A TGB READER STORY: A Pandemic in the Time of Pay Phones
Falls Prevention – March 2020

Becoming More Emotional in Old Age

TGB reader Doug M., who blogs at ApacheDug's Teepee, left this comment on Saturday's Interesting Stuff post:

”I think the older I get, the more emotional I become. The video of the storks & that kind man tending to them and giving him a reason for living, left me a bit teary-eyed. Such kindness here.”

In another item in Saturday's potpourri, reader Kate Gilpin told us about how the musical flash mob similarly affects her:

”I have always found that [this flash mob] actually brings me to tears,” she wrote, “because of the amazing sense of community it illustrates.”

It is something that, like Doug, I have noticed about myself in recent years – that I become weepy easily at sad stories, inspiring stories or any other kind of story, it sometime seems.

There doesn't appear to be much research or information on this phenomenon (if it is one) and when there is, too often the undocumented assumption is that it is a medical problem. In addition, the few articles are mostly about men becoming more weepy in old age, but not women.

Do you think that might be due to the fact that most of our lives we have lived in a macho culture that discourages men from crying in public but allows women to do so? I don't know. But I immediately related to both Doug M. and Kate Gilpin when I read their comments.

In one article at the website, A Place for Mom, five of six given reasons for why old men cry are ones that are not unlikely to require medical attention:

Hormonal changes
Previous trauma
Depression, anxiety or mental illness due to aging
Social isolation
Health issues and medications

Since no one with any kind of expertise is cited in that story, let's ignore it and move on.

In an ambivalent piece in Psychology Today from 2011, the writer suggests that outsized reactions to important life events may increase with age:

”In circumstances in which strong emotions are aroused, older adults (of either gender) may not be able to regulate their emotions as well as younger people.”

Does the writer mean, do you think, that feeling strong emotions more frequently in old age is somehow a personal failure? Phooey.

Moving on.

Have you ever been so happy that you cried? I have. There seemed no other adequate response at the time and I think that is partly what Doug M. is getting at and Kate Gilpin too.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Professor Emerita of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, writing in Huffpost in 2015, says that the older we get, the more complex our emotions become and the more we are willing to live with mixed emotions.

”There’s no reason, then, to worry if you have those feelings in which joy and sadness become intermingled,” she wrote. “It doesn’t mean that you’re getting more depressed or losing control of your emotions.

“Take pride in your capacity to appreciate the subtleties of your emotional life, a feeling that should only add to your happiness and fulfillment.”

Now we're getting somewhere.

Five years ago, psychiatrist James S. Gordon, writing in the Washington Post admitted that he sometimes starts the day weeping. It just happens, he said, maybe while reading the morning paper. He went on:

”Almost 40 years ago, anthropologist Gregory Bateson — a pioneer in cybernetics and architect of the double bind theory of schizophrenia — wondered aloud to me if he were becoming more sensitive and affectionate as he moved into old age, more prone to tears.

“A few years later, playwright William Alfred, my former Harvard tutor and long-time friend, said something similar: poems which had once touched him now brought him to tears...”

For all the less-than-edifying copy I waded through to write this post. James S. Gordon is the most thoughtful and interesting. Even though he is writing about men, much of what he says feels right for me. Let's allow him to continue:

”Gregory, gifted observer of patterns, may have put his finger on it. Men may, as they age, indeed become more sensitive. I’ve noticed the changes in classmates at high school, college and medical school reunions, and in the e-mails we sometimes exchange, as well as in myself.

“The competitiveness, the real or assumed toughness of our youth is, as we age, being balanced; our Yang tempered by Yin.

“Perhaps social scientists will eventually find a way to exhaustively quantify the changes. Right now, though, it’s important simply to know what I and other men are seeing and feeling.

“We are more willing to admit to and feel the terrible pain of our losses; to weep in celebration of our own and other’s loving connections; to know and feel the threat that individual and collective greed and selfishness, and the fear that feeds them, pose to all of us and to generations beyond us.

“That our tender emotions are hopeful signs, not of weakness or pathology, but of a necessary and welcome growth — in our compassion, wholeness and, perhaps, our wisdom.”

