Decisions, Decisions: Lessons From Older Adults

Many of us think about reaching older age, but we often lack the ability to translate our current decisions into the lives we will later live. Working with older adults for nearly ten years has given me a glimpse into their lives and how they’re affected by the decisions they’ve made. I’ve learned some extremely valuable lessons. And I want to share them with you.

Have your babies. Or don’t.

One of the regrets I’ve heard from older women is that they wish they’d had more children. It’s important to think about what your heart wants, in terms of family planning. If you desire to have more children and are able to do so, then it’s worth considering. Alternatively I’ve worked with women who have never had children. They’ve either established mother-child bonds with children in their families and communities, or they have simply chosen to remain child free and are happy with that decision. In a culture where women’s reproductive decisions are always on trial, I can tell you that in the long run, following your own heart and wisdom is best.

Treat your family well.

There are multiple sides, levels and layers to every story. I often hear comments like,

Their children should feel ashamed for not seeing them.”

Or, “How could someone treat their parent that way?”

And my response is always the same. A person’s story doesn’t begin when they become ill or grow older. It’s taken decades to develop. Decades of difficult decision making and mistakes, some maybe more damaging than others.

Spend quality time with your family and friends. Treat them well. Respect them. You’ll need each other one day. Apologize. Forgive. Grow, while you still have the attention of your loved ones. Harmony is abnormal and we’re all terribly flawed. But the people we love don’t remember the mistakes we’ve made as much as they remember how we’ve made them feel.

Live fully and joyfully.

Try to do all of the things you want to do. I’ve met older adults who are bitter. They complain a lot and admonish others who are not bitter like them. They see in younger people all of their missed opportunities, and so they treat them mean. They think that aging is a signal to stop enjoying life.

But I’ve met even more older adults who tell me how they never want to see an airplane again because of how often they traveled. They’ve lived in different cities and developed skills that I envy. They talk about their future plans and wear all of their jewelry. They still make their grandchildren’s favorite desserts. They dance and have drinks with their friends. They’re active, healthy and still social, well into their 90s.

Live with loss.

I’m serving more and more older adults who are outliving their children. About a year and a half ago, one of my clients buried her fourth and last living child. This was the second child she’d lost in the time that I worked with her. She wasn’t the type of person to publicly display her emotions. In fact, most of the older mothers I’ve worked with show an incredible deal of strength in the face of grief. At least, outwardly. I’ll talk more at length about why I suspect this is in a future post.

Loss is inevitable. The longer we live, the more loss we will experience. Age doesn’t predict mortality, so it’s important to love as much as you can while your loved ones are alive to appreciate it. In addition, having children doesn’t guarantee that they will be healthy enough or live long enough to care for you in older age. This is probably one of the saddest realizations I’ve had in my work.

Plan for the encore stage of your life.

This year I picked up Jo Ann Jenkins’ book, “Disrupt Aging”. She’s the CEO of AARP, and is on a mission to change the way we think about aging. One of the my favorite takeaways from her book is that we need to think about our older age as an active chapter in our lives. One in which we can presume being in good health and capable of contributing to our families and to society. We can look forward to aging by optimizing our time. For example, I work with some older adults who work part time, either for a former employer or with community organizations. Others volunteer.

One client who is retired, decided to join a local church. After hearing her sing one Sunday, the pastor encouraged her to join the choir. She did. The more time that she spent with her church, the more involved she became. She volunteers with the food ministry there now, which feeds people in need. And she recently wrote a grant to fund an energy assistance program that would subsidize the cost of electricity for low income residents. And if that’s not enough, she was recently voted president of her tenant’s board association. I have the pleasure of being the sounding board for all her wonderful ideas for her living community. And I make a few copies for her too when she needs them. Hers is an example of an older adult who is still adding value to her life and to the lives of others.

Have you imagined what your life will be like as you approach your 70s? 80s? 90s? If you haven’t, you should. There’s a good chance you’ll live decades past traditional retirement age. But the quality of the life you’ll live will largely be determined by the decisions you make now.


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