Why we fear aging and what we can do about it – LA Daily News

Q. I just returned from celebrating my friend’s 81st birthday. He said he was fine with the age of 80. Just adding one more year has thrown him for a loop. What could I have said to him that would have made him feel better about turning 81? L.M.

Let’s begin by trying to understand your friend’s – and society’s – fear of aging. There is a term for it. It’s called gerascophobia, the fear of growing older. Here are several fears about aging followed by suggestions you might share with your friend.

Fear of becoming undesirable. Physical changes are part of aging. Living in a youth-centered culture, having wrinkles, frown and laugh lines and a little sagging skin might be construed as unattractive, often applying this standard more to women than men. This may play out in the workplace in the form of age discrimination. Furthermore, marketers remind us to hide the physical signs of aging with anti-aging products, an industry worth $17.44 billion dollars in 2021 and expected to grow to $22.47 billion dollars in 2026. 

Suggestions. If you are worried about your skin, be gentle by bathing or showering with warm water; use a mild soap and moisturizer. Use sunscreen and wear protective clothing when outdoors and don’t smoke. For work opportunities, as an article in The Muse advises, keep your skills up to date, stay relevant, learn how to market yourself, activate your networks, highlight your accomplishments and don’t be afraid of change. 

Fear of sickness, pain and suffering. As we age, our immune systems are not as strong making older adults more vulnerable to diseases such as heart disease, cancer and dementia. We may have experienced or observed those with these conditions and think, “this could me be me.” 

Suggestions. To diminish the probability of age-related diseases, include physical activity in your daily routine, eat a healthy diet, don’t smoke, manage stress and get enough sleep. This will promote heart health, the No. 1 killer of older adults. Although there are no definitive measures to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, the Alzheimer’s Association recommends similar lifestyle choices of physical exercise, a heart-healthy diet and staying socially connected.  

Fear of losses. These could be interpersonal, physical or cognitive. We may be attending more funerals of family members and friends which are large personal losses. Physical losses may be ones that affect mobility, stamina and independence. Add to that the fear of cognitive decline and we have a lot of potential fears and losses. 

Suggestions. To help deal with the loss of family and friends, consider joining a support group, stay connected, give yourself time to grieve, engage in an interest group and believe that you will continue a life of meaning and purpose. Staying physically active is one way to slow age-related physical declines. Note, one can get stronger at any age. To lessen normal age-related cognitive decline, again, follow the same suggestions and add taking on new mental challenges.

Fear of death. For some, this is the ultimate fear knowing we will miss weddings, christenings, bar and bat mitzvahs, graduations, holiday events and not seeing our grandchildren as they are growing up. Yet, older adults do not always fear death itself; rather they fear the dying process. There is the famous Woody Allen line, I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Suggestions. Accept death as a natural process and be grateful for your experiences and relationships; live each day as fully as possible and make the necessary end-of-life arrangements. 

Despite these fears, data show that on average life satisfaction reaches its peak at the end of life. It drops during midlife and begins to recover at age 50. This phenomenon is called the happiness U curve developed by Jonathan Rauch. It has been referred to as the paradox of aging. 

Thank you, L.M., for your good question. Having some fears about aging can serve as a positive motivator to live well, to be grateful and generous and to make each day the best day. Hopefully, some of this information will help your friend feel optimistic about celebrating his 82nd birthday.

Stay well and be kind to yourself and others.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulagingCommunity

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