Stress is defined as an organism’s response to environmental demands or pressures. Negative stress occurs when we perceive our environment as straining or exceeding our adaptive capacities and threatening our well-being. We experience stress when we feel a loss of (a) control over our physical well-being, (b) influence over our circumstances or (c) our social support networks.
As we age, we inevitably experience all these losses. People vary in how early or late the losses occur, but unless we die young, we will all be there. Let’s look at these areas of loss and how they impact stress.
- Loss of control of our physical well-being: The loss of physical functioning actually begins in middle age. We may find that we need bifocals. We don’t have the stamina we once had, and we experience new aches and pains. As the aging process progresses, our physical losses increase. We exchange agility and stamina for fatigue and pain. In advanced age, even our day-to-day functioning becomes problematic, such that we need others to take care of our needs. All of this adds to our stress in predictable ways. We lose trust in our bodies. We lose control.
- Loss of control over our circumstances: With advanced age, it seems that others begin to make choices for us. We are told that it is no longer safe for us to drive. At some point, we find that we are unable to take care of ourselves and stay in our homes. Even with retirement savings, most of us have to deal with limited income. Many older adults find themselves worrying more about things they would have ignored in their younger years. Uncertainty always leads to increased stress.
- Loss of social support networks: Our social support networks consist of our spouse, family members, friends and acquaintances. One disadvantage of living longer than most is that you live longer than most. You experience the deaths of many people you have known and loved. You miss them. Also, as we age, we have fewer opportunities to make new friends. We are more likely to feel alone and lonely. Isolation creates stress.
Unfortunately, we haven’t found a way to eliminate the changes that come with aging. But we can take steps to lessen the stress. First, we can be thankful for the gift of a long life. We could eliminate the stresses of old age by dying young, but I don’t think many would choose that option. Gratitude lessens stress.
When we realize that old age is a gift, we more easily accept the characteristics of an aging body. We find ways to work around our limitations. This attitude also helps us adapt to the realities of our circumstances. We work to maintain independence where we can, but demonstrate a more serene acceptance where we can’t. Finally, we need to do everything we can to maintain our relationships. Call any remaining old friends or acquaintances, stay involved in group activities as long as you can. Look for opportunities to keep your mind active.
And for those of you in the younger years, call or visit an older adult. Let them know you love them. Think of someone who may feel that they are alone, and let the know that they’re not. You just might reduce their stress.