Getting motivated can be difficult at any age (just ask the parents of a sulky teenager who won’t get out of bed!), but it is especially hard when you are old. Elderly people often feel that their time is over, that they are just treading water, even that they are a burden. When you add aching joints and fading energy, not to mention the depression and insomnia that so often afflicts old people, it is hardly surprising that they find it so hard.
One can hardly blame an elderly person for struggling to get motivated. For a start, motivation demands physical fitness and energy, the very things old age deprives you of. Of course, physical decline is experienced in different ways. To someone who enjoyed an active, sporty life, the creaking knees and loss of energy may come as a terrible blow. To an introvert, who loves books and dislikes sport, it may be less noticeable. In any case, as soon as someone feels they ought to do x or y, or that they need a new purpose, the loss of energy drags them down and holds them back.
Then there is the psychological impact of ageing. People often struggle to accept their fading looks. A once beautiful woman, for example, may be so distraught by her thinning hair and sagging face that she sees no point in taking up some new activity or meeting new people. Indeed, some elderly people are so upset by their changed appearance that they feel too ashamed or too embarrassed to socialize.
Another problem is the fixed view people have of life. First, you are young and beautiful. You leave school and build a career. Then you form a serious, committed relationship and raise children. Once your children no longer need you and you have retired, what’s the point? Obviously, that is a crude and simplistic summary, but many really do see life in this way.
And this isn’t helped by other people’s attitudes, although cultures vary a great deal. In some societies, the elderly are revered and the family quite literally falls silent when the grandfather or grandmother speaks. Indeed, there is even a difference between Mediterranean and Northern European people, with the latter often impressed by how respectfully the old are treated by the former.
Contempt for the elderly has always existed of course, but the post-war “invention of the teenager” and birth of youth culture intensified this. As the British journalist Peter Oborne remarked in a documentary about the 1960s, “the ’60s invented the idea that young people are interesting, which they are actually not.”
Of course, Oborne was being slightly facetious. His point was that the ’60s created the cult of youth. Young people had larger incomes than ever before, and there were more of them. Advertisers and entertainers thus began to target them (even today, though we have an ageing population, it is often remarked how few good dramas or comedies seem to be aimed at the older generation).
And it became cool not only to celebrate youth but to denigrate the old (think of The Who song “My Generation,” with its famous lines “things you [meaning the old] do seem awful cold/ I hope I die before I get old”). And since the ‘baby boomers’ spent their youth ridiculing and rebelling against the old, they are now more inclined to despise themselves.
First, and most obviously, you must take care of your physical health. As you age, there is a danger of becoming trapped in a downward spiral. First, the individual feels flat and low. To escape these feelings, he comforts himself with junk food. Thus he puts on weight, feels even more ashamed of his appearance, as well as more tired and sluggish, and is thus even less inclined to leave the house and socialize.
The poor eating habits and lack of exercise also drag his mood down still further. Because he is overweight, he also develops various physical illnesses, making him less mobile and more depressed, and so he eats more chocolate and cakes, and so on.
The more care you take of your body, the better you will look and the better you will feel about yourself. You will also have more energy. So watch everything that goes in your mouth. And get moving.
Inflammation plays a major role in illness and disability in later life. It is thought to play a role, for example, in cancer, dementia, and even depression. But you can reduce this through a raw, plant-based diet combined with supplements like turmeric and fish oil. And minimize sugar consumption as well.
Staying Engaged With the World
The key is to remain interested in the world, and to feel that you still contribute in some way. In other words, you need to feel involved, to feel that your existence or presence makes a difference. Though it may sound a little mawkish, sending money to a charity, comforting a bereaved neighbor, or simply smiling at a waiter and saying thank you, makes that difference. You are never too old to do some good in the world.
The elderly also underestimate how much the young like them. Observe the average family, for example, and you may notice that the sulky teenage girl seems quite different when she is with her grandmother. Teenagers often enjoy a closer, happier and less troubled relationship with their grandparents than with their parents. Indeed, the young often view a kind, good-humored old person more favorably than the generation immediately above them.
If you struggle to connect with the young, ask yourself why. Don’t just dismiss them as insolent, or accuse them of not showing the sort of respect you were brought up to show. You earn respect. Maybe they sense that you don’t like them, or that you feel entitled to their affection. That’s not how it works. Be interested in them. Ask them what they think and listen to their reply. If you do not understand some aspect of modern life, ask for their guidance or advice. Above all, don’t patronize them.
Some old people constantly criticise the young and assure them that their generation is selfish, spoilt and privileged; then they complain that the young are rude and unfriendly! What do they expect? Treat the young with curiosity and respect and you may be surprised by their reaction. The elderly often grow bitter and complain that the young are arrogant and unwilling to be guided or advised. But no teenager is going to sit patiently at your feet while you drone on about the past.
It is also important to remain interested in the world. When people retire, some no longer feel entitled to an opinion on anything, since they no longer work or pay tax. But the elderly still have an enormous amount to contribute. After all, who else has their experience? So buy a good-quality newspaper every day and read it from cover to cover. Even if current affairs bore you, at least make an effort to watch the evening news.
And maintain an interest in technology and scientific progress as well. Indeed, this is an excellent way to bond with the younger generation, who may be only too pleased to show you how the latest gadgets work. Again, don’t become rigid and fixed. It is important to keep your mind open, adaptable and receptive. Avoid turning into one of those tedious old grumps who constantly assure the younger generation that everything was better when they were young. It wasn’t.
Finding a New Purpose
A major problem in life, one we all share, is clinging too long to outdated ways of thinking and behaving. Many people hate ageing and find the whole process traumatic. And when human beings cannot bear something, they escape into denial. Everyone has seen a 40-something in a trendy nightclub, trying to convince themselves they are still young. Of course, that does not mean you have to “act your age.” It simply means you must update. And you can do this in your own way.
For example, someone sets up their own car repair business. It is a success, and he moves to a larger work shop and hires extra staff. His son follows him into the business and, when he reaches 70, the father retires and hands the business over to him. But the father won’t go away. Instead, he hangs around the garage chatting to customers and correcting or criticizing his son’s decisions. When someone suggests he leave his son alone, he replies bitterly “I’m not ready for the grave yet!”
But no one suggested anything of the sort. The point is to find something else – a new purpose. And these new goals can range from the big to the small. If you really struggle with motivation, start very small indeed. In Okinawa, for example, the elderly are encouraged to choose an “Ikigai” for the day, meaning a purpose or goal. This could be something as trivial as phoning a friend or cleaning the windows.
Above all, avoid self-pity. The more you wallow in self-pity, the harder you will find it to get motivated. No one owes you anything.