Am I getting old or getting older?
Dirty Harry and a country western singer—an unlikely alliance
Stephen H. Hamel, Ph.D., ABPP
Board Certified Clinical Psychologist
Who would have thought that “Dirty Harry” (Clint Eastwood’s famous movie character) would be an inspiration to me and the way I viewed the aging process. So what does “Dirty Harry” actually have to do with aging? It begins with Clint Eastwood, along with Toby Keith, a country western singer, who crossed paths at Eastwood’s California Charity Golf Tournament at Pebble Beach in 2018. Their interactions on the putting green gave some brilliant insight into just this topic.
The background of this story finds Clint Eastwood paired with Toby Keith at this charity golf tournament. Of course they chatted during the 18 holes. Clint Eastwood is now 93 years old, but at the tournament he was two days shy of his 88th birthday and two days before he began work on his film, “The Mule.” Incidentally, he not only starred in this film but also directed it, at 88 years old!
Toby Keith (57 years old at that time) was extremely impressed by Clint’s energy and fortitude. Toby seemed to hold the notion that 88 year-old-people were retired and basically led sedentary existences. Toby asked Clint a personal question: “how do you keep going!” Actually it was a ballsy question from my perspective but it did not faze Clint. He thought for a moment and said: “I get up in the morning…and I don’t let the old man in!” What a powerful statement! It was just this simple statement that impressed me immediately, had profound impact and therefore required serious reflection.
Toby, also, inspired upon hearing this and was reminded of an anecdote shared by his grandmother about her 65-year-old friend who did not have a birth certificate and consequently did not actually know her true age. Toby wrote a song with an interesting refrain (which incidentally was recorded and included at the end of Clint Eastwood’s movie, The Mule).
“Many moons I have lived/
My body’s withered and worn/
Ask yourself how old would you be if you didn’t know the day you were born”
Mark Twain once said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter-if you don’t mind it, it doesn’t matter.”
Being called grandpa or granddad initially sent a shiver up my spine as I have associated aging developmental roles with quite negative images. I needed to be more careful in thinking all this because otherwise I may prematurely act like an old man and be probably treated as such; an old man in need of assistance and unable to be self-powered. I can’t go to the other extreme, however, and deny my advancing age, looking for fistfights to prove my youthfulness.
We all know that aging is an inevitable process for all living things and that we do not all age the same way. Our reactions to aging actually vary with the individual. While dining with some of my retired friends the other evening, I experienced a “eureka moment”—that is, a startling awareness that my friends’ conversations centered around their aches and pains, the various medications they were taking (along with the horrible side effects) and complaints about their inability to do the things that they could do years ago. These friends spend hours going from doctor to doctor consuming fistfuls of medications, therefore leaving little time for hobbies and learning new skills. I guess when one is asked. “How do you feel?” it perhaps is reflective of how we perceive our health status, both medically and psychologically.
This focus on illness and death brings along with it a variety of possibly strong emotions ranging from mild anxiety to full-blown fear; from sadness to downright depression. Left unchecked, these powerful emotions can have significant negative consequences. Premature aging can be a function more of the mind than of the body!
So, what we are talking about here is “subjective age,” how we experience ourselves younger or older than our chronological age. Actually, subjective age has been suggested as a predictor of health outcomes later in life. Many studies over the years have found that people who feel younger than their actual chronological age are:
More psychologically resilient
Have better memory skills
Can be at a lower risk for cognitive decline
So it begs the questions, what separate these two groups? What are the factors that foster an “illness mentality” vs those factors that foster a “wellness mentality?”
First, let’s turn to Epictetus (50-135 AD) a Greek philosopher who posits “people are not disturbed by things but by the view which they take of them.” This is actually an early hint of how “thought” may actually influence “emotions.” Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor ((161-180 AD) was quoted as saying “when you are disturbed by an external thing, it is not the thing itself that troubles you, but your judgment of it.”Even Shakespeare (1564-1616) suggested that one’s perspective could change one’s emotionality: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2).
Aaron Beck, father of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (1967) developed the concept of the “Cognitive Triad”—that is three key elements of a person’s belief system that can have a far reaching impact on a person’s emotionality, specifically depression. Beck believed that dysfunctional, negative thoughts about:
One’s world or environment,
And the course or trajectory of one’s future
can be powerful in shaping one’s emotions and influencing consequent behavior.
