[Exploring Life] What is the process of normal aging (ageing)? If we were fortunate enough to live free from disease and to avoid a serious accident, how would the process of aging naturally unfold over time? Senescence (from Latin senescere meaning to grow old) is a term used to describe the range of natural and irreversible physiological changes that occur in the body as we get older; it is the science of programmed biological deterioration (bio-gerontology) that gradually causes functional decline and eventually death. Normal aging is our future, fate, and destiny; our bodies are preprogrammed to gradually lose their resilience over time leaving our health increasingly more fragile and vulnerable. Even though we inevitably become more susceptible to age-related diseases over time, aging (senescence) is not a disease. The term normal aging is designed to capture the general effects and consequences of a natural trajectory of aging on body, mind and spirit.
The felt-meaning of aging is a constant companion to our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and behaviours. That is to say, the ramifications of senescence are not limited to the physical; normal aging permeates the entire fabric of our experience. The prolific and abundant effects of senescence ultimately serve to inspire an authentic conversation about meaning, purpose, identity, and belonging within the inner secrecy of our soul. Aging is also the crucible for personal expression, creativity, and the attainment of wisdom. As we lose certain kinds of physical and sensory abilities due to the natural progression of aging, we can simultaneously and consciously choose to foster the development of vital capacities such as wisdom, benevolence, generosity, stewardship, and conservancy. To interpret the functional decline of the body solely through the lens of despair is to encourage our own suffering. While the normal process of aging (our own and the people around us) is clearly the cause of significant loss, it simultaneously invites new potential and opportunity for living a vibrant and imaginative life.
The Course of Normal Aging
What are the most common features and characteristics of normal aging? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. If we think of normal aging as a theme, then there are as many variations on that theme as there are living organisms on the planet. However, it is possible to select some motifs of aging that commonly express themselves in one way or another as we get older.
Common Age-Related Change
- Brain, Thought, Mind, Memory: Learning is a capacity that is lifelong. Some of the neural pathways within the brain are lost with age, however, the brain retains neuroplasticity (the ability to generate new neural pathways) throughout life. Though memory may become somewhat less efficient over time, an active and imaginative mental life can be constantly embraced. (More information: BrainFacts – Aging: Changes in Intellectual Capacity)
- Perception, Senses, Interaction:
Sight – Presbyopia (the inability to focus clearly on nearby objects) increases in the mid-forties. In the fifties, the eyes become challenged by glare and low light environments, and have more difficulty distinguishing moving objects. By age seventy, the eyes may be less able to distinguish fine details.
Hearing – The ears decrease in their ability to perceive high frequencies over time (presbycusis), and background noise becomes an increasingly challenging problem. Hearing loss is most closely correlated with the onset of depression (even more so than the impairment of sight).
Taste and Smell – Some loss occurs with aging and this can have a negative impact on the quality of life; a decreased sensitivity to taste and small can lead to poor nutrition, decreased appetite, and depression. (More information: Aging Changes in the Senses)
- Cardiovascular System: The heart muscle thickens, maximum oxygen consumption during exertion decreases, and the body has less ability to extract oxygen from the blood. Blood vessels become stiffer and the heart has to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. Forty percent of lung function is lost between ages of twenty and eighty.
- Skeletal System: Beginning in the mid-thirties, there is more bone loss than replacement. Over time, bones shrink in size and density, which makes us more vulnerable to fractures and injury. (More information: MedlinePlus: Aging Changes in the Heart and Blood Vessels)
- Muscular System: Muscles lose strength and flexibility over time, and we may become less coordinated and have more trouble with balance. It is surprising to consider that the beginning of the body’s functional decline occurs at approximately age nineteen. In non-exercising people, there is a 20% decline in muscle mass between the ages of thirty and seventy. (More information: MedlinePlus: Aging Changes in the Bones-Muscles-Joints))
- Urinary System: The kidneys become less proficient in removing waste over time, which is further aggravated by the increasing presence of medications. If the kidneys are not properly functioning toxins accumulate in the blood stream. The capacity of the bladder deceases with age, and bladder control becomes more problematic. (More information: MedlinePlus: Aging Changes in the Kidneys)
There are numerous websites that provide excellent descriptions of age-related changes. The sites below represent a good starting point for further exploration:
- MedlinePlus – Search results for AGING CHANGES…
- BrainFacts: Youth and Aging
- The Mayo Clinic – Aging: What to Expect (See also – Loss of taste and smell: Natural with Aging?
