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Aging

Older Men Are Hurting—Here's How They Can Thrive Instead

Redefined masculinity allows men to grow old in a new way.

Key points

  • Many aging men are suffering today thanks to crumbling social supports and outdated gender norms.
  • The transition to retirement can be difficult for men as they lose their traditional “provider” role.
  • Older men can thrive if we collectively reinvent masculinity.

Co-authored by Ed Frauenheim.

Many older men are suffering today. They are often lonely. They tend to be less happy as they age. They die, on average, six years earlier than women. And more and more aging men are taking their own lives; men 75 and older have the highest suicide rate—they are roughly 10 times more likely than women the same age to end their lives.

Why Older Men Are Struggling

Although there are many reasons for these dispiriting statistics, we’ll highlight two key factors:

  • Crumbling Connections: Intuitively, we have long known that social bonds are important for emotional health. But recent neuroscience gives us data to prove that isolation and loneliness indeed have emotional health impacts—and physical health impacts as well. A 2023 Surgeon General’s report documents the negative health effects: heart disease, shorter life spans, depression, and substance use. Whereas socialization leads to improved emotional health and longevity. And men, who have long been encouraged to prioritize work over family, can find their social connections extremely limited in their retirement years. Making friends and maintaining relationships is hard. It's become even harder in recent decades thanks to frequent layoffs and less stable work arrangements—that reduce opportunities to develop close bonds on the job. The COVID era and increased political polarization aren’t helping.
  • Traditional Gender Norms: Why don’t men have as many close friendships as women? Because men are not encouraged to be vulnerable, emotionally available, and open with each other and others. Consider what a “manly man” looked like when the baby boomers were growing up: strong, silent, hard-working, unemotional. The loud alpha male was another option, but the competitive king of the hill tends not to develop genuine friendships with others. In effect, traditional social gender norms push men to prioritize professional achievement and income generation over caregiving, family, and friends. Today’s aging men probably grew up playing sports with other boys—but they were not taught to put words to their emotions, nor were they encouraged to share their emotions. And being open with one’s emotions is precisely what is necessary to make and maintain friendships and relationships.

Thankfully, the news is not all bad for older men. Novel paths are emerging that enable American men to grow old wisely, with improved health outcomes. The promising ways forward involve updating our views on masculinity itself.

Better Ways Forward

Here are three ways you can rethink masculinity to support the aging boomer in your life.

1. Redefine Provider

Everyone wants to feel a sense of purpose; a contribution to the whole that makes one’s life feel meaningful. Historically, the male purpose is largely through the role of “providing” for one’s family. Perhaps this is why, on average, men tend to work more hours after the birth of a child. But some men are starting to reconceptualize the concept of “providing” for their family. No longer are these provisions strictly financial or material; one can provide for his family with time, support, and care. Oftentimes it is these emotional inputs that a family needs more.

Newly retired men may feel useless, since they are no longer “providing” for their family or contributing to society in a traditional way. But there are countless ways older men can provide for their family or community, starting with physical tasks: babysit your grandkids, provide neighbors a ride to the grocery, volunteer at the voting polls, volunteer within your faith community, plan and cook meals for your kids or neighbors. There are also ways to care for others emotionally, especially those around you who are aging: listen to others, validate each other’s experiences, share in stories of past times, be there with each other through loss, illness and change.

2. Embrace Compassion

Growing older typically comes with pain, suffering and fear. The body breaks down. Aches, pains and ailments add up—for oneself and similar-aged loved ones. There’s the additional emotional toll of losing a growing number of peers, family members, and friends. And death looms ever larger in old age, which raises existential questions that can be deeply scary. Compassion is typically the answer to suffering and worry, but the conventional definition of masculinity often prevents men from receiving and expressing compassion. Men may demonstrate care in their actions. But feeling empathy, articulating emotional support and taking steps to relieve pain run counter to traditional, “confined masculinity.”

That cramped version of manhood hinders men from practicing self-compassion, a key form of compassion. Self-compassion involves recognizing one’s own hurts and acting to stop the suffering. No wonder men often fail to see their doctor regularly and even ignore signs of a heart attack. A stunted sense of compassion for oneself and others likely contributes to a stereotype that has more than a grain of truth: the grumpy old man. Thankfully, compassion is a fundamentally human quality. Aging men can develop it. They can turn off “the tough guy show” and practice kindness toward themselves and others.

3. Build Connections

As we noted above, men’s connections have been crumbling. Often, baby boomer men are highly reliant on the single relationship of their marriage. While a long partnership can be a source of great meaning and joy in older age, there’s a cost to a man putting all his social eggs in the marital basket. Widowers may confront extreme loneliness when their spouse dies or becomes ill with a debilitating disease such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease.

But men don’t have to be isolated as they age. Older men can build social connections. In fact, they can develop bonds even stronger than any they had earlier in the life cycle. Suggestions include: reaching out to childhood friends, connecting with other retired work colleagues, getting together with neighbors and joining a club with folks who have a shared interest. Many older men also live in senior communities that have a wide range of socializing opportunities.

By redefining the provider role to be a more available family member, older men can develop into beloved grandfathers, uncles and aging parents—for a biological or found family. And service in the form of volunteering with a local organization can do triple duty. An older man can grow connections with other volunteers even as he practices compassion for those in distress and fulfills a community need.

A Group of Men Growing Older, Better

Ron Dresher co-founded the Life Transition Group (LTG) about 20 years ago to support a group of mostly men in the Los Angeles area as they shifted into retirement. Currently, the group has about 25 active members. They meet monthly to discuss a variety of topics, including health matters, financial wellbeing and how to thrive in one's later years.

Having facilitated the group for two decades, Ron has developed a formula for mens’ positive aging. It starts with a sense of purpose that can replace career goals and the traditional “provider” role. Many men in the LTG find meaning during retirement in the form of community service.

Health and wellbeing also are vital, according to Ron. This means men must pay attention to ways they may be hurting, and take action to heal.

Another key for older men to thrive is social connection, Ron says. The LTG has consciously fostered strong bonds among members over the years. At this point, enduring friendships are a big part of the group’s appeal, Ron says.

Those connections have grown in part because men in the group have learned to care for each other and express emotions. Ron explains, “As men start maturing, they start recognizing that you're going from competition and machismo to being a good listener, being more empathetic.”

In other words, the men of the LTG are aging well in part by revising the traditional definition of masculinity. When we reinvent our views of masculinity to redefine men's roles, incorporate compassion, and promote social connections, a better future is possible. Men can age with greater health, wisdom, and happiness.

Ed Frauenheim is an author, speaker and consultant with a focus on masculinity matters, workplace culture and leadership. He has co-authored four books, including Reinventing Masculinity: The Liberating Power of Compassion and Connection. It tells the story of how we are evolving from a cramped, unhealthy, outdated masculinity to one that frees men and all around them to live healthier, fuller, more soulful lives at work, at home and beyond.

References

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2015/05/07/once-the-ba…

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250276124/equalpartners

https://www.orlandohealth.com/content-hub/4-reasons-men-avoid-the-docto…

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