Development in the Face of Decline


Henri Matisse drawing on the wall from his bed.

When we recognize problems and risks involved in aging, we need to take them seriously. We must alter our image of ourselves as independent. This is a big issue for us in America. We praise our ability to choose, and we want our independence. We equate this with health and success. We see ourselves as failures if our bodies threaten us with disability.

We have to recognize this fact when we don’t have the strength we used to have. We may need to call upon help to improve. Caring for ourselves becomes more necessary and predominant when we become more vulnerable. Our view of ourselves will be altered. This may be temporary.

We may be fearful when we realize that we must change to accommodate to our lives.

We recognize the need for interdependence when we are frail and have weakness. We are reminded that we may not be able to be as active or as balanced as we had been.

This is usually disturbing. We may feel gloomy.

If we can talk about the highs and lows with others in a context of warmth of warmth and understanding, we will be rewarded with tolerance, compassion and support. This can reduce the feelings of embarrassment and isolation that we face when considering the struggles of aging alone.


Older adults in late age need to confront and work on the challenges which result in severe life changes.   Juggling declining health with the wishes to be younger and more agile helps to reassess our functioning.

Adaptations in order to transition to new options may be necessary. This process is unlike resignation or surrender which has a quality of giving up attached to it.

People feel, “I want to still be somebody.   I am somebody. I’m still alive. It’s ego, vanity. I want to show people what I used to be. What am I now?”

Self-perception needs to be considered and replaced in order to move on realistically at this time.   The capacity for regeneration and development is still there.

Our eyes have opened to the road ahead. There is no question of turning back. We have come along to a place where we are willing to consider facing late life realistically.

Making changes requires letting go of a former part of ourselves. The wish to be a replica of a previous self is replaced with an expanded and illuminated perspective of life more in line with what is doable now.


We discover a revised version of ourselves. We can look at the person we had been in the past and the way we have lived life at that time.

We then measure this with the needs and expectations that we currently have. This aids in an acceptance of a realistic identity that we can feel proud of in order to live life. We can redefine ourselves by redirecting personal strengths and talents toward goals that fit them in this stage of life.

Denial of a problem is replaced with acceptance.   This frees up energy. Experience gathered over a lifetime can be called upon to make appropriate redefinitions based on what is doable now.

A prominent feature is increased determination to get back to a reasonable level of health and functioning in the face of problems. The other strength is an ability to accept the reality of the change. A common reaction is, “This is the way my ability to function to function is now. I accept it. I can’t be the person I had been. I’ll live with it”.

Personality traits are strengthened in this struggle are determination, resilience, courage, patience, tolerance and ability to negotiate problems and accommodate to solving them.

Instead of feeling humbled at the reduction of these abilities, older people need praise for their endurance and frustration tolerance in making the best of an unalterable situation.woman-441409_960_720.jpg

These transitions can be navigated with determination and dignity, enhancing late life and reducing bitterness. Accepting downturns and returning to an adjusted and comfortable place can move us into a position of accommodation to reality.

Questions:old-woman-1886863__340.jpg-In the face of aging, do you feel you have to remain the person who you had been?

-What does it take to adapt to the inevitable changes that aging requires of us?

-Can you figure out when to ask for help?

-Can you draw on the strengths and coping skills that you relied on earlier in life?

-Would you be able to make trade-offs to meet future goals (exam: adapting to health restrictions)?

-Can you redirect your personal strengths and talents toward goals that fit your age and stage in life?

Being Mortal

Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

The information below has been taken from reviews of this book:


Bestselling author Atul Gawande tackles the hardest challenge of his profession: how medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending.  Gawande, a practicing surgeon, addresses his profession’s ultimate limitation, arguing that quality of life is the desired goal for patients and families.

Oldsters who face neglect of institutionalization may feel they must put their life decisions in the hands of their children.  The other choice might be a controlled and unsupervised institutional existence, giving them a life designed to be safe but empty of anything they care about.  They are left bored, lonely and helpless.

Gawande offers examples of freer, more socially fulfilling models for assisting the infirm and dependent elderly, and he explores the varieties of hospice care to demonstrate that a person’s last weeks or months may be rich and dignified.

Gawande tells us how it is possible in some cases to choose less treatment rather than more when faced with life-threatening illness and to experience a better quality of life in our final days.

This is pretty grim stuff but Gawande is graceful, as graceful as he can be when the choices are so limited and so frankly horrible. Our hierarchy of needs changes when we face a life threatening situation. When a loved one (or we ourselves) must make choices, it is wise, he counsels, to ask ourselves a few questions:

What do we fear most?

