Rather Than Fearing Getting Old, Here’s How to Embrace it

by Berit Lewis at the Psyche: To grow with age, I suggest practicing various forms of mindfulness. Just as exercise for the body helps to maintain and improve physical health, mindfulness is mental training that flexes the mind for optimal health and wellbeing. It involves a curious investigation of the present moment – your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. The benefits include improved concentration, more awareness, an ability to stay focused on what is important, and the ability to meet challenges with kindness, humor, resilience and mental adaptability. Here are five mindfulness-based ways to grow with age rather than merely get older:

Choose what you pay attention to

The secret to a thriving life is the ability to choose one thought over another. This will give you the power to focus on what you can do and enjoy, rather than on your limitations. It also makes it possible to attend to the things that truly matter to you and not waste your energy on what doesn’t, or the things that cannot be changed anyway.

You can train your attention in two ways. The first is through informal mindfulness, which is mindfulness without meditation. This is when you notice your experiences in everyday life and deliberately choose where to place your attention. So, if you look into the mirror and lament the wrinkles or mourn the lack of hair, you can practice refocusing on the things you like in what you see – the deep lines from smiling over many years, for instance. Or if you notice feelings of anger or sadness over age-related loss of capabilities, you can choose to turn your attention to the things in life that give you pleasure and that you can still do.

She stopped herself from wasting her life on unpleasant worries about things beyond her control.

The second way to train your attention is to practice formal mindfulness meditation, either while sitting, lying or moving slowly. It is simply the act of concentrating your attention on a certain point for a period of time. You choose an anchor point, such as your breath, or any other physical sensation, and come back to this point whenever you notice your mind has wandered off. Over time, you will rewire the neural pathways in your brain, and your ability to concentrate and control your attention will improve.

To see how this can work, consider one of my older clients who was beset with worry about going blind because age-related macular degeneration (AMD) runs in her family. We worked together on improving her attentional control on the basis that she couldn’t do anything practical to protect her sight, except for attending regular eye checkups. During meditations, she found comfort in placing her attention on a specific physical point in her chest. At first, it helped her refocus her wandering mind during meditations, but over time the spot also became a place she would connect with in times of stress or worrying thoughts in everyday life. She noticed that, whenever her mind got caught up in thoughts about blindness, she could refocus her attention to the spot, keep her focus there for five minutes, and then be able to move on. This way, she stopped herself from wasting her life on unpleasant worries about things beyond her control.

Whatever your age, improved attentional control will help you choose your focus, but it is also a particularly beneficial skill in later life when our minds tend to get more easily distracted. (For more advice on developing a formal meditation practice, read the Psyche Guide on mindfulness.)

Challenge your negative assumptions about ageing

By turning your gaze inwards to improve your attentional control, you will also begin to gain greater awareness of your thought patterns. Most of us have unconsciously internalized society’s ageist narrative of what it means to be older, and you might notice repeating thoughts of that kind limiting you, such as ‘Middle-aged people are slow at learning IT’ or ‘Older people are fragile.’

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It is easy to get stuck on these kinds of beliefs because we have heard them all our lives and our societies are built around them. But by paying closer attention to your thoughts, you will be able to see these beliefs for the generalizations that they are, and you might also realize that they are not applicable to you.

For instance, I have encountered many clients in their 60s who were nudged by the people around them to consider retirement but, after reflecting on their own desires and ambitions, they realized that they were nowhere near ready to retire. Quite the opposite. Instead, they continued working or found new passions and started new careers.

It is never too late to explore your mental habits and start thinking and behaving differently

A way to become more fully aware of your thoughts is to step back, observe them and then give them a label. It is easier to do this first during formal mindfulness meditations as there will be fewer distractions. You can simply sit and notice the thoughts as they appear in your mind and then choose a label, such as ‘planning’, ‘problem-solving’, ‘worrying’ or ‘judging’.

It’s through taking the time to truly pay attention to your thoughts in this way that you will see them for what they are – creations that spring forth from genetically and socially constructed urges and habits. If you are an older adult, you might think you are ‘stuck’ with whatever is going on in your mind, but it is never too late to explore your mental habits and start thinking and behaving differently. One way is to constantly ask yourself: ‘Is this thought or behaviour helping me live the life I want to live?’

A client of mine lost his wife in his 70s. During a mindfulness course, he started to notice that he had recurring thoughts such as ‘I am too old’ and ‘I am unattractive’ that were stopping him from dating again. Although he continued to consider himself unattractive, he also came to acknowledge the unhelpfulness of returning to this thought – how it was impeding the social, fulfilling life he wanted. His mindfulness practice allowed him to avoid getting caught up in inner discussions about whether he was too old or unattractive (it didn’t matter if he was or not) and he subsequently found the motivation to join a dating app for seniors.

