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Feeling Old

Part of the problem is thinking that we are set in stone.

Key points

  • We all have to deal with issues of aging.
  • Older age can lead to feeling diminished and disappointed.
  • You want to live life with an eye toward the future
  • The idea is to learn from the past, be present, and think long-term.
Source: PICRYL

My patient Jilly, who is 60, told me “I hate thinking about the past. It’s all gone and there’s nothing left.”

The past seems so long. It’s not just “long ago” but actually this vast stretch of time that we can’t recover. We won’t live as long as that. Jilly said she’d feel lucky to be alive in ten years. So, the past sometimes makes us feel diminished and—worse—diminishing, as if we’re somehow receding from everyone’s view (including our own). Jilly tried to laugh about aging, but then said “I really hate getting old.”

Jilly complained that she had no idea what to do with herself. While the pandemic made her (and everyone) feel older faster, she was sure she would have reached the same mental dishevelment anyway, all by herself. As we spoke, it became clear that her life had been a series of false starts: trying out different professions, leaving one man for another. She had never gained the sort of traction that could keep her going now.

Of course, along the way, it felt adventurous. At the very least, each change in course seemed to make sense when she pursued it. “It was like I thought I’d be happier,” she said, “but then I wasn’t and went in a different direction. So, I ended up with nothing—just a lot of old photos.” As with a lot of people, Jilly’s life had been haphazard, with provisional fixes that, in the long run, didn’t add up.

Sometimes, when we feel old, it’s like we can’t pick up the pieces because no pieces are left to pick up. We feel bereft, like we’re still starting from Square One. It seems like we have no resources, only regrets. Jilly told me that she regretted leaving her first husband, who was decent and devoted—and now happily married with kids. “We would still have been together,” she said. “But I was restless, and I had trouble with commitment.” It’s hard to think ahead when we’re young, since it seems like there’s all the time in the world to make a life. Then suddenly there isn’t.

Jilly had moved around the country, making and forgetting friends, finding jobs that paid the rent but didn’t add up to “experience.” It wasn’t bad, according to her, at least as long as she was young and beautiful. Even in her 40s, life seemed wide open. She could always make money and have fun—a few times, she’d signed up to be a party director on cruise ships; she sold lingerie when there were still department stores; she was a nanny until she realized that kids annoyed her. And so it went, along with casual relationships that began to feel kaleidoscopic.

Now Jilly wondered how not to feel alone, useless, as boring as the troubles she had always tried to finesse. We talked about how the past catches up with us. “If I had only thought about now back then—when I could have—maybe I’d be in a different place. Maybe I would have been more provident.” It’s rare not to feel some regret as we get older. The difference in Jilly’s case was that she regretted everything. She thought she had used up her allotted time way too early, with the rest just an empty expanse. She felt she could never get that time back, and that it was too late for a do-over. In a sense, of course, she was right.

We’ve all heard of people who are Peter Pans, stuck in their youthful development with no thought to the future. Sometimes, those people are happy, but it finally becomes a problem as they age. They fall out of sync with people who have gotten on with their lives, put down roots, made something of themselves and pursued a career. By the time old age comes around, the Peter Pans are standing around with not much to hold onto; everyone else has their family, long-standing friends, career options where experience may still outweigh age. Jilly had tried getting a job to keep busy, but ageism overcame whatever she could offer.

I suggested that she keep trying. “You never know,” I said, “when something could turn up.” But Jilly’s situation got me thinking. While we lead our lives in daily increments, we have to project ourselves into the future. “Who will I be, where will I be, five years, ten years, thirty years from now?” That’s not to say that everything should be mapped out and locked up—that would be impossible and profoundly limiting. But we should be willing to define ourselves so that we can delineate the contours of a life. Maybe it’s by making friends who will stick around; maybe by starting a family, pursuing a career, even developing a hobby that will sustain us. Life doesn’t reward the haphazard.

Two hundred years ago, lifespans were shorter. People didn’t move around so much. They were situated in extended families in tight-knit communities. Almost by default, people knew them; they had a place. But it’s different now. It’s possible to become anonymous quickly, and to stay that way—for a very long time. “Dropping out” now applies to anyone—even if they’ve worked and made friends—who’s neglected to connect long-term, or to impress someone with their continued usefulness.

In pursuing happiness, we have to think of the long term. Will what I am doing today add up (emotionally, professionally, in terms of my own self-respect)? We don’t have to stop and think every time we date someone new, but we have to get some sense of where things are going.

Am I just having fun, or am thinking about the direction of my life? Jilly never stopped to think until it was all she could think about many years later. I could hear in her complaint that she was groping for self-respect. She wondered what she was—not what she had done, but what it had all amounted to. She thought she’d wasted her life with nothing to show for having lived.

But part of the problem with getting old is thinking that we are set in stone and will never be able to try new things. I asked Jilly to resist prejudging her future and to treat each day as an opportunity.

More from Ahron Friedberg M.D.
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