For too many people, old age is simply the best of two alternatives. But it can be a great time of life if we’re prepared for it. Whether it brings joy and peace of mind or loneliness and despair depends largely on us.
Many older people fall into behaviors that can lead to unhappiness, isolation, and even mental illness. They may allow themselves to feel unneeded and draw into a shell. Others fall prey to boredom, often self-imposed. Some alienate others by demanding attention—often for imaginary or minor ailments—or by manipulating feelings. Some, seeking a simpler life-style, develop rigid thinking that damages relationships and cuts them off from others.
Behaviors like these need not be simply accepted as natural results of old age. Following are five pivotal practices that can help us avoid these pitfalls and enrich our lives.
1. Accepting Ourselves and Others
Self-acceptance at this stage of life should not signal stagnation, but a mature understanding of who we are and where we are. It includes both an appreciation of our accomplishments and a desire to improve ourselves.
Accepting others as they are helps us, too. When we judge even one individual unrighteously, we damage our ability to practice charity toward all others. “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged,” the Savior advised. (Matt. 7:1–2.)
I learned the power of unconditional acceptance through a story told by a minister at a national social work conference. A long-time alcoholic had tried to quit drinking several times. He had been “on the wagon” for six months when his wife sent him to the store one day for a loaf of bread. He met an old drinking buddy, and the binge that followed lasted three days. When he returned home, his wife simply asked lovingly, “Were you able to get the loaf of bread?”
2. Sharing Feelings
Mature people share both positive and negative feelings with those they love and trust. Sharing positive feelings builds others up. And sharing negative feelings in a constructive way robs them of their power to discourage or depress.
But mature individuals do not share feelings that will unnecessarily hurt another—especially their mates. We can resolve differences more easily with a soft approach that includes signals of caring and acceptance. If we’re wise, we will ask rather than dictate or argue when feelings are involved.
3. Building, Not Bruising, Others
We cannot use the psychological weapons of depreciation, manipulation, criticism, or sarcasm on others without bruising ourselves. Instead of bruising, mature people build themselves by building others, looking at the good qualities of those around them and expressing genuine appreciation. Peace of mind grows as we build others up.
While imprisoned in Liberty Jail in March of 1839, Joseph Smith received a revelation including some guidelines that work beautifully in building others:
“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained … only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
“By kindness, and pure knowledge.” (D&C 121:41–42.)
One of my close friends exemplifies these principles. He has set a goal to build each person he meets, to say something positive to each of his daily associates. He brings happiness to many people, including himself.
4. Finding Balance in Living
Visualize a four-legged chair. The peace of mind on which we want to rest in our later years must be supported by the legs of work, spirituality, play, and rest. If one leg is shorter, longer, or missing, the chair falls over.
We continue to benefit from work even after retirement from regular employment. Except for certain debilitating illnesses, there is no reason an older person’s body can’t respond to many of the opportunities for service available in the Church or the community. The Church offers many work opportunities, such as teaching and leadership positions, temple work, family history research, and missionary work. There is also much good work to be done in the community, or through one-on-one contacts with family and friends.
One elderly gentleman, asked how he remained so robust, replied: “I work hard and sit loose.” If you want to “sit loose” after you work, play and exercise undoubtedly will help. Physical exercise can help reduce stress, relieve anxiety and depression, and keep the body flexible. With proper preparation, we older people can engage in many popular sports; King Gustave of Sweden played tennis into his nineties.
Rest is essential at any age, though the amount of sleep needed varies from person to person.
The spiritual leg of our peace-of-mind chair is especially important. Our faith in God and obedience to the gospel provides an anchor for our lives. It helps us to be reconciled with our past (through repentance, when necessary), to find joy in the present, and to prepare for the future. There may be no better ways to build peace of mind than to pray and to study the scriptures regularly.
5. Loving Maturely
In one sense, the essence of living is loving, and the essence of loving is giving.
Jesus, the Master Teacher, taught that the greatest commandment is to love God fully, with heart, head, and soul, and that the next is to love others and ourselves. (See Matt. 22:35–40.) Those who love maturely put giving ahead of getting. I know a special Church member who decided to perform at least one act of kindness every day for a year. When she looked back over that year, she realized she had not only brought joy to hundreds of people, but she had brought deep satisfaction and peace of mind to herself and her family.
My uncle’s love and sensitivity encircled his two children and six grandchildren wherever they were. We mature men and women can maintain contact and influence our children and grandchildren in many ways. Visits, letters, telephone calls, dinners, trips, and recreational activities can all help us keep close to our children and grandchildren and increase our capacity to love.
Our efforts to reach out to family, friends, and others build the kind of love that author and educator Helen Keller defined as “invisible lines stretching from one person to another.”
Maturely loving ourselves and others, putting proper balance in our lives—these take commitment and constant effort. But the reward is greater well-being in the later years of life.