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Two Opposing Ways to Approach Our Senior Years

Jeffrey Kluger wrote “Why Americans Are Uniquely Afraid to Grow Old” for Time magazine in response to the growing number of seniors who seem to be fighting a losing battle with time. Anti-aging strategies can include denial, medical interventions, and childlike regression, to name only a few.

Kluger notes that by 2030, about 20 percent of the US population will be retirement age. He points out the implications: “That’s an awful lot of old people confronting the physical, cognitive, and emotional frailties that come with age, not to mention the cold reality that the older you get, the closer you come to, well, the end of the line.”

As we age, we can struggle to fight against Kluger’s in-your-face dead-end reality or we can embrace it. Either way, our journey will end the same way. The only decision seniors have to make is what to do with their remaining time.

How should you approach aging if you’re lucky enough to reach your senior years and still have your wits about you? Two contrary perspectives seem to beckon: attempting expensive denial or beginning a new adventure.

Expensive Avoidance

To avoid the outward signs of aging, you might start using anti-wrinkle skin creams. Americans spent around $53 billion on these creams last year. Or you might choose to go under the knife for cosmetic surgery as almost one in four Americans did in 2023.

Cosmetic surgery can create a more youthful appearance

A number of people might think something more extreme is called for, such as replacing their spouse with a younger version. Other options include losing weight and buying a sports car.

Avoidance and denial are incredibly effective mechanisms. I have a hearty respect for them, having succumbed to their siren song on more than one occasion.

Another Adventure in the “Afternoon of Life”

A different approach is to accept aging and our approaching demise by focusing on the unique and specific work of the senior years. In this vein, the ideas of Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, resonated with me. He said, “The afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning; only its meaning and purpose are different.”

Carl Gustav Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

Looking Outside for Answers

Jung argued that in the early stages of life, we look outside ourselves for meaning. We focus on achievement and making our mark in the world.

In contrast, in the afternoon of life, our task is to look inside ourselves for meaning and to see ourselves as spiritual beings. Jung thought that even though we may have no job to go to each day, we still have emotional work to do.

He and many other psychiatrists identified various stages of life, from infancy to adolescence to adulthood and, finally, to our senior years. They described these stages along with markers that should be achieved during each one.

Learning how to crawl, walk, and run is a child’s job

For example, babies need to become toddlers who walk and use language, and adolescents must create an identity separate from their parents. Adulthood is a time of achievement and building a family.

Looking Inside for Answers in Our Senior Years

Seniors must focus on specific tasks to realize their full potential. For Jung, that work was perhaps the most critical because it involved integrating all aspects of the person’s being.

Below is a summary of my understanding of the five tasks for seniors outlined by the Jungian Center for the Spiritual Sciences.

Task One: After decades of experience, we have the potential to know the totality of ourselves. We’ve lived long enough to see and recognize patterns in our behavior. We have the luxury of becoming observers of our own lives.

For example, as a consequence of writing a four-book fictional autobiography (the Blackbird series), I uncovered repeated patterns of actions and reactions hidden from me until then. The experience was quite freeing. Of course, I was able to write the books in my senior years with the benefit of retrospection. It took the fullness of time to allow for these insights.

Task Two: We also have the opportunity to reconnect with the forgotten parts of ourselves. For example, we may rediscover an earlier interest or talent that was neglected during our younger years, perhaps because of the demands of making a living or raising a family.

In my case, I wanted to be a writer, but events intervened. Marriage, children, jobs, homemaking, and caretaking consumed my time. In my final years, I am so grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with my neglected passion.

Task Three: Jung encourages seniors to face and accept their “shadow self.” To understand what the shadow self is, consider everything about yourself you would not like printed on the front page of the New York Times. That gives you a hint of the characteristics and nature of your shadow self.

The shadow self is difficult to see, so well hidden from us

In facing my shadow self, I think I’ve made progress in acknowledging my shortcomings and human failings. At the same time, I’m sure there’s more work for me to do. To date, this work has made me more honest with myself and simultaneously more compassionate in understanding the shadow selves of others.

Task Four: Spiritual engagement is critical to our work at this point in our lives. We are no longer required to be useful or dutiful; we can explore our creative and spiritual side. This dimension involves connecting with a higher power or developing a deeper collective consciousness.

Task Five: Jung’s last task involves exploring our dreams. He believed that dreams could give us insights into our place in the universe, express meaning through symbols, and reveal our archetypal patterns.

Where Does the Aging Adventure Lead?

Jung’s tasks for seniors aren’t burdensome; they are more about exploring the curious combination of qualities that make each of us unique.

Unfortunately, aging inevitably involves losses—potentially the loss of energy, the loss of one’s health, and the loss of loved ones. Even so, seniors must forge ahead in their exploration of self.

The reward is worth it if we believe Carl Jung. In Modern Man in Search of a Soul, he writes, “Faith, hope, love, and insight are the highest achievements of human effort.” Those four achievements indeed make the effort worthwhile.


All photos courtesy of Canva