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How to Confront the Existential Challenges of Late Life

A Personal Perspective: How can one sustain meaning in the sunset of life?

Key points

  • In the face of late-life challenges, there is still the possibility of living life fully.
  • Ageist views do not have to define our life course in later years.
  • Telling stories and learning from each other is possible at all ages.

I recently visited the 90-year-old mother of a friend who passed away a couple of years ago. After 64 years of marriage, Ella had also recently lost her husband. Now living alone for the first time in her life in a home where she raised her children and lived with her partner, she has struggled to find meaning in these final years of her life.

She has faced many practical and existential challenges. Ella’s house is filled with memories of love and loss—her husband's unfinished projects in his workspace, family pictures, and furniture passed down from generation to generation. What can she do with these memorable objects? Having been a caretaker her entire life, how can she continue to help others? How can she continue to contribute to the well-being of her loved ones and friends?

Source: Paul Stoller
Winter Sunset
Source: Paul Stoller

During our visit, we also went to the beautiful hilltop cemetery where her family is buried. It is a peaceful space that overlooks green fields that sweep up to a thick forest. We paid our respects and made our way through the small cemetery.

As we walked, Ella pointed out the grave sites of departed friends—people with whom she traveled, people with whom she ate meals, people with whom she played tennis. Despite the fact that Ella is a resilient woman, the losses she has experienced have become overwhelming.

She wonders about her future. Should she continue to live alone in her big house? Can she still travel? Does she want to? How will she fill her increasingly empty days? Despite these losses, can she still live a meaningful life? As the sun set over her garden, we discussed these existential questions—questions that confront all older adults.

Visiting Ella compelled me to think once again about sunsets. Does a person’s existential sunset necessarily lead to sadness, loneliness, and loss? Under what circumstances can our sunsets enable us to absorb the soothing warmth of a life well-lived and continue to live that life with meaning and purpose?

One possible way of living well during the sunset years is to feel that you still have a voice; that you still have stories to tell and stories to listen to; that there are still contributions you can make; that your life still has meaning.

Sadly, ageism is widespread. Cultural conceptions often denigrate and silence older adults. How can aging adults confront the inevitable loss of loved ones as well as the onset of diminished physical and cognitive capacities?

I am no stranger to physical and existential pain and loss. Like many others, I have experienced serious illness (cancer), chronic conditions (leg cramps and foot numbness), and temporary disability (periodic sciatica). As I struggled to cope with these difficult circumstances, I have been grateful for and humbled by the help I have received.

Even so, I have also been subjected to repeated discrimination. Indeed, widespread biases shape perceptions of others, particularly once they reach a “certain age.” Confronting age discrimination is a challenge most people face at some point in their lives. How can we convince our friends, family, and colleagues that aging adults are, for the most part, able to live well, learn new skills, work, and share their experiences and life lessons?

In search of answers to widespread cultural messages that denigrate age, I often reflect on the early life lessons I learned while living and working among Songhay elders in the Republic of Niger. Like older adults everywhere, aging Songhay men and women face physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges.

For them, however, there is a cultural perception that the mind ripens with the accumulation of experience. Even in the face of infirmity, most Songhay elders are charged with the obligation of conveying wisdom, whatever it might entail, to the next generation. When they are able to meet this obligation, they tend to be respected and revered. This is a powerful way that West African elders are able to continue to contribute to their communities—an important source of later life meaning and satisfaction.

Paul Stoller
Walking Toward the Light
Source: Paul Stoller

As a professor, I have the privilege of teaching young adults. In each class, there are students who are interested, who listen, who learn, who ask enthusiastic questions. I am grateful to those young people. I also take pleasure in listening to their stories, their hopes, and their wisdom. As I face my sunset years, I hope to continue to share my stories and learn from the stories of my students and others—young and old.

The lessons I learned from my mentor in Niger, a man who took the time to talk to me about what it means to live well in the world, still resonate today. I am still grateful to Adamu Jenitongo for asking me to always “open my ears” and listen. I hope to spend my “golden years” working, talking, listening, and learning from the stories of others—young and old—whom I have the good fortune to encounter. A meaningful life, at any age, is possible if we “open our ears” and learn from each other.

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