Extreme Esteem: Self-Esteem and growing older

  • Jul. 25, 2017 12:30 a.m.

“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.”

– Robert Frost, American poet

“So how does it feel coming back after all these years?”

“Good,” I responded. “Great to see so many old friends.”

My wife and I had been invited to a 50th wedding anniversary for neighbours at a community hall near where I grew up. I had spent a lot of time with this particular couple when I was a kid. Father had suggested I help them as they were from out of province and new to farming. That made me feel good. I didn’t often get the opportunity to be the expert, and it was fun.

And now here I was – some 40 years later – sitting with friends and family amid a sea of white and greying heads. How did I feel? Old and a little sad. Most of the “old” neighbours were gone, and those who remained were moving much more slowly. Even we “youngsters” were looking old and tired, and I wondered if I too looked as old and tired to them.

The other day, someone asked me if self-esteem goes down as we grow older. I told him there is research to suggest that self-esteem can begin to wane with the passing years. That said, I know many active seniors who have tremendous self-esteem. But first – on the topic – let’s look at one of the studies cited in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers followed more than 3,600 individuals ranging in age from young adult to senior citizen over a span of 15 years. Researchers contacted and interviewed each participant approximately four times over the intervening years. The goal was to determine how the average person’s self-esteem changes over time. Responses suggested that self-esteem was lowest in the younger ages and steadily increased with the passing years. Self-esteem levels plateaued as participants moved into their 60s and then declined steadily. Surprisingly, results revealed that women typically displayed lower levels of self-esteem than men across all the age ranges.

One theory suggests that self-esteem peaks at middle age because it’s a time of stable work, family and romantic relationships. People are reaching peak earning capacity and have money for fun or relaxing endeavours. In contrast, older adults may be experiencing changing roles such as an empty nest, retirement and obsolete work skills in addition to declining health.

For mature adults, health and wealth were cited as possible factors for raising and maintaining self-esteem. Individuals with higher incomes, ample pensions and in good physical health might find it easier to maintain high self-esteem as they age, though there is no conclusive evidence that health and wealth are directly linked to higher self-esteem. I recall when my mother, in failing health and with limited funds, moved into a senior’s complex, her sense of self-worth and independence declined rapidly. Perhaps feeling well and being financially secure provides a sense of freedom and security that ultimately leads to higher self-esteem.

The study also revealed that people of all ages in satisfying and supportive relationships tended to have higher self-esteem. Love, companionship and a sense of belonging appeared to contribute significantly to a positive outlook and a healthier, more balanced sense-of-self.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist, lecturer and poet once wrote, What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

Perhaps, as Emerson suggests, the best way to forestall declining self-esteem in our later years is to build and maintain a positive attitude and a healthy self-image today. That and a concerted effort to remain physically, emotionally, spiritually and, yes, financially fit throughout our lifetime.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert.

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