Although it is clearly a question that could use more research, I think Gordon and Bateson are on to something. What do you think? Do you relate to any of this?

Comments

Good Morning Ronni and fellow elders.
The topic of getting more emotional is one that I've pondered in depth and I am trying very hard to throttle down that trend best I can. But it is very hard to do and there is no way to be 100% successful--it's apparently nature's way. However, I estimate that I've kept it at bay maybe about 75%. I don't do this to be macho, I do it because I would like to be a regular guy as close to the fellow I was a few decades ago, other than looking and feeling old. Simple as that--I resist and I feel better for it, more normal, if you will, like, I repeat, a "regular guy. But, I sure am looking old lately and, on the other hand, maybe I should cry?

In line with your quote by Gorden, somewhere I read that with aging, men tend to come more in contact with their feminine side and women with their masculine side. I know my Dad in his older age said as much when he complained that my mother had become more matter of fact with her emotions and he more labile with his. Maybe both sexes become more open to the wide range of emotions which we possess when we, over time, feel less the expectations of what behavior is appropriate to either gender. As for me, I feel more open to the "complexity" of emotions, including feeling more abrasive and assertive than when younger!

Ronni, you certainly made my morning; I was flattered you read my comments on Saturday’s post, let alone remarked on them here. Thank you! But this is a very good subject, as I’ve wondered about this often, the older I get. I have a younger friend (former coworker) who sometimes responds to links or stories I share with the word ‘eyeroll’ and it doesn’t bother me in the least, I just think “your time is coming”.

I appreciate your discounting those medical theories, while I can’t speak for others it’s not like I sit here and suddenly begin crying for no reason at all. I do think it’s a combination of things, that façade you mentioned no longer feeling necessary, also just having more time to reflect & appreciate things, compared to our busier, younger selves. But I would like to think it’s a gaining of wisdom too.

I was fortunate to have a great father. The only time I saw my father cry was on the day that JFK was assassinated.

I have largely become very similar to my father as I've aged, and I don't think that has been a bad thing...for me or for my loved ones.

By the time I was about 10 years old I think I noticed that crying did not serve me well at home or in any social circle. My eyes may well up a bit in private, but that's about what I can muster.

When I was in may 20s I remember being asked (by a girlfriend) what I felt. I promptly described what I thought. She persisted: "But what do you feel?" I had no idea there was a distinction. I have come to understand the distinction over the years.

As I get up in years I do find that more things "move me". I believe that is because, given a lifetime of experiences, I appreciate just how special those moments are.

Doug M. and others...

I read every comment every day. You don't hear from me much in the comments - I suspect I think I've done my part writing the day's story and the rest is your job...

What a wonderful development, to be more in touch with one's humanity and true tenderness in appreciation of what brings joy and sadness to one's life. From the point of view of a previous psychotherapist, current coach, this is a well integrated life, one that is in touch with and able to allow oneself to be moved.

In contrast, my mother, who had hardened early on in her life, was unable to cry even to the very end of her 98 years. It was immensely sad to me that she had become so brittle and unable to verbalize little emotion outside of anger, bitterness and resentment. Truly, tears soften us and connect us with ourselves and each other...for joy or sadness. Thank you for writing about this.

As we age, we have more time to be in the moment. It seems to me that those who cannot shed tears of sorrow, grief, whatever, also don't have full on laughter. As Picasso, and others have said, tears wash the soul clean. Is that why we often feel freer and lighter after tears than before? In younger years, moving much faster, I would feel "angsty" about something for sometimes many days, then burst out in tears over almost nothing, and then feel better.

Men are taught not to cry. It has only been in recent years that they are allowed to voice their horrendous problems after being in war. We have built a less than humane culture. My father wept when my brother was killed in Viet Nam, and I feel him a better person for that.

"...great father. The only time I saw my father cry...." I think it telling that anyone would conflate "great father" with his not crying. Interesting.

Personally, I (82-year-old female) learned not to cry as a child - in defiance of a father who took his frustrations out beating us kids, leaving scars on our bodies these many years later. I still can't understand people who cry easily; but, I don't condemn such displays by any means. Over the years, I counseled a couple of female (and a couple of male) subordinate engineers that it was okay with me if they cried and, depending upon the situation, I might give her a hug (I found that males cried when I had to have a "come to god" meeting with them, so did not think it appropriate to hug under those circumstances.)