Don’t battle your discomfort

We humans waste so much energy trying to avoid potential discomfort. Often, the energy we spend avoiding something is much more unpleasant than the discomfort itself. The paradox is that the power of the unwanted diminishes if you can find a way to embrace it instead of avoiding it. This applies to getting older. If you can approach your increasing age with awareness, acceptance and affection, you will be better able to adapt and flow with the changes of life. Accepting the things you cannot change is not straightforward, but you can learn to master this acceptance over time – at least to some extent.

Acceptance is also aided by improved attentional control. It will allow you to notice that, even during suffering and pain, there is also pleasure and joy in the moment. Don’t believe it? Try it the next time you feel yourself getting overwhelmed by discomfort.

The pleasant feelings might be small, but they are also there – you just need to notice them

It is best to start with something minor, such as getting angry with someone cutting in line or getting annoyed with yourself for forgetting to buy milk, but later on you can progress to trying this for more extreme emotional feelings or physical discomfort.

Close your eyes, allow yourself to notice and label the unpleasant thoughts and feelings in the moment and then ask yourself: ‘What else is here?’ I don’t mean for you to use your head to think about things that you are grateful for, but rather to allow yourself to step out from your head and into your body. You might notice a pleasant physical sensation in the moment, such as warm hands; hear the beautiful sound of a bird; or smell some coffee. The pleasant feelings might be small, but they are also there – you just need to notice them. This isn’t about distracting yourself or avoiding the discomfort, but rather adopting a broader perspective, so that you don’t get caught up only in the discomfort.

Remember to be kind to yourself

There is no acceptance without compassion. To truly be able to face the unpleasantries of life, you need to be kind and forgiving to yourself. Although words such as ‘love’, ‘compassion’ and ‘kindness’ are sometimes seen as soft skills, they are, in truth, hard skills that are vital for your survival and wellbeing. Research shows an especially strong association between self-compassion and wellbeing among older individuals.

Feeling compassion towards yourself is not always easy, but it is a choice and a skill. One way is to make an effort not to see yourself in isolation from others. When I make mistakes or things don’t work out the way I want them to, it’s all too easy to think that this is something that happens only to me. Therefore, one act of self-compassion is to reframe my discomfort, from ‘Poor me, all alone’ to ‘I’m just being human.’ With this point of view, my suffering becomes a moment of connection with others rather than lonely self-pity.

Another way is to practise acts of self-compassion. Ask yourself: ‘What do I need right now?’ Maybe it is a moment of peace, rest, some words of kindness to yourself, or to spend time in nature or with friends (for more advice, read the Psyche Guide on self-compassion).

Rather than comparing yourself with who you once were, ask who you want to be now

For instance, instead of wasting time beating myself up for being older or inadequate, I find ways to actively comfort and care for myself, and decide specific times and places to give myself what I need. Sometimes, this might involve getting myself to a gym to compensate for the loss of muscle mass we endure when we age; other times, it might involve adjusting my lifestyle and allowing myself to slow down.

While self-care might feel selfish, undeserved or just low on the priority list, I remind myself that, to be there for others, I need to be there for myself. It is not only an investment in my future but also in the people around me.

Step out of autopilot with a beginner’s mind

In order to embrace your increasing age, you need to continuously adapt and make changes to the way you live your life. I propose taking an alternative view of ageing to the traditional biomedical one, in which our bodies and minds are viewed as machines that are breaking down through wear and tear. Instead, try to see your life as a consistent flow of transitions. Rather than comparing yourself with who you once were, ask who you want to be now. Focus on what matters to you at this point in your life, instead of on what isn’t working as well as it used to. When you experience age-related illness, pain or decline, you are not broken or dysfunctional. You just happen to find yourself in a new reality. Life is a long series of moments, and the quality of your life depends on how you receive and respond to those moments. Remember, each moment contains elements to endure and elements to enjoy. Whatever your age, you can approach each moment as a beginner or newcomer would – now is an opportunity for change and growth.

Take your time with these steps. Mindfulness is not a quick fix. It will take patience and persistence to see and change your lifelong patterns of thought. You can start at any age. The younger you are when you begin, the longer you will have to benefit from this approach, and the more practised you will be when you need to cope with any age-related challenges. On the other hand, it is never too late to start – whether you are 20 or 90, I hope there is something here for you.

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Berit Lewis is the author of Ageing Upwards: A Mindfulness-based Framework for the Longevity Revolution (2023). She holds an MSc in health, ageing and society, a BA (Honors) in psychology, and a MA in communication. She is the founder of Thriving Life in the Netherlands.