What are the challenges of aging? Our journey through the second half of life requires each one of us to adapt to a variety of age-related challenges. The physical challenges of aging result in various forms of functional decline in the body. The psychological challenges of aging impact our sense of identity, independence, and purpose in life. The spiritual challenges of aging demand reflection on difficult issues such as loss, grief, death, and impermanence. The cultural challenges of aging include retirement, financial planning, ageism, inclusion, and contribution. And finally, the environmental challenges of aging include dealing with change, transition, transience, thresholds, and liminality. This article identifies three major challenges in each of these five frontiers of aging.
The second half of life is a unique, unsettling, and often mercurial period of time. In an important sense, it is a powerful and unique call to adventure that is both frightening and inspiring at the same time.
To clarify the challenges of aging is a means to cultivate clarity, understanding, and self-compassion. The challenges and choices of aging impact our quality of life. It is important to understand the essential characteristics and influences that aging has on our body, mind, spirit, culture, and environment so that we give ourselves an opportunity to meet the challenges ahead with the spirit of creativity.
The major challenges of aging conjure doubt, despair, difficulty, discomfort, uncertainty, and anxiety. Our tendency is to approach aging with a sense of enmity. Our tendency is to avoid, deny, or hide ourselves from the raw realities of aging. Perhaps this is the most significant challenge of all, that is, overcoming our fear of aging.
Physical Challenges of Aging
The word “senescence” originates in the Latin “senescere” meaning “to grow old.” It is a scientific term a the heart of the biology of aging and becoming old. Senescence is the biological condition that limits the duration of our life. It also is the force that increases our vulnerability and frailty over time.
The human body becomes increasingly vulnerable over time. Normal aging eventually impacts our ability to successfully negotiate the activities of daily living (ADL) and the instrumental activities of daily living (IADL). Functional decline eventually becomes a threat to our independence and mobility.
Aging is not a disease, but normal aging increases our vulnerability to chronic, incurable, and progressive diseases. Age-related diseases include dementia, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancer, strokes, age-related macular degeneration (AMD or ARMD), and glaucoma. Chronic disease is often a contributing factor to functional decline.
Psychological Challenges of Aging
The raw experience of becoming older can incite depression. The losses an average human life is required to endure are enormous. In an extreme form, our age-related despair may deepen into a dark night of the soul. Aging also demands that we encounter suffering associated with mortality, death, and dying.
Dementia is a collection of symptoms that impair thinking and social interaction. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. One characteristic of dementia is memory loss, however, memory loss alone does not indicate the presence of dementia. In profoundly disturbing ways, dementia is a brutal assault on our sense of identity that impairs a person’s ability to recognize, participate, and interact in their environment.
Over time our experience with grief and bereavement becomes more pronounced. The loss of our parents, spouse, children, or other family members can impact our lifecourse in unsuspecting ways. Learning to navigate the difficult terrain of loss, absence, tragedy, grief, and bereavement is a basic challenge in life.
Spiritual Challenges of Aging
We are all guests here moving through an uncertain and fragile amount of time. As we become older, our sense of mortality enlarges; our body begins a deeper conversation with time and the feeling of senescence seeks our attention and awareness. We realize that one day we will be a memory. Impermanence requires us to build a spiritual relationship with change, transience, fragility, perishability, disappearance, absence, and loss.
Accepting the truth of our circumstances, leaning into our wounds, navigating the harsh terrain of grief, and pursing a meaningful sense of participation at any age is another challenge in the second half of life. In the midst of harsh realities, our spiritual challenge is to seek out a sense of meaning and purpose in our suffering.
Our legacy is the enduring resonance of our journey through life after death. It is the felt-meaning we leave behind in the hearts and minds of those we are required to leave behind. A legacy is also a heartfelt expression of gratitude for the simple fact that there is something rather than nothing at all.
Cultural Challenges of Aging
Ageism exposes the toxic and virulent elements of the human condition. Ageism is a form of prejudice that targets older persons. Like racism, ageism is an arrow of profound ignorance that triggers the abuse (emotional, physical, and financial) and neglect of older persons. For example, the vilification of an aging population as an economic burden reveals the remarkable trivialities of economic progress and the perversion of our collective conception of success.
The Global Age Wave
Demographic transition to an elder society is a defining moment in human history. If we treat an aging population in the same manner we treat the environment, the soul of humanity will suffer deep, painful wounds. The challenge of population aging is a magnificent opportunity to reclaim our humanity over economy, meaning over materialism, and purpose over consumption.
A Shared Ideal of Aging
A vibrant and vital society places the needs of people and the stewardship of life as its prime directive, and then sets out to build a meaningful sense of economy focused on that aim. An aging society is not the real problem; the inflexible and imbalanced nature of the economy is a far more serious problem. Aging demands we evolve some of our basic assumptions about what living together should mean.
The Environmental Challenges of Aging
Thresholds are points of no return in our lifecourse. Scattered throughout our lives are unexpected moments when the comfort and familiarity we desire suddenly transfigures itself into an uncertain and frightening future. For example, the midlife passage and midlife crisis are two potent thresholds that catapult us through an unavoidable point of no return. Our passages through the various thresholds of life are spiritual portals into the very essence of what it means to be alive.
: Another psychological challenge of aging is the potential for an increasing sense of loneliness, withdrawal, disengagement, exile, and abandonment over time. Isolation is the absence of belonging. We feel outcast from meaningful participation and experience the horrific feeling of being exiled in our own community.
The word “elder” is a term of endearment, veneration, and respect. Elderhood is a profound achievement in life; it is not an entitlement attained merely by virtue of chronological age. In many cultures around the world, an elder is a source of living wisdom, insight, and consolation. For example, elderhood is intimately connected to the care and stewardship of the earth for all living beings. In this sense, elderhood is the summit of what old age means.
Coping with the Challenges of Aging
The major challenges of aging thrive on the five essential frontiers of the human condition:
- Physically, aging means that we are all subject to functional decline and increasing level of vulnerability over time;
- Mentally, aging poses significant challenges to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions;
- Spiritually, aging demands that we lean in to impermanence and the harsh truth of our brief amount of time here
- Culturally, we lack a shared vision and ideal for what human development means in the second half of life;
- From an environmental perspective, aging demands that we journey through difficult thresholds, encounter difficult periods of transition, and step on to liminal frontiers that forver alter the feeling of being alive.