- Web MD – Healthy Aging, Normal Aging
- Alzheimer’s Association of Canada – Normal Aging vs. Dementia
It is difficult to contemplate the inevitable changes that we will experience in our body, mind, and spirit as we advance into old age without feeling a sense of sadness, and perhaps even a touch of anxiety and despair. Unfortunately, our social and cultural assumptions about aging are often woefully inadequate and immature. Anti-aging is really a form of denial and a recipe for suffering. Retirement can be viewed as form of socially acceptable removal and exclusion. Problems relating to ageism are increasing. And it is here, being catapulted in time along the relentless trajectory of aging, that we must step out into a new and unfamiliar frontier with the intention and desire to revitalize and perhaps even reinvent our lives.
The Felt-Meaning of Aging
Our body is a harbinger of change, transition, and impermanence. The accumulation of normal age-related changes in the body eventually forms a critical mass, and our awareness and attention is drawn into the uncomfortable realization that we have started on our journey of physical decline. The felt-meaning of our own progression through time eventually shifts our sensibilities into the midst of a new and unfamiliar terrain. At some point in mid-life we reach a sudden and unexpected moment of age recognition, that is to say, a moment when we instinctively understand that the first half of life is now somehow behind us, and the final phase of life now lies immediately ahead. This is a powerful age-related threshold in life, a passage from the narrative of our own beginning to our ending. A secret inner conversation that effortlessly and freely interacts across our body, mind, emotions, and spirit emerges.
Senescence touches our lives in myriad ways. As we get older we begin to become more and more aware of the subtle changes in our perception. Our eyes may not be able to focus as effectively as they once were able to, and we may have become more sensitive to bright light. The appearance of our skin has acquired a more worn and weathered texture that is a little less resilient than it once was. Our ability to participate in a conversation in noisy environments becomes limited as we fail to distinguish certain sounds in noisy environments. Perhaps we notice a subtle yet definite decline in our physical vitality, as we begin to feel the gradual deterioration of the strength, flexibility, and endurance we prized in our youth. These inexorable changes that take place within the privacy of our own body are the silent language of aging.
Aging is not merely about the body losing its poise, strength, and self-trust. Aging also invites you to become aware of the sacred circle that shelters your life.
- John O’Donohue in Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
Senescence brings all life to an end. It is only natural that we would begin to feel a profound sense of insecurity and despair when we are so intimately confronted by our own mortality. The feeling of senescence is, after all, the gentle caress of deterioration, decline, and withdrawal. This is not a description, it would seem, that inspires joy, happiness, creativity, or vitality; it feels bleak and uninviting. At the same time, senescence is the crucible for an essential truth about all life – the truth of impermanence. Aging means that impermanence is flowing through every cell within our body; it is a reminder that we are all destined to be visitors here, and that our time, regardless of what we do, is ultimately limited. However, it is also impermanence that brings gratitude and belonging into our lives.
Embracing impermanence is the pathway to personal fulfilment and a vibrant life. The felt-meaning of aging is not limited to the poignancy of physical decline. Aging requires us to develop the wisdom to integrate and unify that which is most dear to us with the things we fear the most in life. As we begin to recognize and feel our bodies begin their inevitable decline, it is important to seek deeper and deeper levels of meaning, purpose and belonging while standing firm in the midst of the present moment. The deterioration of our body is really a crucible for the gestation and emergence of gratitude and wisdom.
The Character of Normal Aging
Body and mind are one unified phenomenon; they are not separate entities. What happens in the mind is reflected in the body; what happens in the body can influence the mind. The term bodymind is used to capture the innate bond between body and mind. Not only do thoughts matter, thoughts are matter. Aging is a profound influence on the body, which must also have a direct reverberation in the mind. As we get older, the feeling of deterioration, decline, and withdrawal , echoes in our thoughts and emotions. Physical sensations permeate the body as well as the mind. The physical sensations of aging have a very dramatic and potent influence on our quality of thought and general outlook in life.
