A journey into a positive approach towards ageing

Guy Robertson

As one of the boomer generation I was determined to ‘do ageing’ differently from my parents. I struggled at first to find that new approach but got there in the end. My journey might be of use to others.

Several years ago I experienced sudden Kidney failure and ended up with an emergency admission to hospital and within 24hrs had become a dialysis patient.  One of the things I observed very powerfully was that there were two kinds of kidney patients.  There were those who had given in to their illness; they had become dominated by it and had ended up very negative about their lives.  Alternatively there was another group, equally ill, who chose to focus on the positive aspects of life, and who made the most of what abilities they had and what aspects of life that they could still engage with.  This group maintained a sense of wellbeing and positivity in the face of quite challenging circumstances.  I knew instinctively which group I wanted to join!  My experience illustrated the old saying that - “It’s not what happens to you in life, but how you respond to it, which determines your happiness.”  I quickly realised that this is an essential mindset for approaching ageing in a positive way.

Shortly afterwards I came across research by Becca Levy (Professor of Public Health at Yale School of Medicine) which found that people who have more positive attitudes about ageing live on average 7.5yrs longer than those who feel more negative about ageing ( click here for the full details of the research ). That is a much bigger effect on longevity than the impact of major healthy lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking, our reducing cholesterol levels!  It was a very powerful indication to me of the power of the mind in affecting our health and wellbeing as we age.  

Then I read Marie de Hennezel’s book with the wonderful title, The Warmth of the Heart Prevents your Body from Rusting.  One of her pearls of wisdom was that growing old is something that one needs to work at; there is a job to be done to improve our experience of our own ageing process, and part of that job is to develop a more positive attitude towards ageing. The notion that we can have more control over our ageing process than we might otherwise think, was a revolutionary idea which helped crystalise my thinking on ‘how to do ageing differently’.

These and other influences have helped me to see that, whilst we can’t prevent the ageing process, we can decide not to inhabit an identity which conforms to ageist stereotypes of ‘being old’. We can reject the self-limiting attitudes which narrow rather than broaden our options as we age. Ageing is something I now view very positively. There are huge challenges, but also great possibilities by developing our attitudes to ageing in this way.

Over the years I have developed a framework for personal development in later life which can help people to develop a more positive approach to ageing. It incorporates the philosophies and techniques from Mindfulness, Positive Psychology and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Having successfully run many group coaching workshops using this framework to help people to negotiate the major transitions in later life (i.e. retirement, becoming a carer, long term illness and bereavement), I know it is accessible, practical and hugely welcomed and endorsed by those who have participated. I have now codified this learning into my new book – The Ten Steps of Positive Ageing.

Concentrating on the psychological and emotional aspects of ageing, and employing a range of personal development techniques, my book provides people with the keys to a happier and more fulfilled later life. It has been designed to open up the possibility of a radically different approach to ageing. The traditional approach tends to be passive, fatalistic and rather downbeat. This new positive approach is very different. Firstly, it challenges and debunks the negative and frankly discriminatory attitudes which contaminate most people’s outlook on getting older. It then paints a compelling road map for exerting more control over the ageing process. This is no aspirational or Pollyanna type fantasy: the ten step prescription is based on solid research from the fields of humanistic psychology and gerontology.

“Ageing is inevitable; getting ‘ old ’ is optional.” This statement encapsulates a key idea within the concept of positive ageing. We patently can’t prevent or delay the ageing process. But we don’t have to inhabit an identity which conforms to ageist stereotypes of ‘being old’. We need to resist such stereotypes because they do two things. First, they tend to impose a sort of ‘self-censorship’ which limits our aspirations and curtails some of the activities or pleasures that we would otherwise experience. They foster self-limiting beliefs, which cause us to narrow rather than broaden our options. Second, ideas around ‘being old’ actively trigger and perpetuate a range of negative self-fulfilling prophecies. It is so important to constantly guard against negative self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe that you are going to feel worse as you age, then you can almost guarantee that you will experience that negative outcome.

Ageing positively won’t be all sweetness and light, but neither will it be all doom and gloom. The ‘positive’ in ageing positively refers to facing up to life, being proactive with our lives, making the most of it, and seeing the glass as half-full (whilst recognising that there is a shadow side as well). We need to challenge the notion that the only good way to age, is not to! So, celebrate your next birthday. Be proud of whatever age you are. Accept that it will all come to an end at some point, but that, until it does, you will treat each day as a precious gift and make the most of it in any way that feels right for you.

Guy Robertson lives in Bristol UK and is a life coach and author of a new handbook for personal change in later life - The Ten Steps of Positive Ageing is avilable from Amazon here.


Guy
About the Author

Guy Robertson has worked in numerous roles within the field of ageing for over a quarter of a century and is a passionate proponent of the need to develop more positive approaches to ageing. A major feature of his later work has been to examine the psychological and emotional aspects of ageing, and to press for these dimensions of older people’s lives to be given more prominence in both policy and practice. He is a bereavement counsellor and life coach; is married, has two grown-up children, and divides his time between Bristol and Cornwall.

For further information about Guy Robertson and his work:

  • Positive Ageing: new approaches to later life: positiveageing.org.uk
  • Positive Ageing Coaching: resources for personal change in later life: positiveageingcoaching.com
  • Follow Guy on Twitter @PositiveAgeing1

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