional, getting involved in community social groups, adopting a meditation practice, or spending time with loved ones is up to you. 

Focusing on your overall health can work wonders for your outlook at any lifestage.

Photo of two elderly women looking out at the ocean on a rocky beach.

Photo by Pixabay via Pexels

Live the way you want to

Regardless of your age, change is one of life’s constants. Accepting this can be challenging, but all we can do is try to build up our resilience so that when changes happen, we’re better prepared to handle them.

By understanding the changes, knowing yourself, planning for the future, and staying healthy—you’ll be able to live your best life for your whole life.

Instead of focusing on doing things that make you feel young or old, focus on doing things that feel right for you; things that make you feel good, excited, curious, and like you’re part of something. It won’t always be easy—but remember—your age is just one part of your identity!

Micah Rakoff Bellman is a content creator at HealthCraft Group. An enthusiastic problem solver, human-centered designer, and storyteller—he’s passionate about understanding people to help them live better.
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