Aging is an inevitable stage of development that receives too little attention despite its importance. Although it is true that life can remain meaningful well into advanced years, there are pains and challenges that are important to address.
Pain is one of the first things that comes to mind as we think about aging, whether watching loved ones who are getting older, or facing changes in ourselves as the years accumulate.
Pain associated with physical changes and decreased capacities
Most often we think initially about the pain associated with physical changes — arthritic knees, shoulders, and hips, swelling ankles, aching hands, and degenerative back disease. Especially challenging are the specific physical changes that impose limits on the activities that were once a source of self-esteem.
For others, the pain associated with diminished capacities of vision, hearing, mobility, and flexibility can make us less competent at things that have produced pleasure and satisfaction.
Psychological sources of pain have to do with still other kinds of changes and losses associated with getting older. These loses include ending of esteem-producing careers and the losses associated with death of loved ones, as well as contemplation of one’s own mortality.
Additional sources of psychological pain may involve worries about the future: whether adequate financial preparations have been made, when and how to retire, what to do that will feel meaningful after retirement, where one will live and with whom, and who will be there for support for medical procedures as well as the ongoing challenges of daily living.
Other changes that cause psychological pain are changes in appearance, as posture slackens, hair thins, fat appears in unwanted places, and wrinkles increase. Such changes may be particularly painful for men and women who have taken great pride in being physically attractive.
Easing the Pain
Managing the physical changes
Though the aches and pains associated with aging cannot be eliminated, they can often be reduced considerably. There is an increasing literature on meditation and mindfulness practices that help with pain management. Regular physical therapy and daily stretching can also make a huge difference. There are also many pain medications available that are non addicting. Talk freely with your primary care physician about the pain and impairment that you are experiencing and ask about treatment options, including medications that may be helpful.
Managing the psychological pain
Psychological pain can also be lessened. Talking about the aging process in a reflective and meaningful way with a therapist experienced in gerontology can make a real difference — a therapist who understands the psychological “injury“ of not being able to do things confidently that were once done with ease, and other changes that affect one’s sense of self. Psychologists refer to these as “narcissistic injuries“. For some, the injuries have to do with physical or intellectual activities that have produced a sense of pride but have become increasingly disappointing as performance wanes. Others can feel a similar kind of injury as former good looks diminish leading to a decreased sense of self-worth.
All of these are legitimate concerns that too often go unarticulated. For many, there is a sense of “not wanting to complain“ that may contribute to the added pain of silent suffering. And unlike earlier stages of development, the mentors who might have been helpful are no longer around to help us think through many of the most significant issues. But it is important to recognize that a trained therapist can often serve this important mentoring function and as well as providing other support for you and your loved ones.