What do we want most to be able to do?

What can/can’t we live without?

What will we sacrifice so that we can accomplish what it is we want?

Gawande addresses some of the most difficult questions we have to decide in a lifetime. It is not easy to read. But it helps, I think, to know what choices we can make when the time comes for someone we love or for ourselves.


Follow Your Bliss


If you follow your bliss,

you put yourself on a kind of track

that has been there all the while waiting for you,

and the life you ought to be living

is the one you are living.

Joseph Campbell ca1980

I have simply grown to know

that I must fill the lead

stay in the flow as best I can

and rest in the reasoning

Balance is a fine line

Lillian Rumfeld Bryson 1995


Moments, give me pause to stay,

for I have grown to walk the walk..

to recognize that should I veer

there will be balance..and to know

not to stretch the oh so fine line

beyond its measure

And on this day, this very day,

wakened to the path long followed;

its light seeping into my morning

brought a moment of bliss

Lillian Rumfeld Bryson  2016

Susan Sontag

images-2.jpegimages-1.jpegGrowing older, Susan Sontag wrote, in a 1972 essay called “The Double Standard of Aging,” is “much more a social judgment than a biological eventuality”–an “ordeal of the imagination”that “afflicts women much more than men.”

This is precisely what “stamina” pokes at:  an American subconscious that stereotypes older women as sick, weak, unattractive and useless.

Going Back to School Chap 1———-Stranger in a Strange Land Chap 2—


CHAPTER 1.                 (Chapter 2 has been added following Chapter 1)

My sixteen year old granddaughter and I sat talking in the back seat of her parent’s car. She was taking a college prep course at Barnard College. A vague impulse came to my mind as my thoughts drifted to my lifelong wish to take a course at a prestigious university.

I wondered if my age, now 75, would hamper the ability to return to school.  Would I be able to do coursework? Should this wish remain a fantasy of repeating an experience that I had enjoyed at age nineteen?  When I asked my granddaughter how she would feel if I took a course there, she exclaimed, “Well, I guess so,  grandma, but you can’t be in my class.”

I asked an advisor, age 90, about it. He said confidently, “Do it! Aging is terrible. It will open doors for you.” So I did.

After doing some investigation, I found that I could audit a course in the Lifelong Learner’s Program at the same school.

Registration was the first hurdle. It had to be done online, and the directions were intricate. Online navigation of security intricacies and multiple passwords reminded me of the difficulty I had in learning French in high school.  It was a foreign language to me.

After many attempts, I finally gained access to student libraries for course requirements and academic papers. Setting up an email account for correspondence with teachers and other students within the university system was finally completed. Even though I hadn’t yet met a single professor or fellow student, a sketched skeleton path toward student status appeared.

I blanched upon receiving a health directive to list my vaccination history. They laughed out loud when I told them it had occurred seventy years ago.

I emailed the professor of the course, History of American Women in the 20th Century, to see if there was room for an additional auditing student.

“Dear Prof. Thompson:   My name is Wendy Wilson.  I have just received confirmation of my acceptance as an auditor into the School of Professional Studies.  I saw the course that you are giving in the Fall, 2016 semester bulletin.

It has been my wish for years to take a course relevant to women’s studies at  Barnard/ Columbia.  To my happy surprise, you are giving such a course.  I am  a feminist personally   and in my work as a psychoanalyst and author. I would hopefully request inclusion in your class.”

“Dear Wendy,  Thanks for your inquiry.  The course is already pretty full. I would suggest you come to class.  After the first few sessions I will know if there are enough seats for auditors.  As I am sure you understand, priority will be given to students taking the course for credit.   Professor Thompson”

Well, maybe I’d have to bring my own chair! I was half in and half out.

I stood in line to get my student ID photo card. With a wide smile, I took a selfie for my card. The expiration date on the card read 10/01/2021. I wondered who would expire first, my student card or me.

In preparation, I asked my granddaughter how I should dress for class. She pointed to my jeans and t-shirt explaining, “Just like that, a college student”.

I thought about it and decided that I had to find attire appropriate for my age, so I bought a pair of slim slacks and a woolen jacket. I didn’t want to dress as a young adult, yet my usual professional clothes were ancient for school. That was the start of redefining myself even though I had little idea of what would come next.

When I was younger, the custom was to buy your “school clothes” in late August in preparation for the real thing.  I decided that I would wear my new school jacket the first day of school.

I wanted to match the elite status of the college so I chose a jacket which was on sale that was described as ‘high end’. It had a shabby chic distressed look about the seams.

