“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”
– Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Growing old isn’t something that I generally have positive feelings about. Every year as my birthday rolls around, I cringe a little bit. It symbolizes the end of another year of being on this earth, and I feel compelled to think back on what I’ve accomplished.
I recently read a book that studied the sources of meaning according to 60 individuals between the ages of 70 to 97. While the book was more academically focused, it was illuminating. I teared up from reading some of the stories and perspectives shared, and reflected back on my own life.
My wariness about aging was helpful in quitting a job that wasn’t right for me in 2014 rather than later. But I had a nagging suspicion that my negative viewpoint around old age needed to be re-looked at. After all, there can be wisdom and grace that comes with age.
Even more so, I wanted to learn more about what meaningful progress in life means to different people across all ages. Not only young adults or middle-aged people who have decades to look forward to, but also people approaching the end of their life span.
This book got me thinking about what’s truly meaningful in life. I will be applying the following takeaways from people in late life as I continue to build a life of meaningful progress and identity for myself.
Here are 7 takeaways from people in late life.
1) While the body may age, the spirit is ageless
Old age, while reality on the outside, wasn’t the case on the inside. None of the people in the study really felt or thought about their age until directly asked about it or until their body failed to keep up. Unprompted, age just wasn’t an issue until they felt those aches—when everything became much slower, harder and more complicated due to the aging body.
“There’s this feeling of being out of one’s skin. The feeling that you’re not in your own body,” shared a 92-year-old woman. “I always think of myself as younger, though not at any specific age, just at some time in the past. Whenever I’m walking downtown, and I see my reflection in a store window, I’m shocked by how old it is. I never think of myself that way.” Another woman age 81 remarked, “You see, most of my close friends… are gone, and I have sort of drifted in with younger people. I like it better. I still feel young in spirit.”
Apparently, age doesn’t really matter when it comes to meaning and purpose in life. The most fulfilled individuals in the study were constantly working towards something, such as 82-year-old Stella, an artist who taught and made art in her studio or 72-year-old Harold, a retired business executive who mentored young business owners in the community. Another case was a 72-year-old who retired from public relations and spent much of his time participating in a neighborhood theater group and pursuing his dream of being an actor.
Even with (hopefully) many more decades to look forward to, I can relate. I currently don’t feel my age, thinking of myself as younger, “at some time in the past” just like the 92-year-old woman. While my body has been growing older, my spirit today feels younger and freer than four years ago because of the changes I’ve made in my life.
Age should never be a reason why we don’t pursue something. Yes, the body will age, and your time left on the earth will be shorter, but there is never a better time than now to make the changes you want to make in your life.
2) Health is tied to independence and quality of life
“Most of my life now is involved in just keeping going. I’m taking medications for this and for that; I have to rest a lot,” said an invalid, 82-year-old woman.
While health isn’t a source of meaning in itself, it greatly influences the ability for people to lead as full of life as they once did and would still like to be leading. Those who are able to do what they want without being limited by their health are generally much more satisfied with their lives. All people in the study enjoyed spending their time doing things and keeping busy. The ones who were restricted by poor health were frustrated in varying degrees about the limits placed upon them.
Just like age, health is never mentioned until the aging body becomes a problem; but unlike age, it makes a huge difference. Any health problems, fatigue, or physical impediments restricted the activities that were meaningful to the individuals.
The takeaway here is to not neglect our health and take notice only when it falters. At a certain point, the damage becomes irreparable. By listening early and taking care of the most important aspect of your life, we can maintain and protect the best asset that we have in our lives.
3) Friendships matter more now than later
Whether we have introvert or extrovert preferences, we’re social beings. Close relationships are key to well-being and satisfaction in life.
The closest and most meaningful relationships the elderly had were often with family members—the significant other, children and grandchildren. Family provided the main source of support, while friends played more of a companion role. Many people in the study had outlived most of their friends. While some still had close friends in the area, those who didn’t expressed how difficult it was to maintain friendships over long distances.
What I found particularly interesting was all the people who talked about friendship said it was difficult to make close friends in old age. All friends who were considered close were made at least twenty years ago. Relationships apparently depended on looking forward to the future together. As you get older, there’s a general sense of new friends not being worth the effort and a preference for spending the precious time with family.
