You are probably familiar with the adage, “The only constant is change.” Ironically, there is something about the human psyche that resists this truth. We stubbornly hold on to a belief in and preference for predictability, stability, and stasis. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, most of us do not expect ever to have to spend time in a hospital or to move out of our home until we choose the moment. We do not expect to have aches and pains or experience helplessness. We assume that because things are the way they are, they will stay that way, until we decide to change them.
Of course this is not the way our Universe works. Our bodies are constantly changing. Cells are dying or being born, our brain is constantly monitoring the environment (both inside and out) and managing our physiology in response to changes in temperature, hormones, air quality and altitude, time of day or night. Our brain is assessing what we have put in our bodies to determine which should be used for energy or need to be eliminated. Parts of our brains are interpreting our feelings and thoughts and literally changing our chemistry and energy levels to respond to those interpretations, whether they are accurate or not! And most of this is done without conscious application. It just keeps running. And so we take it for granted. Until it doesn’t.
For some of us change can be an exciting and preferred way of living; for others, change represents the absolute last thing we want to have happen. Recognizing our preferences in approaching the inevitable changes that aging brings is useful in several ways. If you are the type of person who does things at the last minute you may find yourself faced with limited options. On the other hand, if you are a planner, you may already have done the research and are implementing plans to obtain housing, healthcare, and financial security. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
These kinds of changes fall into two broad categories: adaptation and accommodation. These approaches apply to virtually any situation faced as we age. Understanding how you adapt and accommodate to change can provide you with increased functionality, a better quality of life, and perhaps even keep you independent longer. Understanding these two concepts is key in developing strategies that will help you successfully manage the challenges that come with aging.
Adaptation and accommodation are ways our bodies interact with our environment from birth to death. “Adaptation” is a trait and skill. As a trait, it is inherited from our birth parents. As a skill, it means modifying our thoughts, beliefs, actions, and habits so that we are better able to manage the situations we find ourselves in. Ultimately, this helps us survive and thrive.
Some of us find it easy to adapt when faced with change. Others find it particularly challenging. This is the trait aspect of adaptation. Knowing what type of adapter you are and having a skill set that matches your traits will help you successfully adapt across the lifespan.
We can learn to adapt. The more skilled we are the better our track record will be, especially when we resist the changes that need to be made. For example, if we can’t drive any longer, we need to adapt our routines to get to the places we want to go. Or, if we move to an assisted living facility, we need to adapt to different kinds of food and different kinds of people.
Part of adaptation is learning to accept. For some, acceptance is the same as giving up. As a strategy, however, it is a powerful act of choice. When thought of this way, feelings of helplessness or impotence are transformed.
Adaptation is also an attitude. Willingness is an essential attitude needed to help manage desired and undesired changes you will inevitably confront. If you are feeling distressed or overwhelmed when faced with change, there are key questions you can ask: “What am I willing to do right now?” “What works for me in this situation?” “How much better would I feel if I did the hard thing now, rather than wait?” “What price would I pay if I just waited a little bit longer?”, “What have I done in the past that would help me succeed now?”
“Accommodation” is slightly different. Where adaptation is something we can do within ourselves, accommodation requires arranging our environment to suit our needs as our needs change. For example, if you have vision loss, you get glasses or listen to books on tape. You can also change your environment to improve your sight by cutting down on glare, positioning lights for better illumination, or increasing wattage!
Accommodation strategies range from adding safety features to your home to investing in gadgets that make your life easier or hiring help to manage things for you. It is a burgeoning field right now. Architects are designing homes that will accommodate the latest technology for monitoring health as well as those granite countertops you’ve always wanted. Smart appliances are connected to devices for ordering food, letting you know what the weather will be, monitoring your blood pressure and quality of sleep, and reminding you to take your medication as well as when to re-order.
Just as with adaptation, the need for accommodations will continue over your lifetime. These may take the shape of small additions to your environment, or moving to an environment that is more supportive of your needs. Some of these accommodations are paid for by insurance or Medicare. Others may require DIY skills or financial resources to purchase equipment or modify your living situation.
Adaptation and accommodation are strategies that we need if we are going to navigate changes we experience as we age. In some cases, we can take the lead and make informed choices about what we eat, how much we exercise, where we live, and how we get around. In other cases, we may need to adapt to changes in functioning, undergo surgery to repair and replace failing body parts, and seek support from professionals.
We can expect to face changes in our physical, cognitive, emotional, and dietary functioning. We can plan for changes in our social, geographic, and economic status when necessary. These are unique challenges to us at this time in history, because never before have there been so many of us living so long and therefore going through this transition.
I remain hopeful. Ours is a generation well-suited to addressing these challenges, because we have always been doing ground-breaking things. I don’t expect this will be any different!
Thanks for reading!