I got off the subway on the first day of the course. A young woman whispered to me, “You have your jacket on inside out.” I looked down at the front of my jacket and checked it.

I went swanning around the school grounds in my jacket.  As I stood at a café drinking coffee another woman whispered, “Your jacket is inside out.”  I told her in a superior way, “ This is a high end jacket. It’s supposed to look this way”. She retorted, “No, the price tags are hanging down your back”!

We had a good laugh at my  predicament as I turned my jacket around and marched confidently toward my class.

I found myself as one of two older people in a class of fifty young women. The course was held in one of the old unpretentious classrooms crowded into an historic building. The room was filled with small desk and chair seats, and a video screen hung from the blackboard.

When a teacher arrived I asked the student next to me the teacher’s name. It was then that I realized that I was in the wrong room. She handed me a map to another building as I skittered out and around the campus, up elevators and down stairs. I feared there would not be room for me in my appropriate classroom.

I was told that I should have read my internal email where the change of class was noted. Why would I look for an internal email if I hadn’t met anyone yet? Navigating these changes and reconstructions challenged my resolve.

I remember starting first grade at age six, excited and scared. My mother had given me a shiny penny for good luck to hold in my hand as I went in. This time I entered empty handed, not having any idea of what to expect.

Eventually, I got into the right class and found a seat. The girls in the class were assembling.  They looked serious, studious and worried. They seemed nerdy and passive, not vibrant and expansive. Both seats on either side of me remained  vacant.  I felt like a reserved sign had appeared over my head.   Reserved for whom?

Uh oh, this wasn’t going to be an “all in together girls’ moment. ” It was an “ew…What are you doing here?” moment.

As my granddaughter had predicted the millennials were wearing flip flops, shorts and  t-shirts. They were makeup free and wore tank tops looking  as if they had just returned from the beach. They looked as uneasy as I felt. I tried to adjust knowing I was standing out like a sore thumb.

The professor spoke clearly in an interesting and well prepared manner about women’s historic struggle for gender equality and political justice.  We learned about our  responsibilities  in terms of class reading and tests.

The generational difference between the students, the professor and me floated through my mind in dream-like confusion. I wondered about her age when it came to me  that she was younger than I was. It disoriented me to realize that we would be hearing her  lectures about events that occurred when I was in my twenties and before she was born.  How could she be lecturing me about being a woman in the 20th Century?  I lived the history.  Shouldn’t I be lecturing the students and her about the subject?

There was another woman my age in the class. She filled me in on the specifics of auditing classes as we strolled down to  the West Side market where we sampled her favorite pizza which cost $4.00 a slice and was delicious.  I hoped that we would become friends.

As we talked I began to accommodate myself to the reality involved in the need to meet deadlines, adhere to travel schedules, and find appropriate parking.  I used a backpack to carry books,  pads, laptop, rain gear etc.  All in all it was an invigorating but tedious beginning.

I thought about the young women in the class. They must have been nineteen,  younger than springtime.  I sensed that they had been drawn to Barnard because they wanted a place where they could be serious learners and develop personal and professional expansion. They looked hopeful about being where their goals could be nourished.

I recognized these goals  as my own although I was fifty years older than the class.  Age differences melted as I sat among these interested students. I absorbed their curiosity, felt the warmth of their  youth, and was invigorated by their commitment. Because it was a class about the history of women’s struggles, the age difference evaporated.

As the professor continued her lecture, I felt my earlier anxieties begin to diminish and to be replaced by a feeling of personal courage and triumph.

Following the class, I cheerfully walked to the elevator.  An older woman came toward me gesturing toward the gray hair we shared.  Signaling a thumbs up signs as the students whooshed by,  she laughed, “We have to show them how to do it.”

images1.jpgChapter 2


Looking back, I remember walking to my class and feeling like I was carrying a stranger on my back, a very heavy big person with  arms around my shoulders weighing me down. I didn’t know this person. I had to bear carrying her. Stranger, stranger, stranger. This new unfamiliar burden required all my energy with no reward in sight.

I felt as if I had become a five year old child.  I had dismissed my adult self.  Nothing was  familiar to me, yet I had taken it on.

I felt scared and angry that I had to pretend to fit into this class. I have trouble with this charade of appearance. I had to disguise myself in artificial clothes trying to be perfect and to match something directed by requirements outside of myself. This costume had to be perfect.   It wasn’t like wearing self-selected clothes that reflected my taste and identity. I couldn’t be myself.

Recently, while departing the train on the way to the course, the zipper in my coat got stuck with material from the coat. It strangled me at the throat. I imagined that I would never be able to get my coat open. Maybe I would have to use scissors to cut off the arms and neckpiece.

