How does who we are affect how we age? Personality matters, but is not set in stone

    Plato wrote that “he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition, youth and age are equally a burden.” But are we stuck with who we are as we age — or do we continue to change?

    University of Pennsylvania psychologist Melissa Livney used to run a volunteer program for older adults. A middle-aged woman came in to interview for a job.

    After hearing what the job entailed, she told Livney that, at 55, she was an elderly woman, and that what Livney was expecting of her as a volunteer was just too much.

    Livney was stunned.

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    “I had people who could have been her mother in our program who were 85, 90 years old, who were driving there and were volunteering 15 to 20 hours a week,” she recalled.

    It got Livney thinking about how people deal with changes such as not being be able to hear or walk as they once did.

    “The 55-year-old woman who was accepting the fact that she was elderly was using that as an excuse to give up!” said Livney.

    Livney now works as a therapist, counseling older people at Penn’s Memory Center. She agrees with Plato’s statement that certain personality traits contribute to happy aging. Optimism, flexibility, openness, generosity of spirit and so on.

    But what about the person who’s always been a curmudgeon in training?

    Conventional wisdom used to be that, as we age, we are who we are, but moreso. So, for example, if you are a “glass-half-empty person,” you’ll be that way when you are 80.

    “Except you’ll be the one who says ‘The glass is half empty, and I told you so,'” joked University of Florida geriatric psychiatrist Josepha Cheong.

    Possibility for change continues

    Cheong does believe the general thinking on personality is changing. Scientists no longer see personality as completely set in stone. For example, life continues to shape us as we age.

    “People will say ‘I never knew I was going to get cancer,’ or ‘I never knew that at the age of 65 I was going to fall in love again,'” she says. “I think those are all evidence that we are affected and molded by our experiences,” said Cheong.

    Livney says that change is possible at any age.

    “You could look at it as: You have had lots of practice having this problem in life,” she said. “And so, like anything that is practiced and overlearned, it is harder to change. I think that my job is to help draw out of people what are the strengths and resources and the coping strategies that have also been well-learned and well-practiced in life.”

    Anxiety was the bane of Alice Fisher’s existence for most of her life. As the Philadelphian got older, it was driving up her blood pressure, making her sick as well as miserable. Then she decided to do something about it.

    “I am 70 years old, and, for the first time, I was thinking about what I am going to do with the rest of my life,” said Fisher with a chuckle.

    Fisher is taking a “mindful aging” meditation class at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of integrative medicine.

    “Mindfulness is all about being present in the moment, and coming into the moment with curiosity and kindness. And with that kind of attitude we address the aging process,” explained Dr. Diane Reibel who teaches the course.

    Taking the course and practicing at home have made a big difference in Fisher’s life. She is calmer. She prioritizes, enjoys moments, refuses to get bent out of shape. The change in her is noticeable to those around her — so much so, she gets reminders to go to class.

    “Last night my children and my friends called me and said, “Make sure you go to class tomorrow. Don’t miss it.’ And I wouldn’t,” she said.

    Striving for balance, acceptance

    Meditation is also about acceptance, which could be increasingly important as we age. Personality researcher Erik Erikson coined the term “ego integrity versus despair” for this stage in our life, a “checks-and-balance” assessment of life, so to speak.

    Cheong says we look back at what we have accomplished, and how we feel about it. And personality has a lot to do with how we judge our life inventory.

    “Maybe it’s not what I thought I would be, but I really like what I’m doing,” Cheong says. “That’s somebody who is going to have ego-integrity — versus the person who says, ‘You know, I really screwed up with my life.'”

    Seeking balance, seniors are flocking to Reibel’s meditation classes.

    “Right now, I am running a program in a long-term care facility, and there are 20 people who signed up at the drop of a hat, and the mean age is 84,” Reibel said. “And they are in there doing the practices, talking about how it’s transforming their lives.”

    As the boomers who have long obsessed about self-actualization enter old age, they might figure out how to optimize their personalities for optimal aging.

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