Part of the greater display of emotion with age might be that we are retired and don't feel the need to protect our work-place images?

I cry more now. My crying comes mostly from gently probing the sad memories I've accumulated over 68 years. I think it's a way for me to fit my sad experiences into the overall framework of my life story instead of setting them aside where they can jump out at unexpected times and overwhelm me. I haven't had a sad or desperate life but I've had a few tragic experiences and crying helps me think through them.

Great - and timely - post, Ronni. You are so smart! I had a friend in high school, and having discovered the Stoics in Latin class, we have encouraged one another over the years to endure. Mostly, I tried to be tough as nails, which was a good attitude when I had a career where I was not infrequently the only woman in the room. Mostly, that worked, until I had my one child at age 39. After having a baby, even the most sappy of commercials could set off the waterworks. I think it came from realizing the dangers in the world when you have a helpless being to protect. Someone said - and I think Obama quoted once - having a child is like letting your actual heart walk around outside your body. Terrifying!

That seemed like a permanent emotional change for me, but has lessened over the years, aided no doubt by the fact that my helpless infant is now a competent adult. But there are still things I cannot do without sobbing. I cannot listen to Joni Mitchell's “The Circle Game” or Cat Stevens' “Silent Sunlight”. I cannot watch anything poignant relating to animals — I had to stop watching that stork video when I saw where it was headed. (Which doesn't mean I'm not willing to do those things sometimes — but only when I have the headspace for it.)

As regards men and tears, I think it would be a good thing if we could all realize that crying doesn’t make one, or mean that one is, weak. For the most part, it is a passing experience. A cathartic valve release, maybe. We are unnerved when men cry because we are socially conditioned that they mustn't.

As for aging, whatever the psychologists and doctors may say about hormonal regulation or whatever, I think there is a simple explanation: longer life has given us greater appreciation for the heartbreaking beauty of this world and inhabitants, a world we are, alas, closer to exiting now that we are no longer young and immortal.

Several years ago, I sat in on a friend's discussion of "layers of meaning." He said, for example, when we are young and we hear a song, we might like it and sing along with it and appreciate it—and that gives it a base layer of meaning in our lives. This friend was using church hymns as an example, and he said those hymns then get sung at weddings, funerals, graduations—and each occasion adds another layer of meaning and memories to that song. And the fact that we are all singing them together adds a communal layer of meaning as well.

I love that concept, and I think it applies to your post about old age and emotions as well. Older people just have so many more layers of meaning attached, to everything really. Words, smells, sounds, photographs, places—everything become more weighted and rich and connected and full. So we can't just read a poem anymore; we read it, and we trigger all those layers of meaning, and sometimes we just stagger under the weight of it. The associations might be positive or negative, or both, but the weight of all those layers just sometimes brings us to tears.

We understand so little yet of these things, but at least we can discuss possibilities and acknowledge our lack of understanding and the fact that we're working on it and are open to both science and mystery.

In the past few years, my 71 year old husband has become much more emotional in response to sad movies, stories, songs and those little segments at the end of the nightly news where they share very touching stories of our fellow human beings, both young and old. Oddly, these things don't move me as much as they used to -- perhaps a Jack Sprat and his wife phenomenon.

Maybe emotion in old age is a balancing act. Whatever one was in youth is reversed, or at least moderated.

I say this because as a young woman I was a bit of a drama queen. My emotions careened from one extreme to the other, and when I was down, or angry, or frustrated, I reacted with torrents of tears.

Now that I am older, I find that I don't cry nearly as often, and it seems to me that this is because I have more perspective and am less self-absorbed. If something bad happens to me, I now know, it is not the end of the world. Chances are, I'll get though it one way or another.

Of course, I may be talking about a different kind of tears. I have always cried easily over sad books, movies, etc. and still do. It's the crying over what happens in my life that has diminished.

