In his book, The Alchemy of Healing: Psyche and Soma, Edward C. Whitmont, M.D., describes research done on a primitive form of worm called planaria. In the experiment the worms were taught to choose between rewarding and unrewarding experiences by finding their way to a well of water placed at the other end of a maze. The worms learned to find their way to the water and to remember this pathway, but, interestingly, after a few repetitions stopped moving towards the well of water, choosing instead to just curl up and die of dehydration. However, if the worms were placed in another maze that offered not only water-filled wells, but greater spaciousness and a roughened surface that made locomotion more difficult, they responded to the challenge with renewed activity and goal-directed effort. Whitmont concludes that, “The worms had apparently suffered from claustrophobia and boredom! It seems that in the absence of drama and the adaptive challenges and changes it calls for, life is not worth living, even on the ‘primitive’ worm level” [p.82].
There are important implications to this research for all of us, but perhaps especially for older, post-retirement individuals. Numerous factors impinge upon retired persons to promote a withdrawal from life, activity and challenge. This article looks at some of them.
Much in the way we grow old has to do with our beliefs and expectations about what is typical of older people. Some of these viewpoints come from the behaviors and attitudes we observed in our grandparents or parents. Some come from society in the form of advertisements, movies, television shows, senior-oriented magazines, etc. Of course, it is no great insight that our beliefs and expectations tend to shape and mold our future. I raise the point here because I think the impact of these beliefs requires special attention since they often operate in an unconscious way. It is easy to fall into pre-established patterns and adopt unexamined assumptions about how one’s life is supposed to progress. For example, if you believe that the normal path for someone over the age of 65 is to retire, sleep in, watch the news all day, grow increasingly weak and attend doctor appointments until they die, then that is the future you may hasten.
Another danger that haunts the retired person is that of entitlement. If you believe that with retirement you have completed your job in life and that you now deserve to indulge your lesser inclinations and tendencies, beware. Old age is not the time to start making excuses for yourself.
One tempting entitlement is the tendency to not do things simply because you don’t feel like it. You may reason that because you are older and have worked hard much of your life, old age should be easier and you shouldn’t have to exert yourself. If you don’t want to exercise, adhere to an activity or work schedule, maintain a healthy diet, learn something new, develop a new skill, or solve your own problems, you shouldn’t have to. The attitude may be, “Hey, I’ve paid my dues, I’ll do what I damn well want to do.” In many cases this attitude hinders rather than promotes physical and psychological health.
There is an adage in the world of work that if you want something done, give it to the busiest person available. This advice is paradoxical but sound, for the busiest person tends to be the most motivated to use his or her time efficiently. Such individuals get things done either because they are highly industrious by nature, or because the amount of work they have forces them to be.
Unfortunately, for many retired persons the opposite is true. They become masters of inefficiency. Whereas going to the doctor and grocery shopping was creatively tacked onto an eight-hour workday when they were in their 30’s and 40’s, the same tasks are now viewed as a busy day all by themselves in retirement. This is not just a senior issue by any means, but it does frequently tempt retired individuals who find themselves with more time than they know what to do with. In this situation, the real issue is not too much time, but a perceived lack of purpose or calling that results in time not being put to good use.
Some older people bemoan the fact that society does not respect or appreciate them anymore. There is some truth to this general observation. But the attitudes of the younger generations may also be impacted by the fact that many elders do not live their lives in a very inspired way. Too many confuse the ending of their work life with the ending of their life’s work. And yet, ironically, the so-called twilight years are often the time when the most focused and concentrated work on one’s spiritual growth can take place. Lived well, they are marked by an expansion consciousness through self-reflection, deepened courage, maturity, acceptance and grace.
(1) Whitmont, Edward C., The Alchemy of Healing: Psyche and Soma. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA. 1993.