Mrs. Hughes - Take Two
This Week in Elder News: 3 May 2008

Old Age and Decisions

On Tuesday’s post, in relation to something entirely different, kenju of Imagine caught my attention with this comment:

“I will admit that the older I get, the harder it is for me to make a decision about some things.”

I’ve been pondering that ever since I read it. Wracking my brain is more like it, trying to find something that has been harder to decide than when I was younger.

One of the top two or three toughest moments in my life was the need to sell my Greenwich Village home three years ago and leave New York. I wept and wailed and beat my fists for a weekend over it. But all that moaning had everything to do with heartbreak and nothing to do with indecision. There was no other choice.

In the past – way in the past – I could change clothes three or four times before leaving the house. I would dither over which earrings went best with an outfit. Or which shoes. And did I need a scarf. I’d stand at the mirror almost paralyzed over whether I was properly dressed clear down to the shade of nude-colored stockings. It took eons for me to learn that no one else notices or cares about these details.

Since I don’t have much money, spending is never a matter of indecision. Want a new laptop? Too bad. No money for it. Wouldn’t it be nice to have those terrific Roman shades for all ten windows? Again, too bad. They are all non-standard sizes and require special manufacture. No money for that right now, so no indecision opportunities.

Plus, I’ve had so many financial ups and downs in my life, living on pennies at times and spending like a newly-minted, pop-tart star at others, that now I’m a master at keeping my financial house in order. If there is a good reason to overspend, I know exactly what it will take to catch up, so it’s never an agonizing choice.

My only regular moments of indecision are whether to post a blog story I’ve written. Did I go too far this time? Will it offend when that’s not my intention? But please, these are not big-time quandaries.

So in no way meaning to pick on kenju, I can’t come up with any age-related decision difficulties. If anything, I’m better at decision-making than when I was younger for two reasons:

  1. I’ve made so many mistakes in the past, I’m better equipped with experience now

  2. I’ve learned that short of holding a gun to my head, almost no decisions are irrevocable

On the other hand, I have not been faced (yet) with decisions that involve much risk. There were no alternatives to retirement, selling my home and leaving New York, which in other circumstances might be risky moves worth greater contemplation than I gave them.

Maybe my life is too placid to be faced with hard decisions. Or perhaps I'm so averse to indecision (it feels to me like standing on tip-toe at the edge of a precipice) that I have no patience for it and just take the leap - so to speak.

It appears from a little web research I did, that decision-making skills do deteriorate with age, but most of the pertinent articles require subscriptions to the medical journals or are written in such dense academic-ese that I got a headache trying to read them, although this one has some useful information.

But I would rather rely on you, readers, to tell us your experience with decision making in late life.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, an announcement about Mother's Day.]


Ronni, I could have written your sharing this morning - word for word.
My experiences in many areas of my past have been similar to yours.
Also at the moment seem to be where you are.
In my new location soon a year I miss my other home.
But since all concerning this fell in place so rapidly I feel in my heart it was meant to be.
How I found this particular lot is too long a story to share at this time. But it fell into my hands at an excellent price. Then my home - when nothing is selling - sold in 2 weeks. Then a contractor I contacted started construction immediately.
Buying, selling, building and relocating all took place in 10 months.
I almost feel stupid sharing this, but at times I still wonder is this where I am to be.
I am across the street from my son and 10 minutes from 2 daughters and 2 grandchildren 3 and 5.
So here I am.
I began to investigate moving and relocating and it just seem to happen
No major decisions at the moment.
Just with economy have to watch every penny more then ever.

I don't know exactly what kenju meant, but I can at least relate to a general, fuzzy-around-the-edges feeling that my thinking isn't as sharp as it used to be. It's difficult to put into words. But it's definitely there.

Ronni, you were a paragon of decisiveness when you made the move to Portland. I was in awe.

An inability to make the simplest decisions is a feature of my husband's dementia. If you give him any choice -- scrambled eggs or fried eggs? stay in bed or get up? -- his answer often is "I don't know."

I hasten to say I don't mean to imply that difficulty making decision is a sign of incipient dementia. There could be many reasons for it, such as equanimity -- just not being driven or defined by strong preferences, not thinking much of anything is a big deal one way or another. When we're young we're taught that who you are is defined by what you want, and that comes naturally. When you get out of life's rapids and into the delta, you've already carved your channel by the force of your choices. Now there are dozens of ways to ramble the last mile to the sea, and they're all pretty much on the same level.

Oh amba I really love that metaphor of life as a river and old age as a big, wide delta with lots of choices and meanders! I'll treasure that image.

For me, the older I get the easier it is to own up to ambivalence and to hold decisions in abeyance until the answer comes clear. Maybe from the outside that looks like difficulty with decision-making but actually it is the opposite. I'm more comfortable with the process now. I'm in less of a hurry to rush to closure, less concerned with what others think of my choices, more willing to watch and wait and much more skilled at honouring the contributions from heart and gut as well as from head.

