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October 17, 2016

Maintaining Self-Esteem as We Age

Reuel S. Amdur

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There are challenges to maintaining self-esteem as we age. That is the issue which Montreal social worker Norma Gilbert addressed in a video conference given recently by Quebec's Community Health and Social Services Network.

Self-esteem, she explained, begins in childhood.  Giving a child praise and support for his efforts helps to build it.  As an adult, one’s self esteem involves judgment, attitudes, and beliefs about oneself and involves a sense of accomplishment.  

We may have positive self-esteem in some areas but not in others.  For example, a student may excel in reading but not in math, and self-esteem may vary accordingly.  As well, feelings of self-esteem can fluctuate from time to time depending on circumstances.

She spoke of the difference in self-esteem between the person who finds things easy to accomplish and the one who finds the tasks very challenging but nevertheless manages to carry them off.  Who would have the higher self-esteem?  

This is not an easy one to answer and may boil down to innate ego strengths.  It is the old conundrum of nature versus nurture.  In addition to the various impacts of the external world, one also brings a genetic inheritance into play.  That inheritance is also part of the making of self-esteem.

As people age, they may become socially invisible and may consequently lose self-esteem.  We tend in our culture to have opposite attitudes toward the aged: happy retirees or a burden on society.  Men’s self-esteem often relates to their jobs, while women’s are more apt to be related to family functions.  

Various factors of aging affect self-esteem.  Memory loss, and here we speak of normal loss and not of dementia, may lessen self-esteem.  Decline in independent functioning may also take its toll—ability to care for oneself (for example, bathing and feeding) and carry out normal activities, such as shopping.  While such functioning may decline gradually, there are events, such as a stroke, which can cause precipitant change.

Changes in aging may include sleep disturbance, fatigue, and loss of balance and falling.  Our sight and hearing can be impaired, and incontinence may become an issue, one which may lessen self-esteem.

Fortunately, doctors can often treat incontinence.  As well, its impact can be lessened by use of incontinence wear, protective underwear and pads.  The emotional impact of needing to use such protection is greater for men than for women, as women have had to use pads or tampons for menstruation.

The quiet person may have strong self-confidence, while perhaps the other one is covering up low self-esteem by his aggressiveness.

Many older people experience loneliness, with friends and family now far away or dead.  Coping with this situation may affect self-esteem.  Loss of financial security may be another factor.

Couples usually have some division of labor, and loss of a partner may leave one with duties that are unfamiliar—a widow needing to handle finances, for example, or a widower left to take charge of cooking and housekeeping.

How can we retain self-esteem as we age?  We can adapt.  We have had to adapt all our lives, she pointed out, and now we need to continue adapting, learning new things and maintaining a positive attitude.  In this changing world, we now need to adapt to new technology, such as the cell phone.  It can serve as an aid in emergencies, for example.  The key to successful aging is adaptation.

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