This powerful view taken by Beck and cognitive psychology draws a rather simple picture (we certainly wish it was that simple but the basic concepts need first to be understood) that what we think influences how we feel. It strongly suggests that our thoughts actually exert influence over our feelings. The implication is that we do not have to be victims and become helpless but can look at our thoughts and develop more power over them.
So how does this work with respect to the aging process? We must remember that while aging is universal and inevitable, our perceptions and experiences during this aging process can be wildly different from person to person. Very strong thoughts about aging, particularly those that are inaccurate and invalidated, can have significant negative consequences. The key element here is that not all of our thoughts are accurate and rational. We do have a choice and agency in differentiating rational and truthful thoughts from those that are inaccurate and irrational.
Getting old is different from getting older. This is not a play on words but the way one views old from older may be critical in one’s quality of life. We may not be able to control events and situations but we are able to control how we react to them. We must remember that each physical/medical problem has a corresponding emotional reaction. How we emotionally react is up to us and is a function of how we perceive it.
Cognitive behavior theory focuses on our thinking world and requires us to examine the “lens” through which we view life. Simplistically, our thoughts fit into one of two categories:
Category 1: Thoughts that are accurate and logical and reflect the truth about the situation. Thoughts of this nature lead one to focus on seeking solutions and solving the problem.
Category 2: These are thoughts that are irrational, illogical and inaccurate. Frequently these can be catastrophic thoughts leading to panic, depression, withdrawal, inactivity and even suicidality. A knee-jerk response without really exploring whether any of these thoughts are real or make sense.
It is our job to examine our feelings and attempt to determine our corresponding thoughts. If we find that we are frequently looking at life through negative and inaccurate lenses, such as seeing ourselves as being old, helpless, resigned to be ill, we will correspondingly fall into a steep decline. Even in the worst situations it is imperative to “clean our lenses” and determine if what we are thinking is real and accurate. If we can determine that these lenses are cloudy and there is no proof in this catastrophic thinking, we must replace these thoughts with those that are true, valid, accurate and logical.
This “thought substitution,” done in earnest and believable, would have a profound impact on one’s emotionality—shifting from the illness mentality to the wellness mentality.”
You may be thinking that is all good in theory but I am not sure how to actually do this. Quite frankly, it is not that complex if you break it down into a logical process. First, it is essential to get savvy into monitoring your thoughts. Perhaps by yourself or even better with a trusted individual, monitor these thoughts during stressful times. When presented with a situation, first pay attention to your thinking—what you are actually saying to yourself about the situation.
Write down, succinctly, your immediate thoughts and the image you hold. Don’t try to make a judgment—just write down these automatic thoughts without trying to evaluate them. For example, an automatic thought might be: “they want to put me on blood pressure medication so I guess my time on earth is limited—I guess I won’t be able to do the athletic things I have enjoyed.” Again, don’t edit these thoughts; let them flow without evaluation no matter how they sound. Then put these thoughts aside for a moment or two. Then, Reflect!
Now evaluate these thoughts:
Is there truth in this thought?
Do I have any evidence that these thoughts are accurate?
Chances are that most of the thoughts that you have written are catastrophized; probably inaccurate, illogical and irrational, sort of an all-or-none mentality:
“I’ll never be able to participate in that activity again!
My life is over—what’s the point?
I have a bad heart and I shouldn’t chance anything”
Next, once you have determined that these thoughts are inaccurate, illogical and/or irrational, take some control and challenge these thoughts. Rewrite them (called reframing) in a way that actually depicts the situation—truthfully, logically and accurately.
“I am very fortunate that by taking blood pressure medicine I can live a life without restrictions—I can engage in all physical activity with confidence. I need to enjoy life and concentrate on being healthy.”
Remember, you are not a victim of your thoughts but have agency over them. You do not need to think these initial thoughts especially if they are not true!
Getting older chronologically is obviously not without challenges. But it is not a hopeless situation. We are not forced to accept this “illness mentality” or to succumb to doing less, to giving up and getting “old.”
We can refute stereotypical thoughts; reframe them with accurate coping thoughts to empower us to enjoy life more fully and to grow older gracefully without growing old.
Again, ask yourself this question:
“Am I getting old or am I getting older?
Hats off to our pal, Clint Eastwood!