“Mrs. W., what are you smiling about?” I had entered her room quietly and caught her in a private reverie. She turned her face toward me and her smile broadened. “Oh,” she replied softly, “I’m just counting my blessings.” I was overwhelmed with shame. Earlier I had been grousing about some trivial issue and here was a woman whose world had been reduced to her bed yet she was still able to find joy in life. I chastised myself with the thought that if I ever complained about anything again I deserved to be zapped with lightning on the spot.
I met Mrs. W. five years earlier while doing an internship to complete my master’s degree in gerontology. I had been assigned to spend two days each week in an independent living facility where I interacted with residents and offered counseling when needed. Mrs. W. was the first resident I met and she quickly became my favorite. I found myself seeking her out and soon realized she had much more to offer me than vice versa. I was captivated by her colorful stories and impressed by her zest for life despite the many hardships she had endured.
Being a happy person does not mean mimicking Pollyanna. It means choosing to focus on what’s good in our lives rather than what’s bad. Studies such as The Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement, which followed more than 600 people over 23 years, and the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging which followed more than 1,000 people for 38 years, found a number of advantages among people who held a positive view of aging. Academic research is sometimes described as proving what everyone already knows in the first place but you may be surprised by what they found.
8 Benefits of a Positive Attitude about Aging
People who continue to feel useful and happy live longer—an average of 7.5 years.
2. Better memory
Participants who held more negative attitudes about aging had a 30.2% greater decline in memory performance than participants with positive attitudes. Bottom line: Expecting memory decline can actually contribute to memory loss.
3. Better health
Negative beliefs about aging such as the inevitability of physical decline and disease can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if people throw in the towel on their health. In contrast, people with positive attitudes are more likely to engage in health-promoting habits such as eating well, exercising, having regular check-ups and taking medications appropriately.
4. Longer independence
I think we may fear losing our independence more than we fear dying, particularly in the American culture where individuality is so highly valued. Study results showed those with a positive perception of aging had a greater ability to carry out daily activities regardless of their physical health at the start of the study.
These benefits I learned from my friend, Mrs. W:
5. Higher self esteem
Feeling engaged and useful leads to a sense of purpose. Mrs. W. liked to bestow small handmade gifts —bookmarks or coasters—because she loved giving. I still have the ones she made for me.
6. More positive impact on others
Mrs. W. was a gifted storyteller and a wise counselor. Sometimes she had advice to share and other times she just listened. Everyone was enriched after spending time with her.
7. Enhanced social life
Mrs. W. was widowed when she was still a young woman and had also lost her only son but she had a wide circle of friends. I often found other visitors in her room when I arrived and sometimes had to return multiple times to find her unoccupied.
8. Increased happiness
Mrs. W. radiated peace and happiness and that drew us all to her like moths to a flame. Even when she was quite debilitated I never heard her complain.
The facility where I worked was divided into two parts, the independent residence and a nursing home. The independent residents lived in dread of the one-way move to the other side. They spoke of it in whispers and did not refer to it by any other name but that—“the other side.” Ultimately Mrs. W. was forced to move to the other side where I continued to visit her long after the internship was over because like everyone else, I loved her. In the five years I knew her she ran out of money and she ran out of health but she never ran out of spirit.
Still missing you, my friend.
Is there someone who has been a positive role model for your aging?
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