I was waiting to board an airplane recently when an elderly woman in a wheelchair yelled out to no one in particular, “Don’t get old! See what happens to you?” Embarrassed by having to be helped along, she was resigned to the stereotype of how things must be. I’ll bet she scared a lot of passengers into believing that aging is an unfortunate mistake.

Some years ago, an 85-year-old woman named Esther Nelson sat at a table before the Senate Special Committee on Aging and read a poem called “State of Mind.” She had written it four years earlier, when she and her husband felt discouraged, frightened, apathetic — and suicidal.

As Esther faced the committee, she spoke of “the depleted soil where no life springs.” She painted a scenario of depression and social isolation that come from believing no one cares about the elderly. The truly sad part of this picture, the senators learned, is that even as life spans increase, more older Americans are choosing instead to end them early by taking their own lives.

We all have down times; they are part of life. What is alarming is that, according to studies, clinical depression and suicide are occurring more frequently in older age. Although modern medicine has been able to extend life significantly in the past century, many older adults have trouble coping with a less vital physical mechanism. Feeling old and unworthy because our bodies change is an exorbitant price for maintaining a social system entrenched in material values.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We alone are responsible for the myths and stereotypes we perpetuate; an aging society is just grist for the mill. Especially as caregivers, we discover the limits of energy and the fears of disability that we carry forward unconsciously, like the sins of our fathers. But it isn’t just that we notice these weaknesses in those we are caring for. The message is like a reflection in a mirror. Here is what we discover in tending to our loved ones: If we haven’t placed a priority on wellness throughout our own lives, we will not recover as quickly from illness and injury as we ourselves age. If we have not remained active and emotionally balanced, our nervous systems will become clouded with static and will not respond with full healing power to the stresses of life. The burnout and depression that caring for others too often entails are proof that we have not let the river of life continually fill our own wellspring.

This diminished capacity paves a wide path to depression – if not also to feeling old in itself. In fact, depression appears not to be related to age but rather to disease and loss of functioning. Instead of taking life as it comes to us, we medicate and institutionalize it, exile it and therapize it. We resist the changes that life demands so that instead of letting them pass through us, we hold on to them. In damming the flow of life because of fear, we slow down. Then, as we become clogged with yesterday’s baggage, we find we cannot move forward at all. Like Lot’s wife, we become frozen monuments to the past.

We interfere with our vitality for so many reasons — stress, grief, exhaustion, indulgence, addiction, trying to measure up or fit in. Without a connection to our life force, we feel old and fearful and don’t understand why. We think it is something out there that causes us to feel creaky, but the fact is, the cause lies within. I discovered this truth only after serendipitously finding a chiropractor who is guiding me back into life. He teaches me to keep moving forward, to keep letting go, to keep coming back into present time. Dr. Val continually reminds me that optimal wellness is not about age but about clarity and staying open. With practice I am renewing an ability to handle challenges with greater balance. My state of mind is becoming more youthful every week.

I’m not saying we can avoid getting older, of course. I am suggesting we can avoid feeling “old” in the guise of an unhappy, stiff, and cranky person. Moving with change is not easy. But life becomes stifled if we follow the same patterns day after day in the belief that the comfort of familiarity is more important than the flow of life itself. The process is not irreversible. We can wake up any time we are willing. Here are some clues:

We will grow old faster than we age by:

… Not paying attention to our body’s needs for activity and nourishment;

… Allowing negative thought patterns to devalue our self-worth;

… Being resentful and hypercritical, especially of oneself;

… Avoiding changes that would bring joy despite any inconvenience or expense.

We can enhance our vitality as we age by:

… Accepting change as a fact of life;

… Staying active and goal-oriented;

… Holding positive images of life and self;

… Learning to live in present time rather than focusing on the past, the future, and other people’s agendas.

If we are to age well, we must commit to the behaviors and philosophies that engender optimum health. Youthfulness accepts today for what it is, and knows that each moment has its own ephemeral beauty. Optimal aging is an attitude of presence that is chosen and honored each day with 100 percent dedication. It embraces sorrow and savors blessedness, extends gratitude and nurtures self. It rejoices in life’s mysteries and puts no faith in fear.

There is no justification for the notion that aging means obsolescence. We who grow older must become the pathfinders and wayfarers, the wisdom sayers and soul keepers. We must demand respect from society by respecting ourselves first. We must harvest the fruits of our labors and consciously celebrate our contributions so that each of us adds to the quality of light, of life, of everyone we touch.

Beth Witrogen McLeod


  • Beth Witrogen McLeod is an author, journalist, speaker and consultant on caregiving, end-of-life issues and renewal at midlife, especially for women. She is a double Pulitzer Prize nominee, and has won many national and regional awards for her work. She has written for Good Housekeeping, SELF, Family Circle, and The Wall Street Journal, among others. Her latest book is Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal

    Her expertise grew out of personal experience caring for her parents who were simultaneously terminally ill 1,200 miles away. With a father dying of a rare form of cancer and a mother with Lou Gehrig's disease and dementia, McLeod learned firsthand about the traumas and blessings of this mid-life rite of passage. She turned her experiences into a passion for public service, first writing and producing an award-winning newspaper series, "The Caregivers," for The San Francisco Examiner in 1995. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She developed a weekly column for The Examiner that often appeared on the New York Times Syndicate Web site. Honors for the series included National Hospice Organization, Pew Charitable Trusts, American Legion Auxiliary, Society of Professional Journalists, and many regional and local social service organizations.

    Beth is an Empowering Caregivers featured expert: learn more about Beth