The ageing process can be difficult and upsetting and every stage, from adolescence to extreme old age, brings its own stresses and strains. Yet, while the physical effects of ageing are openly discussed, the psychological effects tend to be ignored. But those dreaded milestone birthdays can trigger all sorts of psychological problems. Throughout their lives, people are obliged to stand grinning inanely as family and friends unveil a banner or bring in a cake with the hated number garishly displayed. If you have ever forced a smile as you opened yet another card with ’40’ or ’60’ on the front, you are not alone!
The End of Childhood
There is a nasty, even spiteful, tendency to ridicule the unhappiness of young people. Indeed, the same people who empathize with a depressed adult will often dismiss a depressed, self-harming teen as melodramatic and attention-seeking. But the transition from child to teenager is no joke, and plenty of young people dread their 13th birthday just as much as their parents may dread their 40th or 50th. This refusal to acknowledge mental illness among young people often stems from simple jealousy: adults envy their beauty and energy and assume that, just because they needn’t pay a mortgage or care for ageing parents, they are carefree and lucky.
The statistics reveal a different story. Research by the UK-based charity ‘Young Minds’, for example, found that one in four teens had had suicidal thoughts and, most shocking of all, 59% had researched suicide online. They also found a 70% increase in rates of depression since the mid-1980s. Girls seem to suffer most, with 20% of 15-year-olds saying that they frequently felt depressed and anxious.
The explanations for this vary. Teenagers suddenly start to ask themselves hard questions: am I attractive? Am I liked? Am I part of the in-group? Am I clever? What am I going to do with my life? The idea that young people are “lucky” and “carefree” is absurd. In fact, they often feel under tremendous pressure to fit in, get good grades, have sex, choose a career, and so on. Then of course there is the added stress of social media. Adults do not help by telling them to make the most of this period because “these are the best years of your life,” or, worst of all, “it’s all downhill from here.”
The Midlife Crisis
At a certain point, usually around 40, the individual must accept that they are no longer young. Few stages of life attract so much ridicule as middle age – so much so that almost no one would dare say “I am going through a midlife crisis.” Indeed, if they did say it to their family or friends, they would almost certainly be mocked and ridiculed.
But the midlife crisis can be just that – a crisis. The individual must not only face thinning hair, aching joints, and sagging muscles. An emotional and psychological storm can be raging beneath the gloomy exterior. In essence, the middle-aged are having to face the unpleasant fact that their youth is over, that life is not something ahead of them but largely decided. Many will say “I have chosen my life partner, had my children, settled into the family home – there is nothing left to strive for, nothing left to aim for. I feel like I’m treading water.”
Thanks to medical advances, the point at which middle-age gives way to old age keeps rising. In Austria, for example, old age now officially starts at 75, and if researchers like Aubrey de Grey are correct, this entry point may soon rise to 100 and beyond. Nevertheless, old age still brings problems.
The causes of depression in old age are of course different. One of the advantages of ageing is that, unlike in adolescence, people care less and less whether they fit in or whether other people like them. However, many find the indignities of old age, from incontinence to hearing loss, utterly humiliating. Others resent the loss of independence and hate relying on family and neighbors. Loneliness is another major cause of depression among the elderly, as is the death of siblings and old friends. Some feel like a burden, or that they no longer have a purpose or direction.
Given such worries, the statistics are hardly surprising. According to the website ‘Mental Health America’, depression is so common among the over-65s that 58% of those surveyed replied that they thought it was “normal” to feel that way after retirement. That possibly explains why the majority also said they would not bother to seek treatment if they experienced depression, and why only 38% thought of depression as an illness.
No matter what stage of the ageing process someone may have reached, if they are to avoid depression it is crucial to embrace change; the more you resist, the more you will suffer. Every stage of life has its advantages. Even extreme old age has its bonuses: you care less what others think of you, for example, and are less likely to be bothered by life’s trivial problems.
Living in the moment is key. Oscar Wilde once remarked that the young have hope, the old have memories. But in truth most people, no matter what their age, spend a huge percentage of their lives thinking about the past or worrying about the future. The old in particular should be wary of nostalgia. The more you believe that everything was better in the past, the more cynical and negative you will feel about life in the present. Embrace change and embrace the good things about modern life. The world may have moved at a calmer pace and been less overcrowded when you were young, but it was also dirtier, poorer and more brutal. Focus instead on the good: the medical breakthroughs, the internet, the exploration of space, and so on – be grateful to live at such an exciting moment in history.
It is also very important to be your own person and not allow others to influence you. Never forget that people age at different speeds. It may be a cliché, but age really is just a number. If your 70-year-old friend assures you that once you reach his age you will have no energy and will ache all over, consider whether that is true of everyone. Perhaps he feels that way because he has not taken care of himself and continues to eat junk food and drink too much beer!
Above all, live your life as you see fit – not as society expects. The mind is a powerful thing; if you start believing that at 50 the libido drops, or that at 80 you are bound to have a fall, do not be surprised if that is what happens! People talk themselves out of doing the things they love. Instead, keep going until you know that you have reached your limit. If you walk to the local shop to buy your morning paper, do not think “now I have turned 85 I’d better have it delivered.” Can you walk there? Is it safe? Do you enjoy your morning stroll? If the answer is yes, keep going. Be an individual, live in the moment, and embrace the good, whatever stage of life you may have reached.