How Can I Grow Old With Less Anger
May 16, 2022 7:03 PM   Subscribe

How Can I Cope with Old Age?

I am 67 years old. I have been unable to deal with my age since I turned 60. Every day is a struggle as I try to overcome my mobility issues. (I walk with a cane now.) I have noticeable cognitive decline. (This is horrible because I used to be the smartest guy in the room.) I am very angry about something that comes to everyone. How can I cope?
posted by SPrintF to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Therapy, of course, is often helpful. But I found that just working on creating better thinking habits helped me a lot. It's really easy to get into negative thinking patterns just out of habit, and creating positive thinking patterns is not too different than other hygeine tasks. Fostering compassion in place of anger (especially self-compassion) can be challenging, but I found that Loving Kindness meditation helped me.

In terms of philosophy, Existentialism grapples with the awfulness of life and death, and the absurdity of hope in the face of it. But the outcome for those philosophers who didn't commit suicide is that hope may be absurd, but it's still valuable, and thus find ways to revel in absurdity. You might enjoy watching Everything Everywhere All at Once as a mental and spiritual exercise.
posted by rikschell at 7:21 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]

When I’m resentful like this it’s because I felt something was owed to me and I’m not getting it. So I’d examine that - what am I feeling entitled to?

The alternative practice here is gratitude. We all die. Thank you for my shitty little life, my opportunity to experience the highs and the lows, at least I’m still here.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:28 PM on May 16 [17 favorites]

Best answer: Anger can be a part of cognitive decline. So I would focus on keeping up mental elasticity and see where you are with the anger after a couple months of brain exercise. It doesn’t have to just be like, sudoku and crossword puzzles. Try any kind of activity that even remotely interests you. You have mobility issues but there are many kinds of dance and martial arts that can take that into account, if you have a skilled instructor. Maybe you want to try drawing or painting or sculpting. Try cooking new foods, or even just trying new foods from different cuisines. Listen to different genres of music, make conversation with different kinds of people, learn about different kinds of things from news sources focused on science or the natural world. The key is to push yourself out of the various mental ruts you are in, whichever small ways you can manage.

My father is your age and he learned how to play the clarinet in the last few years. He is a composer and can play piano and flute and a few other things but reed instruments were always too hard. It is remarkable how his emotional and mental state really reflect how much he has put into this new skill, in ways that are seemingly unrelated. My grandmother had significant cognitive decline from some complex brain trauma - she had to relearn how to read and write, and had previously been a polyglot with something like eight languages she was fluent in, plus typing in braille. The times when she was able to learn about new things, retain information and recall it for her personal enjoyment and to share with others, were the times when she was also the most noticeably content. Other people in my family have absolutely gone from the “smartest in the room” to frustrated with their minds because of age, stress, etc. And all of them have found that making time to try new things or do old things in new ways is worth the effort because it helps mitigate that frustration in the long run.

Because you tagged this with “pain” I would also strongly suggest an office visit with your doctor to talk about your pain, whatever it may be. You might benefit from a review of your medications, if any, and adjusted dosages, or different things to try. Maybe an occupational therapist can help you figure out how to do things with less pain, or a physical therapist can help pinpoint where you can build strength to be most effective for pain management. Pain is often underreported, not taken seriously, or considered irrelevant when in fact it is extremely important and impactful to a person’s quality of life. Maybe your pain is primarily emotional, in which case therapy is the right kind of medical professional to work with. You’re worth the effort.
posted by Mizu at 7:46 PM on May 16 [60 favorites]

Every stage of my life has given me rage until I could accept the things I could not change, and find ways to find contentment in what I could do or be. That said, I'm not doing real well myself in accepting the things I cannot change, or finding things that bring me peace. I hope you find something that suits this stage of your life soon. I hope we both do.
posted by b33j at 3:09 AM on May 17 [7 favorites]

I finally realized - after much raging and fear - that it was actually really nice to not be the smartest person in the room. There’s a freedom in saying “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask someone else.” I’m not responsible for having opinions about everything anymore, I am allowed to just be in the moment.

I also would suggest that a lot of rage is diverted fear, at least it was for me. It was easier to feel made about it than to grieve. I think in a culture that values youth it is understandable that you would have so much anger and sadness about no longer being in the hyper self sufficient class of people and needing more support now. And downshifting is a sad thing in its own way. There aren’t a lot of healthy examples of how aging looks in a way that’s happy and graceful, especially when it comes to men.

If you aren’t friends with many people your age, please consider seeking some out. Senior centers are wonderful places and specifically you might benefit from a support group of people who are also feeling overwhelmed by this transition in aging. Connection and vulnerability are the antidote to so many things.

Also, it’s helpful to focus on the ways you still experience independence and autonomy. Shift from enumeration of what you have lost and start thinking of what you have gained. And listen to music.
posted by Bottlecap at 4:48 AM on May 17 [12 favorites]

I'm a few years older than you. Try swimming!
posted by mareli at 5:51 AM on May 17 [5 favorites]

I had "minor major" surgery a couple years ago, just after my dog died, in the middle of a divorce from a partner who'd had a brain injury and turned into someone else. I was--I'm putting this very diplomatically--feeling extremely bitter and sorry for myself. Rightly and wrongly, I'll add. These feeling are always a mix of both of those things.

