"I didn't expect to grow old. I really thought I'd be dead by now."
"I'm still here and actually growing old! I'm a gay male living with HIV for the last 20 years. I just celebrated my 50th birthday by myself holding a mirror, drinking some cheap booze with the TV tuned to AMC. I didn't expect to grow old being poor and alone. I really thought I'd be dead by now. I should be happy, but I'm not, I still drink, smoke and take drugs to pass the empty time. I spent all my savings, I'm unemployed and I've let my body go to pot -- in more ways than one. I want a boyfriend, but who is going to want me, an out of work, HIV-positive old lump glued to old movies? I get very depressed when I see young guys walking down the street. I wish I were 20 years old again. That would be great. Growing old is depressing. Is there anything good about growing old?"
Thankfully due to modern medicine, people with HIV are living longer, fuller and healthier lives. Thank God for modern medicine. HIV no longer equals death. However, for the person with HIV, aging and growing old may have seldom been fully considered, until now. But the man in the quotation above -- who represents people I've encountered in my own clinical work -- is growing older, just like everyone else in this world and dealing with the same fears that haunt many of our aging population. If you're getting older, you may be feeling some of the same concerns.
Part of the anxiety that you may be experiencing is the negative image of what growing older means to you and the environment we live in. Our culture stresses an ideal physical beauty for both men and woman, and youth is set at a premium. Aging is seen as something to avoid or put off for as long as possible, and certainly not something to embrace or look lovingly forward to. However, you can't go back, none of us can realistically, but you do have choices.
One choice can be to move forward and welcome age. Although books and the media flood us with medical methods to appear youthful and you can go that route, remember you have 50 years of learned experience, a priceless gift that we all sometimes undervalue. But no matter where you see yourself or how people see you, one shouldn't be comparing themselves to a 20-year-old man at age 50. You are setting yourself up for a no-win situation. Would a 20-year-old man compare himself to a 13-year-old boy or a 40-year-old man to an 80-year-old? Keep in mind you are both at completely different stages of life.
You now have to look at aging differently. Our whole society is so caught up in the "youth and the looks department" that you must focus on the qualities that make you special and attractive to others, not only on the outside but also on the inside. I'm sure you do have qualities that are meaningful and special to others.
In addition, as you continue to age, you need to review and change past life promises and expectations, since you are not the same person you were in earlier stages of your life and as we age our goals can and should also change. This can be the beginning of a second adulthood where you set the agenda rather than being programmed by the past. If your thoughts about aging are negative then you must turn those thoughts around. It's how you look at it and how you look at others your own age or older. This is a time to reinvent and to love yourself. If you are happy in yourself, it will show and people will be attracted to what you possess as a person. This is true at any age -- and goes well beyond our physical appearance.
People with HIV may have gone through their life savings, stopped working and limited their social time for developing new relationships. Such people should now reconsider seeking meaningful employment and pursuing an active social life. Please reconsider the financial and structural rewards of employment. Granted, I'm not telling you to take any job. Describe to yourself on paper a work life you would most enjoy. Work takes up entirely too many waking hours for it to be unpleasant! Financial gain, recognition, and pleasure are three important components to have at your place of work. Look for these three things when seeking employment. If a position doesn't appear to contain at least one of these, I would reconsider taking the job.
Find employment in areas where you truly create enjoyment for yourself and others. If you go to a job you despise, filled with things you hate to do, populated with people you dislike -- please find another job!! Benefits only mean so much if your job causes you useless, unhealthy stress. If you find that you hate your new job, either quit or change your attitude about the job. The bottom line is choose by doing and create the life you want.
I would like you to reconsider your statement on growing older and wanting a boyfriend. This may have more to do with your own self-image than actual age. Males are visual creatures and having a body in good shape is an attractive asset at any age. It is ageless. Regardless whether you do it for general attention, or to lure a potential boyfriend or more importantly for your own health, one should eat right and exercise. There is a time to be age appropriate with your body, and now is the time to be healthy. Don't abuse your body. If you start to take care of yourself, and have a structured enjoyable life it will show. You have many great qualities to offer another man and it's your personality with all of its strengths, not your age that people will focus on.
Lastly, work at enjoying your life. Have the willingness to change and to seek change. Be creative, if you think it, think about doing it, which is the next step. Have a sense of your future. Write down your long-term and short-term goals, and then set out a realistic structure plan to follow. Life is a spiral -- we keep coming back to the same issues throughout life at a deeper level, so enjoy your own exploration. Let go and accept yourself for your uniqueness.
J. Buzz von Orsteiner, Ph.D., is a psychologist and behavioral consultant in New York City and will periodically write the "Psychologically Speaking" column.