We're all getting older, but some are getting better

Middle and old age can bring both joy and despair. A new Hebrew book explores the possibilities.

dina shayevitz (photo credit: Courtesy)
dina shayevitz
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Everyone yearns for a long life, "till 120 years." But when the afternoon of one's life arrives (if one is lucky), a person is likely to be stricken by worry, anxiety, confusion and sorrow about what middle and old age will bring. Most young couples take childbirth lessons when the woman is pregnant; delivery takes only a few hours. Some take parenting courses after their children are born, even though active parenting lasts around 20 years for each. The years nearing and after retirement can extend for 20, 30 or even 40 years, but very few prepare for "the second half of life." Dr. Dina Shayevitz, an expert in gerontology who earned her doctorate in social work at Bar-Ilan University, has done a public service by writing a new Hebrew-language guide on this subject. Called Lehitbager Bitvuna: Hachana Optimalit Likrat Hamachtzit Hashniya Shel Hayeinu (Growing Old with Wisdom: Optimal Preparation Toward the Second Half of Our Lives), the 248-page, NIS 78 paperback is published by Orion Books in Holon (www.orion-books.co.il). It should interest the large number of middle-aged and elderly people, their children and even grandchildren, as well as psychologists, social workers, gerontologists and caregivers. The author, a young-looking grandmother who has for over 25 years counselled and held workshops for older people and their families and developed teaching programs for their caregivers, compiled the book from her personal encounters. A CENTURY AGO in the Western world, the average person died by the age of 45. Living "till 120" was only a dream, but it seems almost achievable today. Even the next two generations after 1900 could not expect to live to pension age, and their children did not have a role model on how to spend their post-pension years. Shayevitz stresses that everyone has the power to decide how to live his or her older years and how to cope with various situations even if one can't always control the fact that they occur. "Taking responsibility for their implications helps us acquire tools for preserving the quality of our lives, and sets down the foundation stones for this quality of life at this time in life," she writes. Among the subjects she tackles in the 17 chapters are coping with physical changes of middle- and old age, retirement, relationships with elderly parents and adult children, becoming grandparents, the loss of a spouse, building a new relationship and sexuality in old age. "I want to have a long life, but not to get old," says Ruti, a participant in one of Shayevitz's workshops. "But this is not realistic," counters Yitzhak. "Whoever lives many years ages at the end." "But it depends how," insists Ruti. "Today I am 60, and I feel well, am active and healthy, but who can promise me that I'll feel this way at 75 or 80?" "My father is 83, usually feels well, runs his life at ease, and we all enjoy him. I wish myself a long life like his," says Yossi, another workshop participant. "It's a matter of luck," concludes Esther, Ruti's friend. "My two elderly neighbors are very ill, and one of them is lonely without children. I wouldn't want to be in their situation." Shayevitz tells them that in fact, 85 percent of pension-age people age normatively; most do not suffer from serious diseases and function independently. The later years, according to the late Prof. Shimon Bergman, the author's mentor, "are a deep personal experience that more and more people will live through. Only few attained it in the past, and only few will not attain it in the future." The psychological element is very important in coping with the pace of ageing, Shayevitz continues. There are people who went through identical physical processes or life events, but some coped with them better than others. One might hide the fact that his hearing has declined and hide at home, while another buys a hearing aid and has a wonderful time. Our thoughts and feelings about our life events, she says, influence our way of coping more than the events themselves. THE AUTHOR notes that at her own 55th birthday party, her husband Uri and three adult children aged 21 to 28 celebrated with her. "I have lived half my life. It's frightening how fast life passes. While my children need me less than in the past - and it was very hard for me to get used to that - there are still many things I want to do... What thoughts rise in my head. I force myself to continue to smile at my guests and hide my stomach turning over." Many people her age use such a birthday to take an account of their lives and decide if they want to seek something new. When the last grown child flies from the nest, the feelings of change are even more intense. But, she adds, "I know that the parental role does not end when children leave the house but takes on a different character and different stresses. We learn to deal with them as one adult to another. They don't require us to worry about their daily needs, but we feel they still need our presence in their lives for support and direction." As the home empties, couples decide to spend a lot of time together and little alone; a lot separately and little together or an equal amount of both. If children were the only glue holding them together, it means trouble, says Shayevitz. A third of all divorces in Israel involve couples 45 and above. The "sandwich generation" of adults who have both young adult children and ageing parents are often the most stressed. Many - especially middle-aged women - feel torn and guilty when their ageing parents demand attention at a time when they finally have some time to pay attention to their own needs. One of the most exciting moments in life is first becoming a grandparent, she says, as one notes the miracle of the baby without having any formal responsibility for it. It may be not only from evidence of continuity of the generations but also from the realization that "we are still able to connect so easily to the soft and innocent parts inside us and our ability to feel young and to enthuse over the beginning of life," Shayevich suggests. But there are several "styles" of grandparenting. There is Rahel, 62, who spends time with her grandchildren twice a week playing with and enjoying them. In her "enjoyment style," Rahel does not have to worry that she is spoiling them too much and will steal the educational role of their parents if she does not take their place. Grandparents can serve as a "storehouse of wisdom" that their adult children haven't the time or experience to supply. The "distant-style" grandparent who is not regularly involved - either because the grandchildren or their parents are not interested - is a sad alternative if the grandparent feels left out. Then there is the parent-replacement grandparent who is a caregiver for many hours a week; this often occurs when a working single mother has no alternative but to get help. This can introduce a lot of confusion into a child's mind, and it should not be allowed to call a grandmother "Ima." The "formal style" means that grandparents are involved to a certain extent and are very happy to be with the grandchildren, but also happy when they go home. The most recently developed type of grandparenting is the "modern style," in which young grandparents look and behave young and fit, work and enjoy an active life but also play with grandchildren as if they were children themselves. Instead of preparing meals for them and being a baby sitter, they take them out for a good time. Finally, there is the "chronic grandparent" who suffers from serious illness and is "not the way the used to be" - unable to enjoy an active relationship with their grandchildren. IN THE NEXT chapter, the author stresses that concluding one's working life does not mean the end of life. She describes a woman who brings her husband in for consultation. He has worked as a factory sub-manager for most of his life, and at 65 has been put on pension. He is angry at his former employer and grumbles at his wife. It turns out that his own father died young, leaving him to help his mother take care of his young siblings until the factory director became like a father to him. Forced out of his job, he feels abandoned. But cognitive therapy, Shayevitz says, can help. Pensioners can be helped to develop a new self image, not one of ending a fruitful career but of finding new interests. Healthful nutrition and physical activity can help, and it is "never to late" to start, she writes. Even if debilitating chronic illness limits an elderly person's abilities to enjoy life - making his or her body "a cage with a young soul and an active mind caught inside" - they can still be treated like worthy human beings. "Look at me and not just at my body," urges the author on behalf of such people in chapter 11. A spouse's death is one of the most devastating periods in old age. When the survivor's health is not so good, he or she becomes even more dependent on the children. However, as time passes, many widows/widowers can gradually regain a taste for living, fight loneliness and regain functioning. The author tells the stories of such people who fell in love again and even developed a sexual relationship. Adult children are likely to be upset, viewing the newcomer as a "replacement" for their deceased parent, or as a competing heir. Yet, discussions and legal arrangements can resolve even these problems. Shayevitz ends the volume appropriately with the "Serenity Prayer" written by the late Protestant American theologian Rheinhold Niebuhr: God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.