Viola Mecke’s new book Aging Wisely serves as a guide for navigating the emotionally challenging situations that come as we approach our senior years. “Growing older often presents very paradoxical situations,” said Mecke, who examines the myriad life changes that can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. “Just at the time we feel comfortable with the experience and knowledge gained throughout life, we become less able to use them.”
Mecke wrote the book using her experience as a psychotherapist and scholar, as well as life itself, to understand the challenges of aging. Four distinct phases, beginning at age 50, are marked by normal as well as unanticipated challenges. Each phase, which include such difficulties as physical changes, retirement, and illness, challenges one’s self-awareness, relations with family and friends, and happiness. To approach these challenges with equanimity, resilience, and acceptance brings contentment, integrity, and peace. She explained her work to me in a recent interview.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was 84 years old when I decided to write this book. In discussions with friends, both young and old, about the problems of growing older, it became apparent that the personal situations that we meet as we age are ignored in the literature. Health, memory, and financial problems are thoroughly covered. Personal feelings, struggles, and reactions are not. Then, as I reflected on my own challenges in growing older and observing the difficulties that challenged my friends and patients, I hoped to provide some guidelines to enable planning for the emotional challenges that many of us will face.
Along those lines, I really admired how open you were in the book, from beginning to end. It was not only a help-book but the story of your life, both the struggles and positives. What made you choose to include first-hand perspective? What was it like to write?
The year of writing gave me an inner happiness that I had not known. It was thrilling to write from my personal and professional experiences. A sense of gladness filled me to be able to share, perhaps to help others prepare for the changes that come. I had experienced the deaths of both parents, husband, brothers and sisters, and friends. As I wrote these people were very much with with me as I recalled their different pathways to the end of life. It was like a re-living of their life and the contributions they gave to me as a person. Their lives provided examples of the vicissitudes of growing older, and became personal inspiration for each chapter.
I really like the title of the book. What characterizes as “aging well” in a person?
The person who “ages well” maintains an inner contentment despite the continuous emotional crises. A person who “ages well” is one who can meet each crisis and/or event in life with a conscientious spirit, accepts the changing of life’s situations with a gracious spirit of gratitude, (even of adventure), adapts to difficult situations with resilience, and retains that connection with others that is love.
What, in your opinion, is one of the largest benefits of aging?
The gift of “time”: more time to understand one’s self; more time to know one‘s self; more time to love and be loved; more time to make amends for past errors; more time to accept others as they are; more time to know the newer generations; more time to nurture life, even the universe; more time to walk the earth; more time.
What is the largest struggle?
To be true to one’s self; to live with inner integrity; to accept what has to be. The greatest struggle that one has, is “To Be”.
How important is it to hold on to your “internal sense of self” while growing through each phrase of growing older? Any tips for keeping “sense of self” intact?
This is a prime requisite for happiness, for achievement, for relationships. Learn to trust your inner feelings — that may not mean to express them! To know what you feel, and then to act in your own best interests — and sometimes our own best interests reside in the caring for others.
In your final chapter, “Aging Wisely,” you describe the way you learned about your “emotional life,” such a powerful phrase. Care to expand on it more? Also, any tips for readers to find their own “emotional life”?
I believe that each person is compelled to accept his/her feelings, to know them in their fullness. Words do not define an emotion; only the feeling within. To know the depth of love is to know the warmth that fills the body and soul with the acceptance of and giving of love. To know the anger, hate or “evil” we contain within, is important. (Note, not to express them!) It is a requisite for understanding one’s self, otherwise undesired feelings may be expressed without our awareness (as in little jibes).
To know one’s self is a journey of a lifetime. I continue to learn more about myself with each day, each interaction with others, and each situation (pleasant or stressful). It is refreshing to smile for each day; sobering to accept my awkward behaviors — and do it with a smile that acknowledges human “errors.”