A large part of our success in aging well has to do with how we cope with changes in our bodies. All bodies change over time. There are amazing people who are able to continue using the same skills well into older adulthood. There are also some incredible people who develop or hone new skills as they age. For most people, however, we need to be mindful that our changing abilities can affect our self-esteem. Those who pride themselves on their intellect may face an easier time with sore knees than memory loss, and those that were very skilled with their hands might have an easier time with cataracts than arthritis. But none of us are immune to the frustrations of changing bodies. Very often, we have to remind ourselves, if not society in general, of our own worth, even as we lose some of our functioning.
But it must not stop there. Simply insisting on being recognized for skills and experience is not enough. Someone can be important to themselves. For someone to be essential to others, they need to be invaluable. Instead of beating our own drums, we should contemplate how we can use those drums to make music for everyone to enjoy.
Consider the difference between Stan and Tom. Stan is a former engineer and Tom was a landscaper. Both can see a building from the vantage point of someone with years of experience. On one hand, Stan likes to critique the building and those who work there. He has great ideas on how the building should be managed and is quick to suggest changes. But instead of seeking out his advice, those who work on the building avoid him.
On the other hand, meet Tom. Tom saw that the staff didn’t have time to plant flowers because they were cleaning up after a bad winter. He asked for permission and planted a beautiful bed of annuals right at the entrance to bring color to the property. Not only did Tom’s contribution improve the curb appeal, it had a surprising effect on Tom. Now, he is seen as a contributing member of the community. Other residents ask his advice on what plants can tolerate shade. He feels valued and valuable.
There is nothing more amazing than watching the evolution of a community based on the impact of elders who care. They impact the physical property, but they also invigorate the people, improve morale, and instill pride.
I also love seeing how those people evolve and change over time when they have a role. Research suggests that volunteering makes people happier and healthier. People who volunteer live longer and better lives. This effect may also be cyclical. Once you give back, you feel better enough to give more. Everyone benefits from elders who are viewed as more capable and productive.
My hat is tipped to anyone who can carry forward their experiences and skills into later adulthood. My hat is off to those who take an active role in doing so by looking around at what needs to be done and doing something about it instead of just saying it should be better. These people are truly invaluable.