And yet, I started physical therapy to help me improve my mobilty after surgery. And you know what? PT was a blessing in so many regards. It helped me with my primary goal and got me back on my feet, but it also gave me a few months of weekly sessions in which I watched other people who had it really, unbelievably, heart wrenchly worse than me. And in many cases, those people were not as bogged down by their own bullshit. I started up a conversation with a guy who had had a massive brain tumor removed and was relearning everything with the knowledge that his use of half of his body was functionally improssible for the rest of his life. And his take was, holy shit, you mean I did not die and am not dead?!

To this day, when all is at its worst, I can put myself back in that place, with everyone there, and I can say, this is a day that I am living. I hope that doesn't sound trite. It's hard to translate something I found so sublimely simple without sounding trite. If you have an opportunity to volunteer in care services or similar settings, it might bring you reflective opportunities

I started therapy for the first time in my life at the same time as all that. The kind of therapy that I landed in, and that resonated with me, was acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). It's worth looking into--it's got some apparent angles that resonate well with this kind of thinking.

In any case, glad to have you around at any age.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:29 AM on May 17 [19 favorites]

There was an essay in the New York Times a few years ago by someone who had had improvements in cognitive function after studying Japanese for a while. So learning a new language is probably a good idea.

You don't mention stuff online or social media, but I'm close to your age, and I really have to just completely avoid some websites and articles because there is just so much ageism and ableism everywhere. Being exposed to the idea that your age makes you clueless or a bad person or that you personally are responsible for ruining the world is just draining, as is the idea that only the physically well are valuable and if you're struggling, it's because you don't try hard enough. I'm more and more careful about what I expose myself to these days, and that helps. I spend some time listening to podcasts that I find uplifting and encouraging. I try to read good books instead of spending time online. I've been rereading classic novels lately and finding that I bring a whole new depth of understanding to books I first read in my twenties. There are things about growing older that just suck, but we've also learned some stuff, and I find that rereading say The Brothers Karamazov in my sixties makes that really obvious. Bonus: reading difficult works and understanding more about them now can help you feel smart again.
posted by FencingGal at 6:38 AM on May 17 [9 favorites]

After decades of walking and running around with abandon -- for pleasure, for exercise, for errands, for anything -- I use a cane now and sometimes a rollator (a walker with wheels). Even those only help so much. I have a lot of other annoying symptoms too. I don't think on my feet or multitask as well as I once did and that used to be my Thing. Stupid brain disease!

One thing that's helped me enormously is realizing that I can't/didn't choose what happened to me, but I can certainly choose my reaction to it. I'm not going to live forever so I don't have infinite time left. How much of that time do I want to spend angry? Not much.

One thing I was thinking the other day is that a lot of things are harder for me now and/or more annoying. But I can still DO them. The time will come when I can't. So I'm soaking up the positive side of still being able to do those things, despite difficulty.

Overall, I can relate. I am a little angry. Maybe a lot angry sometimes, for brief periods? I let myself be angry sometimes because it is fundamentally not fair. But I don't give into it or get swept away by it. I mean, I think it's a reasonable emotion to feel. Just not spectacularly useful.

In any case, what's helped me are some of the things already mentioned: therapy, mindfulness meditation, a gratitude journal, learning languages. Also helpful for me: dogs. They live in a world that they don't totally understand or have much control over but manage to appear so happy about it.

This kind of stuff is difficult to put into words and it does take a lot of mental (and sometimes physical) energy to implement the things that help. But it's worth it!

I'm 45, btw.
posted by fruitslinger at 6:58 AM on May 17 [14 favorites]

Can you find some role models, people either in your immediate life or in media who are living the older age you want/expected to live? To a certain extent "act as if" can still apply, even if you need to add a mobility aid into the mix, you know? If you miss being the smartest person in the room, can you pick out One thing to master and be the smartest At That? For some reason the person who comes to my mind is Stanley Tucci, lol...he just seems like someone who has made boozy, stylish lemonade out of some aging-related lemons.

I can't directly relate to the physical limitations, but I am watching my mother, who's your same age, struggle with a lot of the same stuff. But unlike you, she refuses to acknowledge or address her anger or grief and is instead just sort of crumbling into dust and crawling into a bottle, which is a goddamn shame, because everyone who knows her feels she has just as much to bring to the party as she ever did.

I can actually relate to the cognitive issues; years of depression plus the therapies for it have left me noticeably less clever, less quick, less curious than I was when I was younger. It's hard to shake off the wunderkind identity but honestly? If you can, it's very freeing. You know who people like way better than a smartass? Someone who's kind and cares about them.

