When my father was 83 years old, he told me that he still felt like he did when he was in his 40’s. He exclaimed, “Then I walk by a mirror and I wonder who that old man is looking back at me!” A couple of years earlier, when I took my father to look at a retirement residence, his response was: “Everyone in there is old.” When I asked him how old he thought most people in the residence were, he chuckled, realizing that most of the people living there were likely his age or younger. This may sound familiar to you, because my dad’s response was typical of a very common phenomenon: as we get older, we tend to think of ourselves as significantly younger than our actual age!
There are several reasons that the gap between how old we feel and how old we are increases as we age. Some of it may have to do with society’s negative stereotypes of aging and our recognition we don’t fit that stereotype, and don’t want to fit that stereotype! And some of it may be due to the fact that it is often hard to recognize some of the changes we are experiencing as we age: changes other people may see before we notice them, and changes we may easily see in other people.
One problem with this phenomenon of viewing ourselves as much younger than our actual age is that we may not do appropriate planning for our current and future life stages. Planning at our older life stages is even more important than planning in our earlier years, because the changes that may occur can be significant and we may not have as much opportunity to rebound as when we were younger.
In the more than thirty years I’ve been working with older adults and their families, I have found the most common and notable planning mistake people make as they age is not adjusting their housing to fit their current and future life stages. Often this leads to not enjoying as high a quality of life as possible, and ultimately having to make a move in less than ideal circumstances. Planning in a more realistic and timely fashion can ensure someone has the best quality of life possible as they age.
I understand that doing this type of planning can be difficult because it often requires us to step out of our comfort zone. Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing one of our Canadian heroes, astronaut Chris Hadfield, speak to a large audience. Col. Hadfield was very inspirational and I was struck by these words: “We are never ready to do something new, but we have to hope we are ready enough.”
What helps us be “ready enough?” After my father and I visited the retirement residence, he and I had a conversation about ways in which he and my mother could have a better quality of life. I knew that it would only take one of many possible changes to make their current living situation unsuitable—and any one of those changes would mean moving in more difficult circumstances. In addition, I knew that my dad—who was a caregiver for my mother—was not enjoying much of a social life where they were living. He was also getting tired from the daily tasks that took up most of his time.
About six months after my parents moved, my dad said the words I have heard countless times over the years: “I wish we had done this sooner.” After a brief adjustment period, my father loved life in his retirement residence, as did my mother. And after my mother passed, my father was supported by all of the friends he had made in the last three years. Had he stayed in their previous home, he would have been very isolated.
The goal is to plan realistically, not just for today, but for at least the next 5-7 years. Then we have to make that plan a reality. We need time to establish a new chapter in our lives, to build community and create a new rhythm in our lives that fits our current life stage and carries us into the next.
Making a change in our housing and lifestyle doesn’t mean our story is ending; it means we have found ways to be brave enough to write a new chapter. And for many, many people, it is a very happy chapter of their lives. You may think that you aren’t ready for something new—but in the wise words of Col. Hadfield, perhaps you are “ready enough.”
Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.