Maintaining self-esteem in old age

cartoon of an old woman in a chair considering happy images on one side (stars, flowers, a cat, books) and ignoring a closed door in a black cloud
An old woman considering which thought to think. Thoughts influence our self-esteem!

Doris Carnevali posts on a topic crucial for happiness in old age: tending self-respect in advancing years. She has thought about this from personal experience—she is 100 years old—and writes with a calm, thoughtful approach. Her conclusions are enormously helpful and practical. All the more so because research suggests that the decline in self-esteem that commonly occurs in old age is related to external factors. That knowledge is no comfort to us older people! These external factors are usually beyond our control at that stage of life:

Two methods Mrs Carnevali uses to maintain her self-respect

Mrs Carnevali has not been spared the inevitable blows to lifestyle and health brought by old age. However, she found remedies that she can control. Here’s what she says:

It has taken me decades and the buffeting of my own aging experience, but I seem to have found some ways to retain/ regain self-respect. It seems to have come from:

  • honestly examining the deterrents in both environment and  life events
  • acknowledging/owning changing capacities as a point of departure. 
Doris Carnevali, 16 November 2022, https://engagingwithagingblog.wordpress.com/2022/11/16/tending-self-respect-in-advancing-years/

She summarises the changes in perspective that made all the difference to her self-esteem as she grew older and her capacities diminished and her physical world shrank. As a devoted and diligent follower of her blog, I see that she has found self-respect (as well as satisfaction, achievement, and fun) in doing these things:

  • Facing up to the reality of the changes that happen in old age: neither denying nor despairing.
  • Realising that there is no stopping the decline of body and mind and circumstances. Realising that, by contrast, she did have control over her own response.
  • Working to overcome, modify or adapt to the changes in herself and her circumstances.
  • Finding achievement and pride in small victories—and hence, self-respect.

A personal response to the threat of diminishing self-esteem

Mrs Carnevali asks what we personally do to maintain self-esteem in old age. That’s an interesting exercise! What do you do? It includes a mindset but that’s not enough. What we need are habits — of body as well as mind.

I do my own thing and so I will duly share.

photo of an orange petunia flowering in a rough garden patch
A lonely little petunia — oh no, it’s a nasturtium!

l started protecting my future self-esteem from the effect of aging 13 years ago when I was 75. My doctor confronted me with a prognosis of extreme old age. I was shocked into examining every aspect of my lifestyle that could influence my health and happiness in the future. And I tried to fix the weak spots one by one as best I could — little things. I still do that. High priority: physical and social health and fitness.

  • I watch my language. One of my favourite sayings nowadays is, “… but I have other qualities.” As in, “I mistook a nasturtium for a petunia today, but I have other qualities.” You do too. Though I say this with a laugh, I mean it. Words have power for better or worse. I try very hard not to put myself (or other old people) down for geriatric foibles or mistakes. I challenge people who put themselves down, too. Some “jokes” make me frown. That’s building my self-esteem.
  • I carry on with my life work, writing. Feedback boosts my confidence. I grab new opportunities to participate. So I get affirmation from other people. (It’s hard doing it to yourself.)
  • Another good thing for my self-esteem is my wardrobe of colourful clothes that I like a lot. Also a rather unrealistic (flattering) bathroom mirror.
  • I mix with people who love me and avoid people who make me feel yucky.

That’s enough. What do you do?

Self-esteem Declines Sharply Among Older Adults While Middle-Aged Are Most Confident (American Psychological Association Journal, 2010)

Self-esteem development from young adulthood to old age: a cohort-sequential longitudinal study (PubMed 2010)

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28 thoughts on “Maintaining self-esteem in old age

  1. Sadje says:

    I will be 61 next week. I think writing and interacting with people all across the world is a fantastic way to preserve my self confidence and to constantly keep on learning new things- like the information in your post. I’m also looking after my health, just got weight loss surgery done to reduce the obesity, minimize my diabetes and hypertension and cholesterol levels.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That makes good sense. Your blog is a hub of ideas and people who value you. And managing our health brings a good sense of control. Your surgery was a big brave step. Good stuff, Sadie!

  2. Good for Doris Carnevali and for you, Rachel. I adapt my approach to what I can do – e.g. just a few years ago I blogged my long walks, now my wife drives me to short ones – sometimes I don’t get out of the car but poke my lens through the window.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That is brilliant, Derrick, and in tune with Doris Carnevali’s concept of small victories in her microworld. I like it.

  3. Sheree says:

    Staying happy and healthy

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Yes, looking at it from one perspective, these are choices. “Healthy” becomes comparative sooner or later. Meaning “Healthy considering my age-related changes” or “as healthy as possible”. Bring it on!

      1. Sheree says:

        😎

  4. I’ll be 80 next month. I look for ways to be with people, especially neighbors. I was told my hip bones are the weakest in my body, so I walk and do exercises for them. Blogging keeps me doing one of the things that I love most, writing and chatting with others. I pray that God will keep sending me people to love and pray for. I’m a good standby person when people have difficulties. I’m going to monitor my thoughts to avoid negative thinking.

    This is a lovely post. Thanks for writing it. It’s one that makes me think about important things.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you for your generous comments, Anne. Other people, the ones who appreciate us as we are now– they are essential for our self respect, our sense that we are still worthwhile. So you are wise to keep welcoming them into your life.

