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Meaning in Later Life

An Essay by Trish Herbert

"Only eight inches lie between a halo and a noose."

—Anonymous

This comment above was a wise statement from a woman in one of my caregiver groups. What’s the balance between doing too much and not doing enough? Whether we’re talking about caregiving or exercising or activities in later life, how do we best take care of ourselves?

Each of us must create our own answers. We are most alike when we are born, and by the time we get old and have accumulated experiences, we are mighty unique. We may have had a plan or a notion about what our lives would be like, but most of us have had impressive surprises.

We can control our attitudes. We can lighten up, make the most out of whatever hand we are dealt, and develop the tools that bring us the most satisfaction. Life is humbling. We think that we have something figured out, and then we get another lesson. Many of us discover that life is not about getting happier. It’s about getting deeper. Living fully means experiencing all the emotions and learning what particular strengths and coping skills work best for us.

Some general differences between midlife and later life, many of them positive, include:

View from Middle Age

  • More is better.
  • External accomplishments are valued.
  • We do what we have to do to get ahead, to support our family.
  • Our focus is on self and/or our immediate world (work, children, family, and friends).
  • A facade is necessary to present our best self, to fit in.
  • It is important to look confident, be independent.
  • The Problem is: making it, getting ahead, surviving.
  • No safety net exists for healthcare or financial emergency.

View from Later Life

  • Enough is enough.
  • Inner work is more important.
  • We have choices; we can be active or choose more quiet time.
  • We see ourselves as part of greater whole, a mere blip in a grand scheme.
  • We are free to be ourselves.
  • We tolerate ambiguity; we recognize our interdependence on each other.
  • The Problem is: adjusting to losses (dreams, loved ones, health),
  • We receive Medicare and Social Security. 

To find life meaningful, older people must believe that their later years are as valuable as their earlier years. We need to be able to answer the question: “What do I need to do now to really like myself?”

Trish Herbert has her Ph.D. in Psychology and Gerontology. She is technically a retired psychologist but is more fired up than retired from life. She leads women’s retreats in the summer, counsels, consults, volunteers at Pathways, facilitates groups, plays a lot, and chooses carefully what she wants to do. She is the author of The Vintage Journey: A Guide to Artful Aging.

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