Older adults: How to navigate life transitions

Our lives go through several major transitions over time, including school, work, family life and more. Older adults encounter some impactful life transitions as well: Becoming empty-nesters, retirement, moving or downsizing, health changes, and personal loss are all common life transitions. Some easier to handle than others.

Life changes are sometimes difficult. This can be caused by our fears around change: fear of the loss of control, of losing our independence, fear that life won’t be the same and even a fear of the unknown. Fear of change is a top reason for the resistance to change. It might be helpful to know there are ways to better manage the transitions – even the difficult ones – by addressing these fears.

How to manage your fears

What can we do about fear? Experts tell us there are six ways to manage your fears.

  • You can embrace them, recognize that fear heightens your awareness and gets your adrenaline going.
  • You can take an immediate leap. One way to manage your fears is to just dive in and go for it.
  • Getting real: Remember that fear is rarely based in reality, it’s mostly made up of the stories we tell ourselves.
  • Another way is to cultivate acceptance. Accept that bumps and roadblocks are part of the journey and they will happen.
  • You can face your fear head on.
  • Lastly, remember that your fears aren’t really that scary.

Manage change

Another way to ease life transitions is by becoming better at managing change. How do you manage change? First, understand that if you initiated the change, it becomes a positive act, which can make it easier for you to adapt to the new environment. You might even look forward to the challenges and rewards that come from your change. However, if you’re the object of the change, and it is happening to you without your decision, your reaction may be less positive. You could be experiencing less control, more unknowns about the outcome.

So, you can better manage transitions by trying to anticipate changes and prepare for them, even for the ones like moving, or giving up driving, etc. Anticipating what might be coming and taking steps to prepare could include communicating with family members around what you want to happen, or planning for eventualities like transportation, downsizing, even how you might anticipate and plan for health changes or other major events.

Having the “survivor mindset” can also make you better at adapting to change. This includes having a deep sense of strength in self, taking stock, evaluating what you have and what you need to navigate through the transition. Committing to re-assess as you go will enable you  to adapt and adjust to situational events along the way. Survivors also admit to themselves and others that it isn’t easy, they communicate and ask for (and accept) help and support as needed. This is easier to do if you have support systems (friends, family, caregivers) already in place and active. Overall, preparing yourself for changes to come and communicating with friends and family can really improve your ability to manage changes, even ones that are difficult.

Focus on self-care

Another thing to keep in mind when dealing with change is to take good care of yourself. Keep up your normal routine as best you can, which includes getting adequate sleep and exercise, eating at regular times in normal amounts, and continuing everyday activities and appointments. Keep things simple, participate in activities you enjoy. Being gentle and kind with yourself as you experience the feelings and emotions that come up with adapting to change can really assist in getting through this time of transition. Take time for yourself, nurture your spirit.

Along with good self-care and being gentle with yourself, try to keep your expectations manageable: be realistic about what you can and cannot do. This is a time to pace yourself and organize your time. It might be helpful to make a list and prioritize activities that need to happen throughout the time of change.

Adapting to the changes

Here are three final tips for adapting to change:

  • Let go of the past. Find or create new ways to celebrate in your new environment. Start new traditions to honor things important to you, and mark successes in your transition with new celebrations.
  • Allow yourself to feel the feelings that come up for you along the way. Change isn’t always easy, and there might be times of sadness, loneliness and grieving the loss of the way things were. All these feelings are normal.
  • As you move through a transitional time, having a positive attitude is a way to better manage situations. A focus on what you do have, rather than what you don’t have is a positive way to adapt and manage change, even the changes you didn’t choose yourself.

The only constant in life really is change. As your life transitions, know that your attitude is the key to making a difficult transition more manageable.

Some good reading

Here are a few books on life transitions:

“Making Sense of Life’s Changes” by William Bridges

Pivot: The Art and Science of Reinventing Your Career and Life” by Adam Markel

“The New Old Me,” by Meredith Maran

“Third Calling,” by Dr. Richard Bergstrom and Leona Bergstrom

Here for you

If you want to speak to someone about mental health, please reach out to us at Community Reach Center, a nonprofit mental health center with numerous outpatient offices in north metro Denver, visit www.communityreachcenter.org or call the free Warm Line at 303-280-6602. Also, remember the Behavioral Health Urgent Care (BHUC) center, 2551 W. 84th Ave., in Westminster is open 24 hours. Call 1-844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255.

Our experts

This column is written by Wellness and Care Coordinator Nicole Hartog and Program Manager James Kuemmerle with the Senior Reach program at Community Reach Center. If you have any questions about where to turn for help for older adults, please reach out to the Senior Reach team at Community Reach Center at 303-853-3657. The Senior Reach provides treatment for depression and trauma, as well as many other mental disorders. As always, we are here to enhance the health of our community. Mental wellness for everyone is our goal.