Yes, I Can. No, I Can’t….Confidence as We Age
By Bobye Anderson
I expected the noisy pop of my knees. I expected the bony knobs of arthritic joints. I expected the common “Middle Age Exercise Plan” of getting my 10,000 steps by walking into random rooms and walking out, wondering why I was there. The changes and assaults on our mind and body as we age are apparent. We have observed our grandparents and parents, and we now observe our peer group and ourselves.
What I didn’t expect, what has sometimes blindsided me, is the lack of confidence that has arrived to reframe my days. We know we need an on-going recalibration of how to navigate our new world – one hand always on a railing, full attention on those steps, anchoring those scatter rugs. But it doesn’t take much to have us go down the rabbit hole of fearfulness, of seeing the world as a newly unfriendly place waiting to trip us up – literally.
What causes it? For me, it was a car accident. Even though it occurred in my “younger” old age, the intensity of my reaction was huge; instead of viewing the causes in a sane way, I blamed my aging. I was prepared to surrender my car keys and license to the “Aging Poorly” police; it took a long time and a lot of mental effort to walk myself back off the ledge.
It doesn’t take a car accident to shake our confidence. The common occurrences of misplacing keys, losing credit cards, and forgetting names can take us to a dark place; each occurrence seems to be another confirmation of our fears, our negative self-talk slipping into a belief system. Having once found my prescription sunglasses in the freezer, I get that it’s a little funny but also very frustrating. We lose confidence that our foot will actually arrive at the place where we are putting it – on that stairs, over the rug or rock. Our bodies seem to be asking us to continually reassess our expectations and adapt.
The act of falling, in dealing with the fear beforehand and the results afterward, can have one of the greatest impacts on confidence, even for vibrant elders with active productive lives. Our image of ourselves, our strength, our control over our lives feels less solid, more tentative. We do what we can, taking balance and tai chi classes. And yet one of the worse effects of losing confidence is not a result of our body or mind but rather our choices. We self-select away from the scope of our former lives, hoping that a decrease in size will result in an increase in safety.
Thankfully, there is good news to be found in this; the condition is not permanent. Using the Twelve Step credo of assessing what we can and can’t control, if we can make choices that limit us, we can also choose ones that free us. An obvious antidote for regaining confidence is for us to lead with our strengths. If we determine what is most important in our lives, we can make decisions to make it happen. We can make a match between the activities we love and what is needed to facilitate them. We can check organizations like the Falmouth Public Library, the Falmouth Senior Center and Neighborhood Falmouth. Each event, each new experience gives us back our past and opens doors to our future. We are the ones who get to define and redefine us; we can give ourselves the gift of being comfortable in our world. We may have been told to “act your age” in our youth but we can now choose not to. I’ve always loved the question “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?”
Strangely enough, we actually live in a time when both opportunities and activities for the elderly are growing. The sheer numbers of a healthier, more productive elder population have put expectations on our society that are helping to break the stereotypes of the past. The more we are able to participate, the more able we are to think of ourselves as confident. Dr. Roger Landry’s excellent book Live Long, Die Short refers to a study by Harvard University researcher Dr. Ellen Langer. She found that when elderly subjects were immersed in an environment with the higher expectations of their former more independent selves, even after a week their vision, hearing, and cognitive skills had all improved. This and other research convinced her that “when we are aware – mindful of what we are doing and what expectations we have for ourselves – our bodies will follow: that is, our bodies will attempt to align with those expectations.” To paraphrase Dr. Landry, “we become better when we think of ourselves as more active or more capable. Our brains begin to rewire to be consistent with our expectations.”
Finally, the previous information is also my favorite hack for restoring confidence: working towards the goal of being mindful, of being aware in every moment. Having a default speed of fast forward, I now work on moving more slowly, more thoughtfully. I practice noticing, just noticing, and my foot does go on the step and keys and cell phone do return to my purse. It also allows me to see things that would have been missed in my faster-paced life. The level of appreciation and gratitude is immeasurable. I have a sign by the back door that says “Live slowly. Slowly.” I read it as I’m dashing out, coffee in hand, multitasking. The sign should say underneath “Take my advice, I’m not using it.” But perhaps confidence can be viewed most clearly through the lens of awareness, of a heightened knowledge of our surroundings and an equally heightened gratitude for our confident place in it.
Bobye Anderson is a Volunteer and Board Member at Neighborhood Falmouth.
A rousing call to rethink the aging process
Over a decade ago, a landmark ten-year study by the MacArthur Foundation shattered the stereotypes of aging as a process of slow, genetically determined decline. Researchers found that that 70 percent of physical aging, and about 50 percent of mental aging, is determined by lifestyle, the choices we make every day. That means that if we optimize our lifestyles, we can live longer and ''die shorter''--compress the decline period into the very end of a fulfilling, active old age.