Read an Excerpt From The Ups and Downs of Growing Older

A retired psychologist shares her knowledge.

the ups and downs of growing older excerpt

For decades, each generation has enjoyed a longer lifespan than the last. An "older-old" herself, Dr. Viola B. Mecke has explored the unique challenges that come with aging past seventy, from the expected physical changes to the unexpected emotional hurdles. 

Below, read an excerpt from the first chapter of The Ups and Downs of Growing Older.




The Ups and Downs of Growing Older: Beyond Seventy Years of Living

By Viola B. Mecke Ph.D. ABPP

We have been through the period of worrying about the wrinkles on our faces that started twenty years (at least) ago. They are now a part of our daily appearance. Although we may still fuss with our hair, we no longer sit for hours to disguise its graying. Men quietly watch the graying of beard and hair and, as each hair falls, carefully comb over the emerging bald spot. Our bodies that have carried us through the years have become weakened and bent; walking is a chore for at least 75 percent of us—with or without walkers or canes. Walking is slower. Our gait and steps are smaller, our arms seem shorter, and our feet a bit longer. Our vision is not quite as sharp, and our hearing has lost acuity. These continuing changes bring a bit of emotional pain, a quiet protest to the alterations of our being, and then a rueful smile for life is here.

Permit me to introduce myself. I am, by past profession, a psychologist. I am ninety-two years old, and I live in an independent living community. Three years ago, I sold my home in one state and then reestablished myself in another. About twenty years ago, I became widowed following my husband’s death. Fortunate to enjoy good health despite a serious bout with cancer, I hope to let the ripples of the waters move me gently toward this final journey of life.

I have always enjoyed writing, although most were professional reports, and my urge to write remains strong. The topics I know best are the emotional challenges of life as they trouble or soothe the pathway. I am especially concerned with the emotional challenges that come to us through this later time of life, often unexpectedly. Emotional challenges still arouse strong feelings, but I have noted that reactions now seem more in balance with the severity of a situation and are more modified to bring resolution and more easily accepted simply as “a part of life.” These are the challenges, some anticipated and others not expected, that I wish to address in this book.

My concern is about the lives of relatively few people, those older-old persons born before 1950. This book deals with living long, representing those who have enjoyed good health, good medical care, and good nutrition, with some genetic help from forebearers. For those born about 1930, the average length of life was sixty years. In other words, one-half of those born in 1930 had died by 1990. By 1950, life expectancy was about sixty-eight years, and for those born in 2010, the average person could expect to live about seventy-eight  years. During those years between 1950 and 2010, people could expect to live almost twenty years longer than their parents. For those born about 1920, 37 percent were still alive at seventy-five years of age in 2013. For those aged eighty-five, 10 percent were living, and for those aged ninety-five, less than 0.8 percent were living.

There are indications that the average years of life may decrease in the next years because of the prevalence of chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, overeating, and tobacco smoking. Yet the indications are that about one-fourth of the population will soon be over seventy-five years of age, and it is for these persons that this book is being written.

Growing older than old is a normal period of human life. It comes when the waves slow down and then stop with dying. We, the older-old, have enjoyed more time in life than most. Often the term “older-old” is applied to those over seventy-five or eighty years. Time cannot be stopped nor its speed increased. Sometimes, it passes slowly for many a day, or too quickly as the months or years speed by. 

As we have lived thus far, we have successfully passed through several phases of life that mark growth into adulthood. Now, beginning about the age of fifty, we enter periods of growth and decline that characterize the second half of life. The Midlife Re-evaluation Phase, commonly known as the midlife crisis, now comes. It is a time marked by physical changes bringing messages that the beauty of youth is fading. Relationships with children take on a new flavor as they enter adulthood—relationships with a spouse may meet a significant change because the couple now is facing the awareness of growing older, and thoughts turn toward retirement and old age. When a good partnership has developed, individual preferences, activities, and even idiosyncrasies are honored by the partner.

It is a time for questions such as the following: who am I, what have I accomplished, and how soon will I retire?

What do I want from life?

When retirement arrives, a new period of life begins— liberation from the control of others. For many, the years following retirement are marked by freedom from meeting the expectations of a working environment. Release from the stress of employment and daily demands may be exhilarating. For some, it is the opportunity to spend more time with family and time for activities that have been placed on the back burner for a long time. Others have fears and apprehensions, for they have few plans for themselves. And for others, there are feelings of regret or a loss of an identity for themselves.

An urge to see the world arises from a curiosity about how others live. Traveling brings new experiences to be enjoyed and explored. Comments like “If not now, when?” reinforce the sense of freedom form life’s expectations and responsibilities. Mark Twain wrote: “The seventieth birthday? It is the time of life when you arrive at a new and awful dignity, when you throw aside the decent reserves which have oppressed you for a generation and stand unafraid and unabashed upon your seven-terraced summit and look down and teach unrebuked.” A desire for experimentation and an urge to try new activities need to be honored.

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the ups and downs of growing older

The Ups and Downs of Growing Older: Beyond Seventy Years of Living

By Viola B. Mecke Ph.D. ABPP