I think of Bill Thomas's book "What Are Old People For," which has been an inspiration to me for many years. One of the core ideas he offers is that as we get older, we transition from the 'doing' imperative of adulthood to 'being' and this allows us to more present in the moment, to focus more on relationships and reflection. I love how much I enjoy day-to-day life and the elements that fill it. I feel more tender toward the world, people, and all beings. I appreciate you writing about this and emphasizing the positive value of being more connected to life and others, which can totally lead to tears of both joy and sorrow. Thanks!

Thank you for this post, these genuine comments and for validating emotions as a response to the unbearable beauty of living. I admired and deeply loved my Dad and tried to be like him. He was a Marine in WWII and never spoke of his experiences except in screaming nightmares. Mom just didn't know what to do. Who did at the time? He lived with my husband and me in his last years and I feel fortunate to have been able to allow him to share a few of his memories. During these tellings he was finally able to cry about what he'd seen and done.

He was a hunter and fisherman. When he lived with us out in the woods he enjoyed watching the deer in the yard and he fed the quail. The thought of shooting them was no longer on his mind. He often got teary eyed watching his granddaughter play with her puppy. I now know how he felt as I find myself weeping at the thought of some small, sweet memory. It seems to trigger a cascade of losses as well as joys. Like the layers described in Melanie Jongsma's comments. I think it is an enrichment, a deepening of experience that I am very grateful to have now.

Periodically I get a new address book to avoid seeing the crossed-out names. But I keep the old ones and sometimes bring them out and go through the pages looking at the crossed-out names just so I can cry a little and remember each one. It keeps their memories in my mind and allows me to feel for them again. I think we like to cry a little.

Thank you Ronni, for this thought stimulating post. Every comment here teaches me something I didn't know and I say thank you to all to take the time to share here.

Like the gentleman Ronni quoted, James S. Gordon, I too am a longtime fan of Gregory Bateson. Keeping my RN license in NV required 30 education credits a year. His writing was a big part of working in a VA psychiatric hospital , and introduced me to his work.  He was married to a brilliant anthropologist, Margaret Mead, in the middle of his career.  I imagine she must have influenced  his thinking also.

One thing Bateson said I have tucked away in old notes is still true...even more so now than when it was originally penned.     "Science, like art, religion, commerce, warfare, and even sleep, is based on PRESUPPOSITIONS."

Re: The emotional side of aging.  I believe it is simply natural due to the fact that every human body is born with both male and female hormones, with one or the other dominant.  In age, the testosterone declines in males and the remaining estrogen has influence. The opposite is true in females after menopause and estrogen is no longer produced.
 
I will guess, that like me, nearly every older lady reading this has been surprised to see a brittle black 'whisker' on her very own chin once in a while. We have to laugh and buy a nice pair of tweezers to yank them out!  Perhaps Nature knows women are more likely to live longer as widows and a wee bit of testosterone influence can't hurt, and may even enhance their survival. No research here, except personal experience and the ever present opinion. :-)

Salinda Dahl wrote, "It seems to me that those who cannot shed tears of sorrow, grief, whatever, also don't have full on laughter." That reminded me of Kahlil Gibran's 'On Love'...especially these lines:

"But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears."

It is wonderful to be able to feel and express all of our emotions, openly and honestly! I loved hearing the end of a recent phone conversation between my two sons, when they said that they loved each other!

Hi

" Becoming More Emotional in Old Age"

I do not know whether the feeling was emotional or accepting reality. All of us have read articles, viewed the TV news, etc. about the experiences of daily living. Seems the unfortunate occurrences happen to others, or in my case, not myself. Due to infections, I required the medical expertise of an exceptional heart surgeon to remove pacemaker leads that were 12 years old and had bonded to the heart. I received the diagnosis and understood the procedure that would be performed. Originally, I was going to be transported by land ambulance to a different hospital. Then, I was informed the transport would be in a few minutes by the Sky Health ( Life Star ) helicopter, a 40 minute trip. To this day, I still do not know who made the decision for the air transport, but the concern for me as an individual was expressed by taking decisive action.

The Air Medics from Sky health came to my room, explained the procedure and bundled me up on the stretcher for the transfer. It was only at this point I fully realized, this is happening to me and not an article or TV news story, i.e. reality. The Air Medics were superb in providing comfort and reassurances. I was given a headset to converse with them. Also, switched to a different channel to listen to the helicopter pilot.