So from the perspective of someone who 1) also used to be the smart kid in the room and 2) could be your kid: rage! Rage against the dying of the light, but when that burns itself out remember that you were always more than just your smarts and your legs, and you always can be.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:54 AM on May 17 [4 favorites]

I was heading out to swim when I posted earlier. Physical exercise helps me deal with anger. I walk and I swim. Sometimes when I start out on my three or four mile walks I have a bit of pain but it eases up. I hope you can find some physical activity that helps your body feel better and reduces some of the stress so that you can deal with anger in productive ways. How about rowing?
posted by mareli at 8:23 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]

I wanted to back up the suggestion to talk to a physical therapist about a mobility exercise routine to help keep the mobility you have, improve posture/strengthen core, and support good circulation. You'd be surprised how much general performance improvement you can get just out of little adjustments, and we know that this stuff is good for cognitive stability. You may be in a place where you feel doomed that you cannot ever feel better, even just some better, but that's not necessarily true.

I think one of the things that's a real blow as we get older is not feeling useful (and aggressively being made to feel unuseful), and if you can find things to do that are rewarding it can be very good for your general outlook. You may have to do a bit of research to figure out what that might be in your area, but there's almost certainly civic needs that are underfunded, people needing help with reading/dealing with forms/bureaucracy for assistance of various kinds, refugees or underserved immigrant populations with need for that same help as well as language practice and just help finding the things they need. You can be useful and helpful and do so in ways that will stretch your compassion muscles for yourself and others.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:43 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]

I had to buy a walker at age 38. My body betrays me sometimes, and I have to get a $35,000 medication somewhat regularly to tame it. I have self-pity days and rage days. The first time I booked wheelchair help at the airport, I raged and cried. (Turns out it's awesome!!!... but I had some grieving and wallowing to do when I first recognized the need for it.)

My situation is admittedly different since I'm younger, but I can relate to loss of functioning and a sense of unfairness about it. I also discarded the identity of the Smart Person Who Knows Things. Turns out it's hard to be That Person without being a pedant. I don't know anyone that enjoys being around a pedant.

It is liberating to not be so smart anymore. You may need something else to pin your identity on. It sounds like you derived self-esteem and status from this ability. So it makes sense you don't want to accept it changing. What else makes you, you? Can you grow and nurture those things? Are you a grandparent, friend, collector of fancy rocks? Do you need an element in your identity that society reinforces as "valuable" to be happy? (Many of us do; no shade if that's true for you.) If so, think about what you can offer. Compassion, generosity, servant leadership?

Or you could take up buddhist meditation and begin to dismantle the whole concept of needing an identity. Can't have more of these loss of status rage attacks if you don't put your status on any of this ephemeral stuff. I suspect that Ram Sass's Walking Each Other Home would be a good read if you're interested in possibly tackling this by seeing behind the curtain vis a vis the suffering from being locked into identity and the enormous power and beauty of being outside of that.

As far as how to deal with loss of functioning, I give myself permission to be as whiny, self-pitying, angry, etc as I want to be... For a set duration. I can have a day here or there to feel like a victim, and as long as I let that be ok, it somehow keeps me from living there.

And I agree with the idea to exercise. It has great benefits for mental health, cognitive resilience, and mobility. Exercise and sleep are probably the most important lifestyle factors to how good you feel in your body and how well your mind works. Be sure you are making good choices with both of them. Intense exercise helps get anger out. But any exercise is better than none (unless your physician says otherwise of course). If you are stiff and arthritic the beginning of an exercise program won't be pretty. But once you have some better conditioning, it is fairly easy to maintain and the endorphins might help.
posted by crunchy potato at 1:33 PM on May 17 [4 favorites]

It's fucking great that you asked the question, SPrintF. Really it is. Very very much of what will come your way to help your situation or help change how you feel about it, will come from asking other people of their experience. I hope, and really believe, you will hear about things you'd never considered or imagined from people that you'd never have expected to have relevant experiences or insights to share.

I can relate to a lot of what you described, though I am 20 years younger and without a cane. But 24 months ago I could barely walk (and that was one of the least of my problems). Due to the lack of physical capability, the loss of self-reliance, the unending pain and weakness , the fear that all brought .... rage and bitterness were two constant companions then. It's hard to believe there was once so much anger in almost every day, except when I think about how my maintenance of that constant anger was drawing from my already low reserves of energy needed to move, energy to think, energy to heal.

And then ... two instances of almost accidental asking-of-questions of people (one work colleague, one medical professional) started me on paths that transformed my life to an extent I never would have imagined. One time I just mentioned to a guy at work what was going on with me, and he was like, "Oh, I have been in exactly that place, let me tell you about it and how I got out of it." The other time was at the end of a Dr's visit, getting ready to go, and I offhandedly said, "Hey Doc, do you have a recommendation for a Dr who does X?" The answer was Yes, and I got a phone number, and it Saved. My. Life.

Ask, ask, and ask again. Ask people you barely know. Ask strangers. Keep doing what you did today when you created this AskMe. There is so much good insight in what's been written above in response to your question.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 10:16 PM on May 17 [7 favorites]

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