I came to an understanding about the need for stability when faced with two financial choices. Regardless what I chose either outcome would be fine, unlike a situation in the past were I was forced to choose between two cancer treatments–each with lousy outcomes. Strangely, the anxiety I felt in each situation had similarities. Given the potential outcomes of the past and present choices, my current anxiety made no sense. I realized anxiety is related to instability, a daily unwanted companion to those who of us who are aging or living with a chronic illness.
In Part I of this three-part series, I’ll explain the role of stability in aging and in Part II, its role in chronic and progressive illnesses. I’ll offer suggestions in Part III for how to introduce stability into your life and the lives of others you serve as a caregiver.
The Role of Stability in Successful Aging
Stability becomes an anchor when the world is changing faster than we can adjust. Aging—especially later in life—is fraught with scenarios creating instability; whether it takes the form of a new technology, acceptance of declining abilities or realizing we are approaching the end of our life. Spontaneity—something that made life exciting when we were young—now often produces more anxiety than joy.
Think about life as moving on a continuum between birth and death. Stability in the early part of our life is inconsequential, and even detrimental to personal growth. We yearn to change whether as an infant exploring a new world, a teenager dipping her toe into love or a middle-aged person moving upward in a corporate world. Stability is the enemy and our inner voice yells “I’m being left behind in an exciting and changing world.”
When the Balance Tips
What happens as our place on the continuum moves closer to the endpoint? I’m not as excited about change at seventy as I was at twenty. I saw no one over thirty queuing to purchase the new watch at my local Apple store, advertised to change “how we view the world.” Nor do my adult children’s friends complain as much as my generation about customer “service” representatives with accents difficult to understand.
The need for stability not only is found in resistance to new technology, but also to the changes in other aspects of an older person’s life. At seventy-years-of-age, I find my morning routine comforting, especially following a sleepless night. I make coffee at 5:00am, read and respond to emails for the next twenty minutes, followed by a forty-minute stationary bike ride and ending with a twenty-minute flute practice session. If the sequence is disrupted or God-forbid I can’t do any of them, I become irritable.
Forty years ago I would have dismissed my ritualized pattern as pathetically conservative. Now I embrace it as a sanity hook. My father’s version of my routine was a cup of instant coffee, the morning paper and smoking a Pall Mall in the bathroom until he had a bowel movement. I’m sure his father had a routine even more bizarre just as others did going back to my oldest traceable ancestor in 1400’s Poland who was hanged as a horse thief. Six hundred years of Goldbergs with different needs, each attempting to introduce stability into their lives through ritualized routines.
How Physiology and Psychology Affects Older Brains
Cognitive adeptness and accurate hearing are necessary for “chunking” information into useable bits. Yet both change with age. It takes me longer to process information at seventy than it did at thirty. My hearing also declined with age. Even when I remember to use my hearing aides, I have problems accurately perceiving information when anybody speaks faster than two-hundred words per minute, two people are talking at the same time, music is being played in the background or I’m surrounded by construction noises.
In a world valuing speed and multitasking, the aging brain often has problems keeping up. I think of my brain as an old Ferrari that raced for forty years and is entered into a European Grand Prix race with new Formula I cars.
The Importance of Context
The place we occupy on the continuum of life becomes the context in which the desire for stability should be understood. The need for homeostasis—maintaining a balance—becomes more important and difficult to achieve as we move further along to the end of our lives.
“Senior behaviors” attempting to reduce instability may be unfathomable to adult children. While they may view them as bizarre, they are touchstones for sanity. I still live in a 1945 Ferrari brain, but it’s no longer able to go mile-for-mile with a new Maserati, especially on a course redesigned for high-tech vehicles.