By Caroline Fortin
Getting older doesn’t mean you have to stop trying new things.
That’s not for people my age.” “I’m too old for that!” This kind of thinking is a self- imposed barrier that can prevent you from moving forward, taking on a new project, or jumping into the unknown. Changing how you see yourself now just might mean avoiding regrets down the road.
Challenge Your Thinking
While it’s true that our circumstances and our health can hold us back, the main obstacle is often ourselves. “Our internal discourse and the beliefs we have about ourselves have a major effect on the decisions we make when it comes to engaging in a project or activity,” explains Anouchka Hamelin, a psychologist, neuropsychologist, and associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. “These beliefs are influenced by stereo- types that society associates with age, such as slowness, loss of independence, and the inability to learn new things.” And that’s where limiting thoughts such as “I could never do that at my age” come from.
The problem is that the more we repeat this litany, the more stuck we become. But that’s not the only effect. “For several decades, researchers followed two groups of people based on how they viewed aging,” Hamelin says. “They found that memory performance was poorer among those who had negative beliefs about aging. Conversely, they observed improved memory performance and fewer cases of dementia among those who had a more positive view.”
Of course, personality also plays a role, says Laurence Villeneuve, a psychologist specializing in geriatrics. “What were you like at age 20, 30, 40? Did you jump in head-first when it came to projects or spend a long time making up your mind? Do you tend to be anxious? Do specific events cause you to lose confidence in your abilities? One of my patients told me that at 62, he’s become more confident—this is a wonderful gift he has given himself. People some- times have the impression that because they’ve always been a certain way, they can’t change. But if you have the desire and do the work on yourself, you can get there.”
With age can come a sense of insecurity and loss of control as well as a sense that one is less effective. “It’s normal,” Hamelin says. “There can be an increased risk of injury. Also, we can’t stop the passage of time, and the inevitable decline in abilities doesn’t exactly bolster confidence. All this leads to us being less inclined to find strategies that will allow us to challenge ourselves or explore some of our interests, aptitudes, or passions. And if we tend to demand a lot of ourselves, we might prefer to avoid taking risks because then we can avoid disappointing or feeling bad about ourselves. On the other hand, those who will stop at nothing know they have the inner resources to deal with failure. They tell them- selves that at least they tried; they will have learned something along the way.”
Make a Game Plan
When it comes to breaking down your mental barriers, the first step is simply to become aware of thoughts that are holding you back. “When we dig to find out why we have these kinds of thoughts, we realize that some of our reasoning is illogical or unfounded—it’s based on our social beliefs, upbringing, fears, wounds, or emotions,” Hamelin says. “If, for example, I think I’m too old to take a ballet class, isn’t it more because I’m afraid of being judged or of looking foolish than because my body is holding me back?”
The word “impossible” is too often a part of our vocabulary for the wrong reasons. “You have to put your fears in perspective,” Villeneuve says. “Someone might say you can’t learn to play the piano once you’re past childhood. Really? Why not? Are your fingers stuck together? Age doesn’t limit in any way our ability to learn, whether it’s a language, a sport, or a musical instrument. And it’s even highly beneficial on a cognitive level to stimulate your brain with new activities.”
Once you’ve done this introspection, on your own or with the help of a professional, unpack the project you have in mind. “Just as you wouldn’t prepare to climb Mount Everest in six months, you shouldn’t set one huge goal, which might discourage you; set a number of small goals instead,” Villeneuve advises. “And stay flexible—as you work towards your goal, you may realize that it’s changing, turning into something else.” So, if, for example, you’ve never had the chance to see the world and want to take a solo trip to Europe, start by booking a spot with an organized tour. Surrounded by new people and perhaps making friends, you might find you want to discover other destinations with them instead of on your own.
Besides, Hamelin says, studies have shown that having goals in life helps protect against dementia. “It makes sense—when you have a goal, you have to get organized and go through several steps, which calls on different parts of the brain.”
Choose Your Attitude
Another key to helping you break down those mental barriers is to look for support, and even inspiration, from the people around you. “Who around you can support you in your game plan? Who can be there at significant moments? How can this person help you stay motivated?” Villeneuve asks. You may find inspiration in the achievements of someone close to you, which may encourage you to take a risk. Above all, remember to congratulate yourself each time you accomplish a step along the way.
In a society like ours, which is based on performance, taking a moment to reposition yourself is crucial, Hamelin points out. “Aging requires adaptation—accepting the fact that you don’t have the energy you had at 25. If, in everything you do, you expect to perform at the same level as when you were young and active and had a career, it’s likely that you’ll end up angry at life for making you grow older. But aging has its upsides: you’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge, your judgment is better, and you can mentor others and hand down your learning. Which would you prefer: protecting yourself by not giving new things a try or perhaps finding some happiness by trying something new? We don’t have the freedom to choose the obstacles that pop up on our path, but we’re always free to choose our attitude.”
Age is no obstacle to…
• Running a marathon.
In 2019, Hervé Leblanc of New Richmond, Que., finished the legendary Boston Marathon with a time of four hours and 39 minutes—at the age of 80. Not bad for a guy who started running at 77!
• Going back to school. Sharon Sweeney, 77, has been a student in a life-long-learning program for more than a dozen years at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. Her fellow students range in age from 50 to 92.
• Moving to a new home. Julien Ferron and Jacqueline Arvisais left Pointe-aux-Trembles, Que., for Shawinigan when they were 83 and 89, respectively—not to enter a seniors’ residence but to settle into a home they had built using the plans from their previous one.