Growing Old – Life’s Most Difficult Challenge – Part II


Perspective is everything. It determines how you view the world and the life you are living. Anyone from the United States who has traveled to a third world country will immediately understand what I’m saying. It gives you a whole new appreciation for the blessings we enjoy in this country.

Dr. Atul Gawande, a Harvard general surgeon, discusses the importance of perspective in his book Being Mortal. Gawande tells us of important research by Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen. She studied the emotional experiences of nearly two hundred people over many years of their lives. The subjects ranged in age from 18 to 94 when they entered the study.

Before her study, the assumption was made by others that the narrowing of life runs against people’s greatest sources of fulfillment and therefore you would expect people to grow unhappier as they aged. But Carstensen’s research found the opposite.

This raised another question. If we shift as we age toward appreciating everyday pleasures and relationships rather than toward achieving, having, and getting, and if we find this more fulfilling, then why do we take so long to do it? Is this just a learned behavior that comes with age?

A personal experience changed Carstensen’s perspective on this crucial question. She was nearly killed in a car accident when she was only twenty-one. Riding in a VW minibus with friends, the drunk driver rolled the vehicle over an embankment. She suffered severe head injuries and internal bleeding and barely survived.

She spent a long time in rehabilitation, surrounded mostly by elderly patients. The road to recovery included studying psychology by listening to audiotapes brought to her by her father. She quickly realized she was living the phenomena she was studying. She decided to make studying the elderly her life’s work.

Fifteen years later she developed a new hypothesis to test: How we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have.

This brings us back to the word perspective. If you’re young and healthy you have a perspective that there are no limits to what you can do. If you’re old and sick you have an entirely different perspective. This determines your outlook and your priorities.

Carstensen’s hypothesis has stood up under testing. In general, the younger the subjects were, the less they valued time with people they were emotionally close to and the more they valued time with people who were potential sources of information or new friendship. However, among the ill, the age differences disappeared. The preferences of a young person with AIDS were the same as those of an old person.

When your perspective says “the sky is the limit”, you’re willing to delay gratification, invest years in gaining skills or knowledge, to plan for a brighter future. When your horizons contract – when the future is finite and uncertain – then your focus shifts to the here and now. Everyday pleasures and people closest to you become your priority. These findings held up across cultural and racial differences.

When you understand the dynamic of perspective then you are better able to determine the best way to spend your declining years. You better prioritize your time and better appreciate your blessings. Sounds like a good idea at any time in life.

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