As an 81-year-old woman put it, “The friends I’ve made recently I consider very much on the surface… When you’re older, you don’t go deep into friendship…. You have no place to grow together. When you’re younger, you do… When you’re older, you’ve heard it all before… and anyway, what more is there to say?”
Prioritize relationships now. Make time for family, but also for new and existing friends. As it turns out, age does matter in developing close friendships.
4) A sense of progress is key to a life of satisfaction
All the people in the group valued working hard, making progress and achieving goals, and this was reflected in their life stories. The progress made in an area of meaning for them brought a sense of satisfaction. What the people worked hard at depended on individual stories, but the efforts were generally focused on furthering one’s education, building a career, providing for the family, achieving financial security, volunteering, or improving personal traits.
For many who grew up in poor households, they vowed to do everything within their power to reach financial security and upward mobility so they wouldn’t need to struggle like their parents did. Others valued the learning process, furthering their education or delving more into their religion. Many people mentioned certain character developmental areas they’ve worked on over the years.
The universal trend among all the stories was the discussion of progress as individuals thought back throughout their lives and related their stories up to their current situation.
5) Our identity is ever changing, but can be limited by stories we tell ourselves
Creating identity is a lifelong process. Our identity changes, even on a day-by-day basis. Identity is created and recreated many times as a person progresses through his or her life.
The men and women in the study hardly mentioned fatherhood or motherhood and the child-rearing experience as they talk about their life. The process of raising children simply wasn’t a large part of their identity now with their children grown and with families of their own. They were more prone to talk about caring for grandchildren than raising their own children. But if you’d talked to the same person 50 years ago, the story would likely be much different.
This is the case even on a smaller scale. Chances are, you’re a much different person than you were in high school. 20 years later, you’ll be different than you are now. But as we pass the years, we create meaning from looking back at and organizing past events to make sense of where we are now. Identity is more than just the sum of roles over the life span. We construct a current identity by integrating collective knowledge, themes, and experiences over our life span.
What this means is there’s always the opportunity to change. Many people have more power to change than they think. This is because we tend to seek continuity as we reflect back on our lives and integrate a current identity. While there can be immense healing and understanding that comes from this, it can also be self-limiting. Limiting stories or beliefs from childhood can carry far longer than they need to into adulthood.
6) The future is forever a trickster
The majority of people in the study felt their lack of future, generally living life day to day. Many people said they’d done everything they wanted to do in life, or perhaps they’d given up on anything they haven’t done yet. The future for the vast majority of study participants was not perceived as a source of meaning. They did not make long-range plans and assumed their future was short.
A 70-year-old man summarized the attitude of most people toward the future: “I don’t have a plan to become anything now. I can’t at my age. I just don’t think in those terms.” A woman aged 92 commented, “I don’t want to live much longer. It seems like I’ve had the best that life can give me already… I mean, you enjoy your grandchildren. You see their successes. But that’s not your own life.”
It seems to me that the future as a trickster is two-fold. When you’re young, the future seems vast and open, like you have all the time you could need. Particularly in childhood, the future can seem so far off that you almost wish time would move faster. I certainly felt this way in my early adolescent to teenage years. In my early to mid-20s, I told myself that I had plenty of time to make changes later.
But then I noticed how easy and sticky it was to stay in the status quo. I saw how years and decades could pass by without much thought. It seems like you cross a threshold—whether it’s 50 or 70—and all of a sudden, the future is no longer there; it’s no longer worth planning for.
Don’t let the future trick you from making meaningful progress at any age in life.
7) A sense of purpose and community makes all the difference
Through all the different stories told in the book, I saw two distinctly different groups of people in late life. The majority of people were in a group that didn’t seem to have much to look forward to. While the more satisfied ones were healthy enough to enjoy the company of family and friends and daily activities, they lived with a dwindling sense of community and purpose. One woman summarized this general sentiment, “It’s a terrible ending to live so long without having something specific to do, or being needed.”
A smaller group had purpose and a community to serve. These people likely continued what they did until the day they died—such as Stella the artist and Harold the retired business executive turned mentor. They were constantly learning, growing and helping others. They had a means of continuing to feel needed, useful and important in society in old age. While they too lived day to day, they did so with a sense of fullness and purpose that clearly differentiated them from the others.
This is what my husband and I are working towards. To create a life that we don’t need to retire from, but continue living well into old age; to build a flexible platform and do work that we love for the rest of our lives.