Life at 80 is not about vegetating away

Sep 4, 2023
Elderly couple enjoying life.

Each morning that I awake and feel OK, I feel glad to be still alive.

Being 80 means we are slower in what we do; we also tire easily. That may be why many of us reaching 80 readily concede we have arrived at our final departure lounge.

We are conscious that much of our longevity at this stage depends on the actual state of our health and general well-being. That may be reflected in whether we are now nursing home residents or still continue to live independently. We certainly count ourselves very fortunate indeed if we have relatively few ageing aches and pains. It would indeed be relatively perfect if we can also count ourselves amongst those financially independent.

One common question often comes to our consciousness. This is about how we may continue living a generally stress-free and happy life. As pointed out by Robert Waldinger, Harvard Psychiatrist who has studied adult development over a long period of 75 years, that is generally regarded as the best way to lead a ‘good’ life.

In other words, life at 80 is not about vegetating away. There are things to be done to maintain a satisfying life as long as we can continue to do so. These may be summed up as a need to pay attention to three areas of our existence as we age on.

Firstly, we need to be mindful about what’s happened to our octogenarian body. Over the past decade, bones would have shrunken a lot more in size and density and become more susceptible to fracture. Also, muscles and tendons would have generally lost much strength, endurance and flexibility. They decrease our sense of coordination, stability and balance. To continue a stress-free life means having to be extra careful to avoid the increased risks of a fall that can lead to consequential bodily damage and loss of mobility. We do die from falls.

Secondly, our intellectual well-being also needs time and attention. Whilst cognitive decline does not occur with some people in their 80s, it generally goes hand in hand with aging. That’s because certain parts of the unused brain start to shrink as we age along. We notice this in our being slower to find words and recall names. Some of us even forget where we live.

We should do things to slow it down a bit. This may be by engaging in complex mental activities such as learning a new language, participating in political discussions, engaging in sudoku, playing chess, or even learning a new line dance, tai chi or exercise routine. Also, simply being engaged in conversations is a kind of mental exercise that can help our ageing minds to remain sharp.

Thirdly, our emotional well-being requires nurturing through good relationships. Indeed, social isolation and loneliness generally diminishes social relationships in one’s life. It can raise serious health concerns for octogenarians. Sadly, people at 80 would have lost a lot of friends along the way. This is even though the older they get, the more they actually need friends. Life can be particularly lonely for them if they are loners and not part of an extended family network.

It is true that there are well-known ways to remedy this. For example:

  • We need to choose an optimistic rather than a pessimistic attitude, bearing in mind that psychologists have pointed out it makes a difference to how we actually live our life and that optimistic people do, on average, live seven years longer than those who are pessimistic.
  • We can cope with increasing social isolation at old age by taking advantage of a strong link between our action and our perception. This is by faking good feelings. A famous study showed that those who forced their facial muscles to replicate the movement of a smile (e.g., by holding a pen between their teeth) generated more positive emotions. The forced muscle movements of a smile on our face stimulate our brain to allow us to feel an emotionally positive state. It produces feelings of happiness that help reduce stress and even depression. And, incidentally, when we smile, people around us are likely to smile back and thereby create positive feelings in us.
  • We can generate our own good feeling by being able to give to society. In the words of Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia (Canada), “One of the best parts of being human is that we have evolved to find joy in helping others.” This may be through doing charity or spending on others. Stretching out a helping hand to others can benefit our own sense of well-being. That applies even to just spending on others in simple ways, e.g., buying coffee or lunch for someone else, buying food for a homeless person or simply donating money to help others in need.

To sum it up, life for people aged 80 and above is not about vegetating away. As long as we can continue to do so, certain things need to be done to maintain a satisfying life. To the observant, it’s not much different from life for those aged 70 and above. Indeed, these are what should guide most people wanting to live a personally satisfying life at whatever age.

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