The heart procedure was successful and recently enjoyed the 2nd anniversary, still having contact with the highly skilled surgeon to express my gratitude and personal thanks for resolving the issue. Again reality, or might it have been emotion, as I walked out of the hospital for a car ride home. Yes, I had survived.

As an aside, the Sky Health helicopter pilot had come to my hospital room upon arrival and presented me with a lapel pin of the helicopter.

I have a picture of me being wheeled by the Air Medics , all bundled up on the stretcher, on the helicopter pad for the air transport. I look at it daily as a reminder of how fortunate I am. Let’s be thankful for all the Professionals that render these life saving procedures, too many times not appreciated until there is personal contact. As I attain the big 80 in a few months, there is a future.

Regards

Don aka AMG1

I'm afraid I can't identify with the aging aspect of crying because I've always cried easily. Any strong emotion brings tears -- joy, beauty, awe, sadness, you name it and I'll cry. So embarrassing to be crying at the end of a movie when the house lights come up. My sister once remarked that she can't cry so she could hire me as a professional crier. I guess I'm just an emotional person who feels things deeply, and I've been that way all my life. Frankly, I sometimes wish I could learn to control the tears.

After my husband died I had to start on an antidepressant. It’s a low dose with no side effects at all and it’s been 5 years now.

But I will say I don’t get teary eyed or sad much anymore and I never was one for anger anyway. So these pills probably have deadened some of these feelings. Loneliness is the only one that is still present at times.

I often think of stopping this pill but I hated the depression and feelings of such sadness and fear I experienced when he died, so I’ll just stick with it...

I think the reason for this, for both men and women, is that anything that provokes emotion taps into our memories of other events like it -- and the older we get, the more of those events we've experienced.

This is why I cry at the death of someone I didn't know. It reminds me of the deaths of so many people I did know and love.

As many of us, I experienced a very sad childhood and learned not to cry, even when our mom was beating us. It was a challenge to remain stoic but it was my way of keeping some power over her.

Now in my old age I am the biggest crybaby ever. I cry at everything; happy or sad. I thought maybe I was entering depression, but Ronni's subject of the day and all the comments have set my mind at ease. Now I won't feel so embarrassed when the tears come.

Thanks to everyone who responded with such personal stories. It's nice now that we're all quarantined, to keep up this refuge where we can still have beautiful conversations.

A talk show host used to quote an ancient saying:
baby girls are born with 1000 angels on their shoulder and baby boys, none. At death, old men have 1000 angels on their shoulder, and old women have none. I cannot find it on Google and cannot remember where it originated. But I agree with the woman who
mentioned the hormones estrogen and testosterone have a lot to do with our feelings of sensitivity.

I used to cry easily at any sad movie, or novel but not so much anymore. And in therapy I cried my eyes out recalling my difficult childhood, and losses in life even though I did not want to cry and for years didn't cry. I do tear up at the good news" segment at the end of the national news on TV. Frequently during a sad movie, or TV show my husband will say he is tearing up, or "that made me tear up".

Today when I went to the market there was a young homeless man standing at the entrance. A woman leaving the store gave him a bottle of water, and some other items. When I left the store I gave him a box of cheese and crackers I had purchased for him. As I walked away I cried because I felt so sorry for his condition. There is snow on the mountains this morning and it was a very cold night here, probably in the 40's. Though it doesn't freeze in this beach community it was damned cold !

I read in a psychological report that tears were tested and were found to have stress hormones which means it is good to cry as it relieves stress. Lord knows we old folks have more stress than usual in our lives now that we are confined to our houses and no one knows what the outcome will be with this pandemic.

Heh--my ears are burning!

I agree with the more-like-the-other-sex (when did "gender" become the preferred word for sexual identity instead of a grammatical term??) transition with age. I'm more yang than I used to be. And I find it MUCH harder to cry, have for years. But I fall apart at touching videos or stories. I wish I could cry more easily. I do think I've become much more sensitive, both for myself and for other people. And I'd agree that a lot of it is due to unfortunate problems like the list you cite above.

