One of the greatest challenges in growing old is grappling with tendencies and pressures to withdraw into ever-tighter circles of restricted daily activities. There is no single word or phrase that captures this process, nor is there much research about it. But aging experts agree that withdrawing into an isolated lifestyle is a common practice that can create or worsen physical and emotional problems.
There are, to be sure, some positive reasons for a more limited lifestyle. Downsizing a home, for example, can be a positive experience that helps people get out from under a house that has become too big. Perhaps the home is also filled with possessions and memories that encourage living in the past and not the present.
Moving into a smaller home may be a relief physically. It also can save money. And it may open up opportunities to spend time on new pursuits. In this case, a limiting decision can be a good one.
There can also be inescapable consequences of aging that make it natural to reduce or end activities that have become challenging. Home maintenance, for example, may become physically taxing or even dangerous. Climbing ladders to clean gutters, paint ceilings, or change light fixtures may no longer be a wise thing to do. But in restricting these activities, people are also ending a part of their lives that has included regular trips to the hardware store, the satisfaction of designing and executing home improvement projects, and a range of other socializing activities.
"I would argue that as each of us gets older, we shrink our environment to get better control of it," says Dr. Eric Tangalos, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic who specializes in Alzheimer's Disease research and other aging issues. During our lives, he says, our behaviors reflect a shifting balance between the levels of autonomy and risk in our lives and our desire for safety and security.
"To be independent, we have an environment that is more risky," Tangalos says. "As we age, we move across the spectrum toward one that is safer and more secure. To do this, we usually willingly give up some independence. When we end up not able to manage our affairs we are dependent on others. The equation plays out throughout our life and when we do it right, it is usually a harmonious balance."
While the desire for control and independence are powerful drivers of behavior, it's important that they not produce a solitary lifestyle that precludes new experiences, community activities, and interactions with friends and family.
"I think one of the major issues for adults as they get older is to maintain their social connection," says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA) in Vancouver. "An example of this is the fact that 70 percent of baby boomers see retirement as a time when they want to spend more time with their families. Yet people can often get isolated as friends and family move away or pass on. This can become a significant issue, leading to depression and a downward spiral with one's health."
This is why perhaps the single most important factor affecting people as they age is their ability to adapt to change. Changes that were taken in stride or even embraced in earlier years sometimes become harder to accept. "This is one of the hardest things to do as you get older," Milner says. Adapting to technology is a specific concern. "Technology is all around us and if you haven't adapted to that, you may feel not in control," he says. "I believe you lose your control when you don't adapt." From there, it may be a short step to retreating into a more limited and restricted environment.
Isolation is not only the decision of the aging person, Milner notes. It also can be the result of attitudes and actions of people and institutions with which the aging person has a relationship. "You get to a certain age, and you don't get the support you once did. It's literally like you become irrelevant."
Milner says the ICAA has cataloged more than 2,500 studies on aging, and none of them focused on the ways in which aging causes people to shrink their environments and scope of activities. "People touch on it but don't really dive into it," he says.
Here is a list of 10 common "shrinkage" activities. See how many describe you or people you know.
1. Driving. Drive less; keep only one car in the household instead of two.
2. Home. Move to a smaller home or even a retirement village, where home maintenance and meal preparation are minimal. Live in fewer and fewer rooms in your house, using others for storage.
3. Hobbies. Reduce or stop playing golf, cards, gardening, and other pastimes.
4. Travel. Take shorter vacations or no vacation at all.
5. Children. Relocate close to adult children and rely on them for errands and support activities.
6. Clothing. Downsize your wardrobe, particularly business attire.
7. Entertainment. Stop going to restaurants and shows.
8. Learning. Reduce reading (active) in favor of television (passive); stop learning how to use new consumer technologies.
9. Food. Stop cooking, eat the same things all the time, stop trying new foods and recipes.
10. Friends. Cut back on activities outside the home with friends.