I think the reason decision making could be harder with old age is knowing it is more likely for keeps. When we are younger, we know we can do this or that differently if it doesn't work out. With old age, a bad decision can be the last one and the person has to live with the results. That can be for economic or physical reasons.

For me I can't say it's harder to make decisions, but I do have some big ones with which I am still wrestling and that surprises me. I thought by the time we got old, we'd be settled where we want, living how we want and any big decisions would be in the past. It hasn't turned out to be that way.

I always said that it is well, in management, to be able to make decisions on the basis of no known facts. As we age, the facts pile up in our brains and we may come up with more options and more consequences than we would have done at an earlier age. I did note, about 30 years ago, that my decision making suffered during a period of intense job-related pressures.

There are undoubtedly several reasons for a normally decisive person to take longer to make a decision and/or to agonize more over decision making. Since some of those reasons may be physical/mental health issues--which can accummulate/worsen with time--they may seem age-related. In fact, just as there is no observable difference between an atheist and an agnostic, in practice, there would be no observable difference (to me and perhaps the general public) between some physical/mental health issue-induced indecision and age-induced indecision. Maybe the experts can tell the difference, but I cannot.

That said, I hasten to add that a correlation need not be 1 to 1 in order for a cause-effect to be established in my mind. Not all smokers develop lung cancer; but, I believe that smoking "causes" lung cancer.

This is a difficult subject for me because I am not sure where I stand. I have made the statement that having to make a decision is more difficult for me now, but in retrospect I discover that isn't true. I have made important decisions without any qualms and have made the right ones. What is true is that I don't like having to make a decision now. Small things that I formerly would throw off like a coat are now major problems to deal with. I just don't like stress and decision making it stressful.

I am good friends with a woman who is 84 and she does seem to have issues with some decisions. She's definitely not suffering from dementia! Very quick-witted and in many cases very quick to make a decision but in others, she seems almost to panic. Sometimes it's a simple thing,like a choice on the menu. She is trying to balance the food she'd like to eat (typically meat dishes which come in large portions) with how much she can physically eat (small appetite and she HATES leaving food on her plate) and so she ends up in some sort of mental stalemate. Unfortunately, the solution seems to be to offer to finish the food she couldn't eat which doesn't do my hips any good!

She seems to get a lot more stressed about decisions that affect other people - I think it's something like what Darlene describes. I know that I try to arrange things in advance when we are going out because it just seems so much simpler. Luckily she's very fast to tell me if I've arranged something she doesn't like!

After my husband died I made a decision to sell the house we had shared for 38 years. That was the easy part but I spent many sleepless nights trying to decide where to move. It took me three years until I finally figured out where I wanted to go.

It was a good thing that I took the time and realized what was best for me.

Another decision I had to make on my own was, "should I attempt to go to Florida by myself." Many women who become widows decide not to go alone.

After much tossing and turning I decided to go, try it and if it didn't work out, I could always come back up North. The first few years were not easy but with time things have worked out.

Right now, I don't see any big decisions coming up, thank goodness!

Decision making is harder because we are now wise! We know that every decision brings consequences, many that no one can forecast as they are choosing a path. The easiest way to circumvent indecision is to acknowledge upfront that you will inevitably make mistakes because you are human. After all, could you predict China and Saudi Arabia would be bailing out the NY Investment Banks and Treasury bonds would be yielding 2.5%?

I can make decisions, especially after research and/or contemplation of possible outcomes, but what I see in myself is the continuing habit of trying to take others into account. One is a parent and family member for so many years! Now, long after the children are grown and gone, I'm still trying to work out what's 'fair' for everyone even though I'm on my own now. I'm not saying I'm a saint, I'm saying we need to continue to focus on those for whom we are responsible, even if it's only ourselves. It can be difficult to put oneself first.

Ronni, one of the things about your writing that so amazes me is your organization of thoughts. Each sentence matters and every paragraph nourishes the ones following until you've crafted something that stirs, stimulates, consoles, entertains, and informs. I'm not saying that this is good decision-making because this is your art. But writing in a tempest of spontaneity, or holding back in timidity simply won't produce the end effect we read here daily. The decision you make to share each post is a heady one and enriching to so many.

Our house, built in 1917, has odd-sized windows that will require custom work also. I went so far recently as to get a quote. We could put this large expense on our Lowe's Project Card, but this is a decision that I've so far been unable to make. It is all about the finances, since this wouldn't be an issue in different circumstances. About the new laptop (and I want one of those, too), no one deserves one more than you!

I used to make decisions very quickly, and looking back, I can see that I couldn't wait to put decisions behind me. I believe that unknowns made me anxious, therefore I'd make decisions quickly and feel quite certain about them. (And of course, society, work, family and friends reinforced that I was a smart, DECISIVE person.) At this time of my life, I take longer to make decisions that are not urgent. I am much more comfortable with not-knowing, with paradox and ambiguity. I take my time and relax into the process of making the decision. I have to say that I believe that I make better decisions now by virtue of taking my time and applying all my life experience to said decisions. And if necessary, I can still make a quick decision if called for, and act upon it. During the worst of menopause, I felt very sluggish and foggy. I felt my brain didn't work well. Thankfully, it abated. I now feel clear and sharp. For how long? Only Time will tell.

