As people age, they accumulate memories. While memories can be wonderful, they can also be a trap. As seniors become less active, they may find that they are spending much of their time thinking about the past. Living in the present can be a challenge at any age, but a focus on the present is usually essential to mental and physical health.
Present events can shape (or reshape) a life with just as much force as past events. The aging protagonist in Stephanie Gangi’s novel Carry the Dog as an “aha moment” as she struggles to set aside the burdens of her past. “Age is not just a number,” she says. “I’m all my ages.”
Remembering the Past
There is a difference between remembering the past and living in the past. Memories are part of who we are. Memories can contribute to an emotionally fulfilling life. Mental health professionals use reminiscence therapy to help older people overcome depression and build self-esteem. Memories instill comfort and a sense of fulfillment as seniors look back at their lives. Communicating those memories helps seniors stay connected to the present through socialization and bonding.
While memories are part of who we are, there is a danger in focusing our lives on who we were. Psychologists suggest that older people might “slip happily into reminiscence” when they are dissatisfied with their current lives. Living completely in the past and ignoring the present may be a defense mechanism when older people begin to feel less valued. Older people can call upon memories of a time when they felt vital to avoid the feeling of marginalization that might result from physical limitations and declining activity.
Living in the Present
Reminding older friends and relatives that we are “all our ages” is a key to helping them feel connected to the present. Grandchildren might tire of hearing their grandparent tell the same old stories again and again, but the remedy is not to ignore the stories. Rather, younger people can help their older relatives refocus their perspective by asking questions that tie the stories to the present.
Asking a grandmother to compare the world she experienced when she was young to the world she sees today can create a bridge that will help the grandmother join the past to the present. Asking a grandfather about the lessons he learned from his stories can show the grandfather that his experience is valued. Asking for advice helps older people feel relevant to the present.
Younger relatives can tell stories of their own that share common themes. A grandparent’s story about going on a first date could be matched with the grandchild’s first date story. Finding common interests — food, books, pets — can help the older person remember that they still enjoy the things that have always given them pleasure.
When an older person’s activity level permits, engaging that person in present events might help alleviate the boredom that causes them to dwell in the past. If a grandmother repeats stories about dancing, find a place for her to dance. If a grandfather repeats stories about playing baseball, take him to a baseball game.
When seniors have mobility issues, in-person and on-line visits can keep them engaged. Helping seniors learn to use technologies that didn’t exist when they were young can encourage a connection to the present. One study found that the use of technology in older populations is “associated with better self-rated health, fewer chronic illnesses, higher subjective well-being, and fewer depressive symptoms.”
The concept that we are “all are ages” should make younger people think twice about rolling their eyes when an older person repeats a story they’ve heard before. Memories of younger ages are an important part of identity. At the same time, friends and relatives of all ages can help older people realize that who they are today is just as important as who they were at a younger age. Living in the present does not mean abandoning the past. Connecting the past to the present is the key to an emotionally healthy and satisfying life as people age.