Aging as Adulthood-Plus

Old age often is seen as adulthood-minus, a situation in which normal losses in appearance, capacity and resources create an overriding impression that agers become less than they were as adults. At first glance that seems logical. But when one looks at the situation in greater depth it possible to see that adults who survive into advanced aging while losing some capacities have also gained wisdom and skills they didn’t have as adults.

When the young move into adulthood, they gain new skills and build on previous knowledge and skills as they learn from living with adulthood. They also leave behind some parts of childhood that are no longer appropriate in adulthood. The same process holds true when we as adults move into the years of advanced aging. For both groups this type of learning tends to emerge quietly, day by day and experience by experience. It is noticed only when looking back over time.

When we adults moved into post-adulthood, we brought with us the capacities developed in adult years that then were available to use and build on as we moved ever more deeply into aging. The significant difference is that here we’ve had to manage daily living requirements and overlying conditions with:

  • ongoing, normal age related changes (ARCs) to our capacities that are not only continually emerging and progressing (each in its own way)
  • pairs or clusters of ARCs each in their current status  aiding and abetting each other. E.g. vision, strength, proprioception each affecting the ARC of balance; loss of sense of smell (anosmia) and aging taste buds et al. 

Have you ever felt as though daily living is like trying to walk on an unstable wavy, slack tight rope?

A concomitant outcome is that day-by-day and situation-by changing situation we’re having to learn how to fine-tune:

  • our awareness of each presenting situation and then
  •  alterations in present strategies or creation of new ones to deal with them.

The consequences can range from maddening inconvenience to life-threatening risks But, through both failures and successes learning goes on.            

It’s not unusual for youngsters and adults to acknowledge and take pride when they manage a new age-related achievement and for others to do so as well.  Somehow this  acknowledgement of achievement seems to be less prevalent for old folks. Perhaps it is because of its focus on tiny details and its constancy. Whatever the reason agers’ achievements in growth in knowledge and skill tend to be either not or less recognized.   But recognized or not, post adulthood offers a remarkable, multidimensional Adulthood Plus.

From Can to Cannot to . . .?

There’s no question that we agers come into post-adulthood with a wide variety things we can do given the range of capabilities, knowledge and experience we’ve already developed. There’s also no question that each of us will experience normal age-related changes (ARCs), that alter our capacities even as requirements in daily living remain.

Some of us will develop one or more of the pathologies common to aging that not only impinge on our aging organs and thus our capacities, but add requirements to daily living as well. And then there are the traumas that can suddenly befall any of us and steal who- knows-what capacities. The result is that gradually (or sometime suddenly), things we could do almost without thinking become increasingly difficult, even risky.  And still the requirements of daily living go on and on. Besides, there are things we just want to do. We’re still going and going as aging  and slowed-down energizer bunnies.

It becomes increasingly obvious (even to the most stubborn, obtuse of us), that something has to change. We can:

  • give up on some things and mourn the loss,
  • get someone to do them for us if that’s possible,
  • figure out ways to change the task to make it doable (split into smaller bits, adjust the timing to our “best’ time of day, or visualize different ways for doing them),
  • consider a similar substitute, or even acceptably different that is within our current abilities. 

At 100, I’ve used each of these approaches, but had the most pleasure and feeling of achievement when I found different ways to do a particular activity. (I’ll admit that I’ve been advantaged in remaining healthy, remaining on the main floor of my own home and having both family and a few friends who are comfortable in helping out.) But, it’s still left me with more than enough challenges.  What is available is time and a great recliner in which to ponder.  

There’s time to go to my ponder-chair, consider the current task that’s becoming difficult or risky, and start figuring out what’s still possible.  (Note: it’s become necessary for me to write the ideas down as they occur to me because the short-term memory ARC causes them fly out of my head in a flash with no idea when or even whether they might return. (Note:  Actually this is a personal example of can→cannot→adaptation adventure.

Each of us will have to figure out what’s possible at any given time.  But, just thinking up and trying out an adaptive approach is both harmless and painless.  So, what’s to lose?  And like any skill, it gets easier with practice. Besides the ideas sometimes are really  funny and goodness knows we can stand a bit more fun and sheer goofiness in our lives. These adaptive adventures are causing me to become even more widely adventurous. Still green and growing. 

What is your experience with moving from cannot to. . .?

Tending our Boundaries in Advanced Aging

Growing up and growing old years are times when personal boundary setting receives more attention. The nurturing of our early years taught us one way or another about sense of self, boundary setting and the associated values.  Growing up and growing old years are also times of greater dependency when personal borders tend to be  more porous and ignored in  both casual encounters and targeted helping relationships.

As an example of nurturance, my own boundary learning was acquired in a bicultural, bilingual Swedish-American household where I was taught not only by my parents but by my 5 year younger sister. Two specific aspects of personal boundaries of it were linked to my relationship with her. She developed a sharp sense of self very early and vehemently announced in one of her first multiple word sentences, “You ain’t the boss o’ me!” At seven, she began her long journey to becoming a highly respected professional violinist and teacher. I joined her in the first decade as I learned the skills of being a piano accompanist. During music lessons we were taught that making music together required merging both egos and skills. We worked on it in hours and hours of practicing and performances. Once we grasped the idea we were able to recognize the difference in both the quality of our performance and our experience. i.e. the emotional high’s when we achieved unity and the disappointment when we hadn’t. 

Another pivotal learning experience took place at 18 when I began the clinical phase of learning to become a nurse. Here, patient care required us to regularly invade our patients’ physical borders and sometimes even the emotional ones. We were taught how to do it “professionally” and also the important ethical responsibilities.

As a nurse and later an educator, I continued to learn about professional border-related encounters. Both casual and more purposeful encounter opportunities abounded daily in relating to colleagues as well as students.

Being nudged into writing this blog has led to my seeking even more knowledge from the aged person’s needs and perspectives. My being almost housebound and living alone limits social encounters and even those may relate to  my  age related changes (ARCs). I’ve found I’m uncomfortable about revealing my progressing limitations and compensatory strategies that don’t work. But, on the other hand that approach is self-defeating. I do need help (or at least adaptations to my ARCs) and that help tends to be more efficient when it is tailored to real capacities, strategies, and requirements.  So, pride swallowed, I try to share my status when it’s called for. What I’ve found with professional care providers is that sharing ARCed capacities requires seeing the situation from their perspective.  Paid encounters are most often time limited ones where both focus and task are discipline-specific.

In a rehab center recovering from broken forearm bones (encased in a full arm splint), my treatment included physical therapy to strengthen and manage the rest of my body. The ARC data I needed to share with her was related to my ARCed stamina. Exercises and repetitions I could manage in the morning were more than I could do in the afternoon. It was viewed as failure to try so she worked on my motivation. My effort and motivation were 100% but my capacity was not. I tried to share specific ARC data in ways that didn’t sound like whining excuses or resistance, e.g. I could do isometric exercises in later hours just not mobility ones.

At 100 I’m realizing that my ARC s of decreased short term and working memory are also affected by my distractibility. (Even a rubber band for snapping on the wrist to remind me gets forgotten.)

I’ve finally become up-front about this situation and have alerted family, friends and colleagues to stop me. Some will, but people really are remarkably tolerant even with this person I don’t want to be. I also notice that while others are assessing me, I’m assessing them and then storing that information for my adaptive strategies.

It’s obvious that boundary protecting is truly complex. Still, it’s there to be dealt with, however we manage it.