Aging, Confidence, and Beliefs

Bette Davis said it best:  Old Age is not for sissies. As if Alzheimer’s , diabetes, and cancer were not three of the worst specters of elderhood, it turns out aging human beings lose confidence in their abilities to perform tasks they are actually good at.  This last aging challenge deserves time and attention, because a lack of confidence can limit our joy in life.  Once we’re aware of confidence erosion, however, we can reframe this issue as an invitation to explore how negative beliefs may be impacting our view of who we are and what we can do.

Ellen Langer, among the first researchers into aging , performance, and beliefs, documented her findings in Counterclockwise.  Her study invited older men to live on a campus that effectively turned back the clock, saturating elder participants with the sensory experiences of decades earlier.  Music, news, and commercials revivified the men’s memories of much earlier times when they were younger and stronger. At the end of this experiment, men who’d shuffled off buses and asked others to carry their luggage did their own carrying, and walked tall while doing so.  Their transformations were undeniable.

Being immersed in the experiences of times when we were younger has the effect of a confidence transfusion.  How long this experience of remembering a time when we were younger lasts is specific to individuals, but the opportunity to examine beliefs about who we are as we age is universal and constant.  When my sister, now eighty-two, has been playing her Elvis music before she calls me, I hear it in her voice.  She was a teen when rock and roll took hold of her generation, and that long-ago girl dances whenever she plays her oldies but goodies soundtrack.  After her dancing sessions, her voice is stronger, her mood more buoyant, her expectations more in line with reality than with a terrifyingly depressing future full of accidents and helplessness.

A more recent Harvard study explored the role of beliefs and their power to influence confidence in our agency.  In this study, older drivers were divided into two groups, then inundated with  either positive or negative ageist messages. Predictably, those receiving negative messages lost confidence in their driving abilities even though their skills proved they were good drivers.  These studies on aging, confidence, and beliefs indicate that if we believe aging is a negative experience, then this belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In “What is Ageism and How does it Effect Mental Health?” reviewers explore three specific sources of ageist beliefs: institutions, interpersonal relationships, and internalized messages.  Although these three sources profoundly shape how we feel about aging, their influence is mostly unconscious.  From the superficial thoughts about how we look compared to when we were younger to the deeper beliefs that we can’t return to school, fall in love, write a book, or volunteer for some worthwhile organization, we live with the confidence eroding winds of ageism every moment of every day.

How to remedy the negative impact of ageist messages on our confidence?

Awareness is key.  Create a journal ledger to keep track of comparisons.  On one side of the page begin a list of sources (institutional, interpersonal, and internalized) that present older citizens as sick and/or helpless; on the other, list your personal experiences of elder wisdon, creative problem solving, and zest for living.  This list can include your personal friends and family members, public figures like politians and entertainers, and fictional characters such as Edna in Under the Moon, Gandolf in Lord of the Rings. Tinnie in The Kinder Sadist, and Merlin in the King Arthur legends.

After you’ve listed your elders’ strengths and signs of resourcefulness, begin a list of your own skills and abilities, starring those in which you feel less confident than at earlier times in your life.  (Take the pandemic into account when cataloguing your confidence losses.  During our two years of lockdown, everyone’s confidence suffered, and this diminishment effected our ease in leaving our cocoons once restrictions were lifted.)

Once identified, take your list of skills and strengths to the bathroom, lock the door, and stand with your hands on your hips, Wonder Woman style.  In this pose, say the words, “I am confident in my ability to . . . (name a specific skill or goal).”  Smile as you speak the words, and look yourself in the eye.  Feel your confidence as a growing sense of agency and clarity of  purpose.  Do this everyday for several weeks, noting in your journal your changes in beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours.

As Yogi Berra reminded basebal fans in 1973:  “It ain’t over till its over.”

This is true for elders who feel useless and depressed because of ageist toxicity.  Refuting toxic messages is the best way to restore confidence, in ourselves and in the general wisdom and joy that is more and more available to us as we age.  These qualities make life worth living, with confidence, regardles of our numerical age and our perceived and actual challenges.

Until next time,