At the same time, ”In circumstances in which strong emotions are aroused, older adults (of either gender) may not be able to regulate their emotions as well as younger people” is a huge value judgment that less expressed emotion is better. I think that's BS. Mind you, I'm not in favor of fistfights and road rage. But weeping? I think that, unless you do it regularly for hours at a time, it's good for people!

Still, in my case, I think it also has to do with living alone and having a smaller community than I used to--and also realizing more and more what a dysfunctional family I had as a child. That's sad. At 82, I'm actually back in therapy about that. Never too late, I think.

For Irma.  Just a brief note regarding your comment.
"Now in my old age I am the biggest crybaby ever ".  

If I have not shared this earlier (can't remember if ?) I want to pass on a bit of verse from the 50's-60's period by Phyllis McGinley. I clipped it from a magazine (Likely Woman's Day or Family Circle) then free at competing  grocery stores at the time. 

REPORT ON A SITUATION
Tears at midnight stain the pillow
Tears at morning puff the eye
Twilight tears are brief and shallow,
easy summoned, quick to dry.
Saltier string those tears, they say,
NEVER shed by night or day.
 Phyllis McGinley. 

I always feel  grateful when I can let go enough to have the fabled "good cry".  Maybe you too now, for tears are the messenger of the soul, some philosophers say, and sometimes it tells me what I need to know....a long past grief or even a happiness or feeling of tenderness for someone I don't even know.

Warm regards from a 'wanna-be' cry-baby. 

I not only cry more easily but laugh more easily, too. For instance, I didn't read yesterday's story until today, and chuckled at the ending. How good that feels! At my advanced age, I especially appreciate the sweetness of everyday life.

Just saw the poem above. It reminded me of a poem I remember from many years ago:
Tears on the outside fall to the ground
and slowly are swept away.
Tears on the inside fall on the soul
and stay, and stay, and stay.

I agree with my increased sensitivity to the emotions of joy and sadness. But I also notice I'm nearly suddenly prone to buy stuffed animals. I NEVER did that when I was a kid. Now I have a hedge hog, a brown bear, a bear dressed in old-fashioned pilot clothes, a bear in overalls and a rabbit. What's that about?!

Crying"s such a natural and easy way to express emotion and yet boys are denied it. That's John Wayne's America, I guess.

Anger"s an0ther emotion you're not supposed to feel . So the message becomes Do not express real feelings...only fake feelings.

I think I have always been emotional. What has changed is that now I don't feel the need to hide it. I remember seeing Mohammed Ali on TV, a shadow of his former self, but still somehow with the same nobility. I have hated boxing all my life but I cried then regardless. Seeing the tenor singing Nessun Dorma on his balcony in Florence did the same, especially when he picked up his son at the end and repeated the last line.

I have always been a crier. My mom was exasperated by it, I was teased for it in high school, and embarrassed by it for most of my life. I’m an empath. I feel all the things for all the living. It’s just a fact of life for me. However, it has become even worse as I age. Sometimes I wish I could just turn it off.

BAck here to read the rest of the comments and to report that my husband and I watched a DVD of the movie Glorence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, and I highly recommend it. Based on the real life of the title character, it's funny, poignant, bizarre and moving. As my husband said as it ended and he was wiping his eyes -- "It had a Frank Capra moment there and brought some tears."

Sorry about the typo in that last post -- it should say Florence Foster Jenkins.

I’m laughing as I’ve seen that post above all over the place on many blogs. It’s so obvious a bot of some sort..

anon, sounds like you need a good cry. Here, have some hugs.

I can agree with views of Gordon and Bateson. However, my experience has been unexpected to me. I don’t recall ever seeing my mother cry but heaven only knows she would have had plenty of reason to do so. Stoic she was and throughout my life when key times I wanted to cry I felt I needed to stay strong for others and choked the feelings down. Stories, movies, especially involving animals could unleash strong emotions. I did cry with my son when he arrived after my husband’s sudden death. A variety of circumstances afterward eventually had me adopting a stronger stance for self-preservation since i tended toward becoming too emotional at times. Now I notice no longer experiencing some of the reactive feelings with story lines that once would have moved me considerably. Perhaps it’s all for the best.

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