  5. Cathy Cade says:

    Walk the dogs daily (even if I don’t feel like it); go out regularly (even if I don’t feel like it); exercise the bits that ache (even if I don’t feel like it); dance whenever I can.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Beautiful! I don’t have a dog but I understand one thing. If it’s cold or rainy I don’t want to step out the door in the morning. But as I get closer to the beach I start to feel excited and I need and love that swim. Also, I feel proud, and get a little boost to my self esteem. Not to be underrated!

  6. I think a comment I made on another blog this morning, which, primarily, was about negative reviews for small businesses, is also pertinent here.

    “I make a point of being nice to everyone I interact with, even if they are unpleasant or unhelpful. It is so much better for my personal wellbeing and health. I say good morning/afternoon/evening to all that I encounter when walking (unless I’m in a very busy street) even if I know, from previous encounters, that the person will ignore me. The old saying of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is no longer valid (if it ever was). Words can be deadly, can ruin lives, and can affect particularly young people in horrible ways.”

    Thinking about that, we can also detract from our own self esteem by negativity and, I dare say, many older people start to feel worthless, or at least of lesser worth, either by their own words or actions, or those of others.

    Certainly, the Japanese tradition of revering age and experience is replicated in other countries such as India, Nepal, some parts of China, and others such as indigenous Polynesians, native Americans et al.

    There is a tendency, in many countries now, for younger people to blame us oldies for everything that is wrong with the world, and in some areas they may have a valid point. We should all, however, try to learn from history and try our utmost to not replicate the mistakes of the past.

    May we all stay healthy, active, and happy, speak to others and smile, even if we are not feeling like doing so at the time.

    Thanks for this great post Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Peter, your comments are spot on. I’ve not thought about this until now, but “being nice to everyone I interact with” does indeed make me feel good. Of course that helps to maintain my self esteem, too. I knew it made me feel happy, but it’s harder to admit it makes me feel a tiny bit proud of myself. And it’s circular. If we have that little glow, it’s easier the next time we choose to be kind when there’s no obvious need or benefit. Thank you back! (That’s me being nice!!)

      1. I shall feel that extra little bit good about myself today because of this post and all the marvellous debate it generated. Hugs all round. 🤗🤗🤗

  7. haoyando says:

    What do I do? I am still in need of reconcile myself with the inevitable fact that I am getting old. And the four items on your list, I don’t practice any of them. I think I should and thank you for sharing.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You are wonderfully honest. And your comment just raised my self esteem.

  8. This is a dig, deep, post , and what do I do? I am just beginning to realise that at 84 I am old but only in years. I still maintain many of the activities. I’ve done over the years and writing of course is the thing that keeps me grounded. Walking is a little more difficult now, and so at my daughters suggestion, instead of walking around the streets I now walk in the mall where the floor is smooth, and the likelihood of a fall is lessened. When I used to wear my life coach hat I always told my clients, and of course my children when they were growing up, listen to what you tell yourself. Your subconscious hooks on that, and if you say, I am stupid, your subconscious thinks that’s what you want so watch what you tell yourself all the time. This is a bit of a ramble Rachel but thanks for the post.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Yes — two points that are very true for us all. Maintaining a good habit, if on a smaller scale. And listening to what we tell ourselves: thanks for explain why that’s so important,and never more so than in old age. Thanks, Judith.

  9. I’m 76 and enjoy a wonderful lifestyle as a ‘grey nomad’. Some would say I’m homeless because I have lived in my little campervan for 9 years now and don’t have a home base, but I say I’m a traveller! I’m constantly meeting new people and visiting new places and because I blog I research the places I visit. My thirst for knowledge is insatiable, as is my thirst for life. Thank you! Your post has made me stop and reflect on how grateful I am for my life and my ability to fully enjoy it. Definitely need to start a stretching/exercise routine so I can keep doing what I do though 🥹

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      As I read your comment and others, I am struck by the overlap between self esteem and happiness. You are doing what makes you happy, and the very same activities and habits raise your self esteem. I wonder how this works…

  10. Rosie says:

    Really enjoyed this post. I especially loved your use of a “flattering bathroom mirror” I need one of those 😁 thanks for sharing, I am inspired 👍🏽 as I face getting older I want to do it with peace and some victories.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      “Peace and some victories” — such a good design for old age. I’m sure you will get this.why? Because you’re thinking about it 🙂

  11. I find it ironic that it appears a key component of aging well is to be ‘mindful’ – of everything! When I truly feel less up to the task as I get older! That said, I grasp onto these nuggets of gold posts of yours and believe that even one mindful step in the right direction towards ‘aging well’ is better than none at all.
    😎
    Thanks to you (and DC’s blog).

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Laura, yes — mindful,for sure. And one mindful step can at least change your day

  12. candidkay says:

    I love the not mixing with people who make you feel yucky! It sounds so simple but so many of us get stuck in relationship grooves and we don’t extricate ourselves when things change–with friends, acquaintances, etc. Now where can I buy that flattering bathroom mirror? Wink wink.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      The yucky people tip came from a 6-year-old many years ago 🙂 As for the mirror, you may just need a new light bulb.

      1. candidkay says:

        Six year olds have more wisdom then we give them credit for😉

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