Instead I boldIy stopped and asked a policeman to try to undo the snag. With a serious look as if he were solving a crime, he leaned down and fought with the zipper until it loosened. An authority figure had come to the rescue.

I remembered the first day at class when I inadvertently put my jacket on inside out. Again I was acting like a child who had put her clothes on incorrectly. I got help in straightening out this situation by two people who told me the price tag for my jacket was hanging down my back, proving that the wrong side of the coat was exposed.

What was alienating  me about returning to school?   The students were so much younger than what I had expected. The age span of fifty years came into play. If they had been my grandchildren visiting my home, being in the family would have  normalized things.

Attending this university class called for much more accommodation since we were also listening to a professor speaking about a complicated subject and struggling to take in the facts of this detailed academic course. I felt like a character in the Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris”.

The film was about a hack screenwriter visiting Paris on vacation. At the stroke of midnight he was picked up in a Ford roadster and magically transported to Paris in the 1920’s where he met Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and other legends. They invited him to join their party. He became swept along in their wake and found himself plunged into the Jazz Age and all its legends.   After a time he returned to present day Paris renewed by his adventure.  He had internalized the beauty and talent of these legends and could begin to realistically work at actualizing his own dream. Maybe that is what I wish for as well, youth and inspiration.

The university students are studying to discover the beauty and talent of historic and academic legends.  They can use these legends as models of motivation in pursuit of their own dreams.

They are housed in dormitories or apartments. It is their place.  Many here are privileged, intelligent, conscientious and self-possessed. They are busy racing around as special people in a prestigious school.  I feel envious  that I never had and never will have what they are enjoying now. They are beginning a long road in life whereas I am beginning a similar road late in my life.

I go to class and take the part of me that is confident and intelligent and sit her carcuss in a tiny school chair, feeling like I am not really there.  I am an empty mannequin, a piece of cardboard posing as if I belong, a  5 year old who can’t talk or react or take any chances.

The professor begins her lecture. A feeling of spontaneous understanding overcomes me as I hear her talk.  She describes the way that women of varied race and class have been disabled by discrimination. They were disenfranchised economically and  discriminated against  socially.  Hearing about how brave and difficult it was to upgrade the status of underprivileged women brings home a wider look at the  enormous struggle involved and the courage shown by female activists.  I had never put that together before. My focus as a feminist was on individual search for independence. Now I was incorporating the effect world wide.

I keep saying to myself , “Wow, now I see”.  The professor  is facing us from the front of the room where I sat with the other ‘kids’. As she speaks, it feel as if  she is raining pieces of sweets on us, one after the other. I receive them as gifts.

But what do I do with them when I have no place here in the classroom?   I think I will squirrel them away in my brain, treasuring the ownership of this prize. It overcomes me with gratitude.

I decide to think about these morsels of knowledge later and enjoy them in private.  My eyelids droop into a brief spell of sleep. I am so tired. It is so hard to manage this strange lonely experience.

I am 5 years old again and can’t think at all.  On a few occasions it comes to me that I can respond to what the teacher is saying.   By respond I mean using my intellectual background, curiosity and imagination to inform me that it is aware of what the teacher is saying. I feel exhilarated, excited, addressed, and connected.

I make a comment in class. The professor listens for a brief minute. She then signals with her eyes that I should stop talking. I should say no more.  I retreat. And I tell myself that I should be teaching the class.


Does Aging & Decline Affect Our need for Love?


IMG_1032 (1).jpg

1.—–Does aging lessen or increase your wish for love?

2.—-Do you need more love from other people especially when you feel that you are declining?

3—– What is the reason that you feel you need more or less love? What causes that change to happen?

4—–What form does your wish for love take?

5—– Does the fact that you are weakening influence your wish or need for more love?

6—–Do you want more caring, reassurance and encouragement?

7—–Would that help you to adapt to the realization of aging and decline?

8—— Do you want to to be physically loved; to have more close physical contact, sexual contact, verbal contact?


How do you handle these wishes and feelings?

Do you feel lonely? Do you withdraw from others?

Does feeling less necessary influence a wish for more love?

Do you seek love and support when you feel this way?

Do you have energy to search for contact from others?

Do you try to gratify yourself by:

(a)   sleeping, watching TV.

(b) eating, crying , reading.

(c ) talking about this with other people.   Whom do you talk to?

(d) getting sick (headaches, falling).

(e) keeping busy, volunteering.

(f) remembering meaningful moments with people and things you have loved.


Can you tolerate not having these wishes to be loved met?