“The mind steadfastly refuses to behave locally, as contemporary scientific evidence is beginning to show. We now know, for example, that brain-like tissue is found throughout the body… So, even from the conservative perspective of modern neurochemistry, it is difficult if not impossible to follow a strictly local view of the brain.” – Larry Dossey, M.D.
We are not the victims of senescence. By this I mean that we do not need to assume the role of victim simply because our years in life are now becoming more and more advanced. Our character becomes deficient if we allow our minds to become submissive to the physicality of deterioration, decline, and withdrawal. While we cannot reverse or even freeze aging in place, we can learn to inhabit its relentless trajectory in meaningful and productive ways. The physical sensations of senescence are therefore opportunities to experience life in new and perhaps more profound and meaningful ways.
The normal course of aging is undoubtedly a difficult experience for us all. How we orient ourselves to the inevitability of aging – our own physical deterioration, decline and withdrawal – is a primary consideration in living a vibrant life. It is sad to witness people who seem to mourn their own physical decline to the exclusion of other possibilities in their life. It is as if the deterioration of the body hijacks other possibilities for living. In making this statement I do not intend to make light of the penetrating presence of aging in our lives, it remains without doubt an immensely challenging experience. What is sad, however, is to spend so much mental and spiritual effort anguishing over that which is both inevitable and unavoidable, while forgetting how to live.
But, it will be said, old men are fretful, fidgety, ill-tempered, and disagreeable. If you come to that, they are also avaricious. But these are faults of character, not of the time of life.
– On Old Age by Marcus Tullius Cicero
There is a tremendous sense beauty and reverence in the physicality of aging. To age gracefully is to make a valuable contribution to the lives of those close to us. Gratitude is an essential quality to affirm each day. When we place our spirit for life on a firm foundation of gratitude, we can better navigate the trials and tribulations of growing old and eventually dying. To be grateful for what life has given to us is a cherished gift to be protected and carried with us to the end of days. There is no benefit in ruminating of what might have been or what has been lost. To be sure, rumination is the path to sustaining the more painful and angst-ridden dimensions of living, and given the fact that our life is only temporary we really do not have the time to become mired in what has already come to pass.
The Hands of Aging
My hands look older now. I don’t remember when that happened. I look down at my hands now and see them in in an unfamiliar way. They are more worn than I recall, and I wonder how they came to look like this so suddenly. The weathered texture of my skin seems somewhat less resilient and thinner now. Aging changes how we remember and reminds us of what has been forgotten. For the first it me in my life I now perceive my hands as having first definitive signs of senescence. And I continue to wonder not only how I came to be here, but how to navigate this unfamiliar and uncharted terrain. Aging makes time disappear.
During the period in which I was writing this article, I sometimes found myself, for no particular reason I was aware of, feeling abandoned in an unsettled and strange psychological terrain. January 7th, 2013 at approximately 4am marked the two-year anniversary of my father’s death. The last time I saw my father alive was the evening of January 6, 2011. Though this anniversary hasn’t really been a strong presence in my conscious mind until recently, I suspect that it had been an extremely powerful presence in my subconscious for quite some time. January 6, 2013 was a difficult day for me, but I could not understand why. It literally felt as though the world was crying, and as it happened the weather that day echoed that very sentiment. In fact, it was not until my wife came and sat beside me and gently revealed the essence of my suffering, and I realized I had unknowingly journeyed back into a medium of grief, mourning, and loss surrounding the loss of my parents.
Over the past month or so I have been looking at my hands with a sense of curiosity. It is strange and unsettling to look at your hands, and sense that they are somehow different – that they are suddenly different from what I remember them to be. Sometimes, time will drag us into the present moment with a thud. Once in a while I would remark, “I see my father in these hands.” Given the obvious genetic link, this similarity is not particularly unusual or surprising. And it is true, my father’s hands and my hands look remarkably similar. My hands have become a symbol of his continued presence in my life, and represent the beginning of something new. The hands of aging have invited me to find grace within the grasp of physical deterioration, beauty in the onslaught of our own decline, and love within the midst of our own withdrawal from the world.