Decisions, as most things in life are not 'absolutes'. They are trade-offs. Want that lap-top? Yeah? OK, but you're going to have to eat oatmeal for 12 months. See? Well, maybe that is extreme. And Cop Car is dead on - the information has piled up, which makes the decision tree more complex, and we have LEARNED (most of us) that we must follow that tree, even if it is a 'gut instinct' which is almost always based on past experience. Certainly spur of the moment 'decisions' to buy $300 shoes on a $30.00 shoe budget are extremely poor choices with dramatic consequences. We all make them sometimes ;-> (I NEVER buy $300 shoes, but I have been known to buy $300 WORTH of shoes. I find a pair I really like, I buy a few pair of them. SAS shoes. Oh my, I am a walking advertisement for them!!!)

Back to... what was it we were talking about? Oh yeah, memory.

I find that, all joking aside, I have a more difficult time holding a train of thought than I did when I was in my 20's, but I can still solve a differential equation - it just takes me a couple of tries and a quiet padded cell with no doggies, doorbells, jelly-bellie's in the kitchen... You know none of the really Important Distractions right before my eyes.

I feel as confident as ever in my decisions, and don't seem to have any trouble making them. I rarely dither, and I don't notice my Mumma dithering either, and she's 94.

So bottom line is, like most things biological, I think that it is totally individual.

BTW: Your earring comments caught my attention. Isn't it incredibly cool to be shed of all that 'sexual tension' that went along with 20's and 30's?? I don't care WHAT pair of earrings I wear anymore, just as long as they are brightly colored and amuse ME! No more fight for status (I'm already a Captain ;->), no more worrying about 'Saturday Nights Alone'. Who cares! I've always got a Patrick O'Brian book at hand!

Ronni, I think you should do a post on exactly that last paragraph. I think that a lot of why 'older people' like me, feel 'free' is because we are free of all that sexual pressure. Sexual hormones no longer drag me around as they once did. They are still there to provide some fun, but they don't control my life! I control how much of them I want to allow free reign.

I've got to think about that myself. Maybe I'll have a stroke of 'literary articulitis' and come up with something fun to read.

I don't make snap decisions. I look far down the road and weigh all implications of each step before I make a move. Maybe this is because I worked in many offices before going back to uni as a mature student. I saw people getting fired because they were big, because of their age, or because some boss couldn't get them in the sack! All my observations in the biz world gave me an NYPD gift- the ability to size up a person rather quickly. So here I am at 64, living where I want and still working. I am very frugal and will not borrow a cent to do anything. I never want to be owned by "the man." No botox for me. I'd rather tweak my house than pump my face! I can't believe how many seniors I see sitting alone in malls. Maybe some of them like to sit and think, but that would drive me crazy, so I plan and celebrate every year of my life, by doing, achieving, helping, listening and giving. I've seen too many capable teens decide on a dime- or after one class to drop out of school or try cocaine...We need to be out there, not sitting idle.

Thanks for the mention, Ronni. Darlene may be saying it right for me too when she says she just doesn't like making decisions now. That might be what I meant when I said it was harder to make them. I do know that when I was younger, I could make snap decisions and they would be good ones and I'd not be sorry for making them. Lately, I'm not so sure that a decision will be the right one and choosing not to make a decision is somehow better than making one that turns out to be wrong.

I find it easier to make large and important decisions than I do small ones, like what dress to buy and what to make for dinner. Buying or selling a house would come easier to me, for some reason. Why should I or anyone be more confident about large decisions than small ones?

I strongly believe that when Seniors get more opportunities to be re-educated about the different possibilities for having a productive/creative retirement life; then the decision making process will show a great improvement for all Seniors at any age. As a Seniorpreneur I find that I'm in a position to make decisions everyday without wasting much time on things that are not as important. Be the best that you can be on a daily basis utilizing all the resources that God has given you.

I'm finding decision-making much easier as I age. I have certain freedoms I did not have when I was younger(partially self-imposed then -- responsibilities centered on my mother and my immediate families needs.) There aren't as many unknowns, unpredictabilities now that are subject to sudden and instant change as I lived with for so many years. Basically, I have only myself to think about -- with family living in States far away. I don't know how long my status will remain like this, but I'm going to enjoy the time as if it will last forever.

I surely know what you mean about the frustration of living in a house with "custom" sizes for basic features -- a real pain and added expense when needing to decorate or re-decorate a place i.e. windows as you mentioned. I don't really give that much thought any more to not having some things as I might have once wanted them. Perhaps I can use my "windfall stimulus" for blinds/drapes. I know this is off the subject but, do we have to declare that stimulus as income on our taxes for 2008?

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