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Study: Winter Grace: Octogenarians On Growing Old


Recently, researchers at Umeå University (Sweden) interviewed a group of 85-year-olds. The researchers asked individuals to describe the process of growing old and what it meant to them. According to the octogenarians, growing old meant hanging on to one’s identity in spite of the changes that come with age. It meant feeling both that one has changed and that one is still the same.

A group of researchers headed by Regina Santamäki Fischer interviewed 15 people, living in a mid-sized town in northern Sweden. The group included 10 women (nine widows) and five males (one widower) living in their own homes. None had more than a few years of formal education. The men had worked in construction and industry. The women worked as housewives, farmers or employees in the service industry.

The study revealed that growing old is bolstered by our capacity to embrace opposites. These opposites relate to our changing bodies and feelings and our changing relationships and sense of time.

The study appeared in the International Journal of Aging & Human Development (Vol. 67, No. 3, 2008).

Embracing our changing bodies

Participants said they felt strong some days and could carry on life as usual. As one man put it, "There are not many 85-year-old persons that get to build a screened-in porch." Another, recuperating from a broken leg, reported "new strength as time goes by." Participants said they lacked energy other days. This made one man feel more dependent. "I see my wife has to do more work outside than before," he said. Fragile health also meant saying good-bye to cherished activities such as driving the car or holding public positions.

Embracing reconciliation and regret

"One seems to remember more than one can recall," one participant said. "I am very good at just sitting and meditating in a coach," another added. Researchers report, being reconciled may help older adults view their life as part of something greater. One 85-year-old woman explained:

To be one with the universe, absolutely. I experience that every time I fall asleep. It is not me anymore; I am one with the universe, that’s just the way it is . . . I want to be cremated and I don’t want my ashes to be put in an urn, I want them
put in a box of turf [so] . . . I can become earth again, because I am one with the universe.

Another participant noted, "There are those low moments, they do come, and then life goes back and forward in a zigzag [there are] things that one would have done differently. Mostly what one did not do and should have done." According to researchers, those who have difficulty reconciling may be less willing to plan for the future. "I don’t want to think of the unpleasant things," one 85-year-old said.

Embracing connectedness and loneliness

The birth of a great-grandchild offered one 85-year-old woman an opportunity to connect across the generations. "I have seven great grandchildren, you see. When the autumn comes then they need their little socks and gloves, and then I have the pleasure of knitting them," she said.

According to researchers, older adults like to mingle with those of their own generation. It allows them to chat about friends and relatives who are still alive and remember those who have passed on. As one woman said, "I have very good friends, and it is important when you are growing old to have someone who really understands you." Connecting with neighbours can be meaningful, too. "I’ve got help from the lady who lives across the hall and then I help her sometimes because she is blind," said one participant. As well, the octogenarians continued to feel connected to loved ones who had passed away.

Diminished eyesight and lack of hearing sometimes made interactions with others more difficult. As one woman put it, "I am disappointed that when you get old you get more isolated."

Embracing slowness and swiftness of time

Some days, time dragged, resulting in feelings of restlessness. Other days, time seemed to fly. “One cannot manage to keep up with time,” said one participant.

Winter grace

The study findings reveal growing old as both loss and gain. As the researchers note, “Growing old and reshaping one’s identity is a slow, time-consuming process that engages the person at many levels. At the same time, older adults’ efforts to embrace opposites may lead to maturity and to changes in the person’s outlook on life and ways of living.