(Today’s post comes from Carrie Steckl, Ph.D., who provides some good insights into maintaining happiness with age.)
“To thine own self be true,” wrote the wise William Shakespeare. But what does this really mean? In his masterpiece, “Hamlet,” the bard was referring to the need to protect one’s own interests and do what’s best for oneself. That may still be good advice today in some circumstances, but these six words have the potential for inspiring us to do much more than that as we age.
Did you know that sociologists have suggested several theories about how people “should” grow older in society? The first major theory popped up in 1961 and was called disengagement theory. Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? That’s because it was. This theory (and remember the era during which it was developed) described aging as an inevitable, universal process of mutual withdrawal of the individual and society from each other.
Yikes! I can see you kicking and screaming right now. Society back then believed that older adults should willingly and happily fade into the woodwork and let the world move forward without them. Disengagement theory purported that this was a win-win situation for everyone.
Not surprisingly, another theory was introduced in the 1970s in response to disengagement theory. This alternative theory, called activity theory, suggested that in order to age well, people must maintain their social roles and interactions rather than disengaging from social life. In other words, staying active is a win-win situation for older adults and the rest of society.
Sounds much better, right? And it was. But there was a problem with this theory because people became fanatical and inflexible with it. The theory evolved into the belief that every older person should be an extreme busybody and social butterfly or else the person was not “aging well.” Now that’s a lot of pressure to put on someone! We can all think of nursing homes that practically force residents to attend everything from bingo to cooking activities with the threat of being written up if they do not comply. That’s almost as bad as disengagement!
Thankfully, the 1980s brought us a third theory of aging that just might do the trick. Continuity theory is just like it sounds – it suggests that adults, in adapting as they age, can achieve the greatest level of well-being if they try to preserve and maintain their existing sense of self, relationships, and ways of doing things.
In other words, as we age, we should simply focus on being true to ourselves. If we like our private time, we shouldn’t have to feel like we need to suddenly become ultra-social now that we’re older. If we like to keep busy, we should do so and not feel self-conscious about it. The idea is to embrace who we are, regardless of age, and not try to be something we think society expects us to be.
Now, how does that sound? I can almost hear the sighs of relief. Not only does continuity theory explain the beauty and benefit of being true to ourselves as we age; it also provides a framework for ensuring dignified services for older people.
So celebrate who you are, and make no apologies. It turns out that Shakespeare’s advice was right on target.
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D. is a freelance writer and adjunct instructor in aging, mental health, and human services. She writes the blog, Ask Dr. Chill, for ChicagoNow.