When my oldest (in age) friend, Anna, asked me to explore with her what optimism could mean at the end of life, she was 96 and very close to her own end. She knew it. I admired my friend and wanted to emulate her courage, strength, and great curiosity about other people. I knew that the concept of optimism must be different from the optimism about which she had published many articles in her 70s, and different from the articles and books I'd written about the philosophy of appreciative inquiry and its coaching method, appreciative coaching. We both had a strong positive bias toward living life to its fullest and enjoying all that life offered. I knew that in my 50s and Anna's 70s we had each continued to experience the vitality we had always felt. Sure, we were slower and couldn't perform physically or intellectually with the facility of younger years, but we still felt so much life ahead of us. At her 96 and my 73, that was no longer true. She was close to death, and I, though still very engaged with life, was beginning to have my own mostly physical challenges.
Several years after my friendship with Anna had solidified, I made friends with another woman I admire, Candace, who tells me that she is living one day at a time her 80s, and that she thinks she has a bad attitude. When I asked why she sees her attitude as bad, she said that she is ready to die. I responded that I didn't think this attitude was bad, but realistic. She still has a wicked sense of humor. She still explores her neighborhood on foot as her driving years are over. She has a new man friend in the retirement community in which she lives. They do "crazy" stuff together, according to her friend. Alongside these attributes and experiences, she has painful arthritis and has fallen several times in the last few years. As a result of the last fall, she could not walk for almost a year.
There is a quality that each of these friends have. For both, there is or was still pleasure in the world, but also acceptance that the end is somewhere close at hand. The acceptance of that end is positive if not optimistic. Their engagement with life is not wholehearted. Anna told me that, in the last month of her life, she dreamed almost every night that she was dead. Some nights she dreamt that she was alive and then not; other nights she would dream that she was already dead. When her daughter asked her how she felt about these dreams, she said that she felt peaceful and happy.
Assuredly, these two women do not represent the feelings of all older adults. Those who have a religious or spiritual belief in an afterlife may feel more hopeful about what that will be for them. My friends do not believe in life after death. There is a finality to the view they have toward the future.
We, older Americans are living longer. The Economist tells us that it is an increase of about 2.5 years per decade. When my mother was 70, 30 years ago, her life expectancy was 82. She lived for 10 years after that. In my 76th year, I can expect to live until I'm 87. This increased longevity has its blessings and its curses. If I continue to exercise, as I do most days, eat my fruits and vegetables, and rest adequately, I may live even longer than those 87 years in relative good health. That is a potential blessing. However, financial insecurity, unexpected illness, or loss of my partner are potential liabilities.
More than a third of those over 65 live alone, and almost half of those over 85 live alone. Studies in both Britain and the U.S. show that loneliness among those over 60 ranges from 10-46%. Women, but more often men, may not seek help for loneliness or other issues of aging and may not know how or who to ask to increase social connection, knowledge of resources, and life satisfaction.
Navigating our older years is increasingly complex for even the healthiest and best educated. While there are many more choices for us--for use of our time, expenditure of our income, and continuing education options--these options can feel like a burden as much as a pleasure. How do we navigate these years and squeeze the most usefulness, challenge and service, as well as joy and fun out of them?