Aging Well as an Act of Improvisation

Nancy K. Schlossberg of Sarasota, a professor emerita of counseling psychology at the University of Maryland, has published nine books on coping with transitions in life. This month, at 87, she is bringing out what she says will be the final one: “Too Young to be Old: Love, Learn, Work and Play as You Age,” from the American Psychological Association. The book draws on interviews and academic research, but also shares some of her own life experiences — including Schlossberg’s successful ventures into online dating in a chapter titled, “Go for Romance (If You Want It).”

Q: One of the things I noticed about your latest book is that there seems to be a lot more in it about you personally.

A: There’s no question about that. There are two memoirs in it. Is there too much of me?

I guess it didn’t seem appropriate before. I wrote a book proposal, and the selling point was that I am an old lady, and I’m writing about aging, and I’m a professional. What it’s done is made me terribly comfortable about saying my age, and being old and looking old. It’s very, very freeing.

Q: One of the anecdotes I loved was your airline experience, where you were flying into a violent storm and you decided to focus on a worst-case scenario. You came up with the happy thought that you hadn’t yet outlived your savings, so you could leave something to your children if the plane crashed.

A: I said to my son Mark when he met me at the airport, “You just lost some money.”

A: Well, we’ve discussed the issue of reframing (a psychological term for considering things in a new way in order to transform one’s thinking) before, in our conversations.

I will tell you an example on reframing: The other night we were with six other people at dinner, and the service was horrible, and everybody was bitching because they wanted to go see a movie. Finally I said, “Listen, it’s terrible; I know it’s terrible. But look at how lucky we are: We have more time together.”

When you try to trick yourself into thinking about it differently — I think I did a lot of that after my husband died. I would say things to myself. There’s a lot of research that does show that self-talk can alter the way you think about things. I said to myself, “Look, you have a choice: You can be a tragic figure and everyone will feel sorry for you. Or you can be grateful and appreciative about what you have.”

Q: In the book you talk about non-events, and the “ripples” you can feel from other people’s lives: “Everybody I know has a grandchild and I don’t,” or “Everybody has been to Paris and I haven’t.” Why is this feeling that you’re missing out on something a hazard of age?

A: I wrote a whole book on non-events. If you don’t want children, not having children is not a non-event. But if it’s something you expected and wanted and didn’t get, that’s a non-event. So the person is the definer of it.

Does it loom larger as you age? I don’t know the answer to that. But I think if you let it make you become an isolated person, pulling back from things, it’s not good.

Q: You do write in the book that it’s natural as you age for your number of “possible selves” to become limited: Maybe once you turn 50, say, you can no longer become a trapeze artist. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

A: Well, not necessarily, because it’s reality.

On the other hand, for me, once you’re in your 80s, there’s a qualitative difference. When you start to see those limits depends on you — it can be in your 60s or 70s.

Q: The book talks about being flexible when you face these limitations, and the importance of improvising. You write: “First we try one thing, then we turn the kaleidoscope lens a bit more, we see life in a new way, and try something new yet again.”

A: I think shifting the kaleidoscope is a way of understanding reframing. I don’t want to sugarcoat aging, because there are a lot of negatives and a lot of sadness. But it’s your attitude toward it, your approach to it.

Now I want to ask you a question. We’ve talked about non-events and non-negotiable limits and future images of yourself. What was the most important thing to you in the book?

Q: Because I’m such a planner and control freak, I find liberating the idea that you don’t know what’s going to happen. At first I didn’t like the book’s title, because I hate it when people say, “Age is only a number.” Age is a lot more than a number.

But after reading the book, I like the title very much, because it suggests you’re younger than you think you are — not because you should wear short skirts and get plastic surgery — but because you don’t know what’s going to happen or how you will deal with it. You write about having a sense of curiosity.

A: Ten years ago when I thought about a book, I was going to call it “Surprises” — as opposed to “Passages.”

I don’t want to present aging like it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. Because it isn’t; it’s got its ups and downs. But the constant need to improvise, and turn the kaleidoscope, can keep it interesting.

Barbara Peters Smith

Nancy’s Books are now available on audio

Recently Nancy’s books have been converted to audio for listening on any device.  Check them out at the following links.

To listen to “Too Young to Be Old: Love, Learn, Work, and Play as You Age” click here.

To listen to “Revitalizing Retirement:  Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose” click here.


How to Handle Life’s “Nonevents”

Coping with life transitions can be difficult for anyone. We expect big changes to affect us emotionally, whether positively or negatively. When we face an event such as starting or losing a job, retiring, moving, getting married (or remarried) or losing a loved one, our friends and family typically rally around to provide emotional support.

But when something we planned or counted on doesn’t happen, we may not recognize the emotional impact—even though the adjustment may be just as challenging. That makes these nonevents especially hard for us to cope with.


Nonevents are changes you expected to happen but that do not occur as you had hoped.

Examples: You worked hard to receive a promotion that didn’t come…you planned to retire at a certain age, but you do not have enough money to stop working…you were looking forward to becoming a grandparent, but your children choose not to have children of their own. There are many more expected things that just don’t happen.

These disappointed expectations can affect your life in profound ways. You may feel a deep sense of failure or loss. Your identity and assumptions about your place in the world may be challenged. You may question your competence and worth.

Example #1: A man who always wanted to be a commercial pilot joined the Navy and was trained to fly. When he left the military, he was crushed that he couldn’t get a job with a major airline. He became a lawyer and no longer felt comfortable calling himself a pilot, but he deeply missed that identity. He felt envious of his friends who were working in areas that they felt passionate about.

Example #2: A 60-year-old woman expressed dismay that she never became the poet she expected to be. She had received poetry awards when she graduated from college, but after that, nothing happened. She was unable to get her work published and eventually gave up. She kept thinking about what might have been.


My colleagues and I at University of Maryland interviewed more than 100 people of all ages about how nonevents changed their lives. We identified several different categories of nonevents. Some nonevents are personal—they stem from our own choices, abilities and limitations.

Example: A woman always expected to lose the weight she gained decades earlier when she was pregnant. At age 60 and after many unsuccessful diets, she concluded that she would never have the slim figure she longed for.

Other nonevents are ripples, resulting from life choices made by the people around us. 

Example: Not becoming a grandparent because your children don’t have children.

There is a third category we investigated as well—it’s not technically a nonevent but an event that turns out to be delayed, though it feels like a ­nonevent for many years to the person experiencing it.

Example: A woman who finally accepts that she will never marry and lives with her nonevent for decades. Then she meets someone at age 70 and marries for the first time, turning her nonevent into an event.

Because nonevents often are invisible to others, the people who experience them are likely to suffer alone. Those around them may not realize that support is needed. No one throws you a party for the book that did not get published or brings you chicken soup to comfort you about the grandchild you never had. This lack of support can prolong unhappiness and make it difficult to move on. But you can move on and become happier if you know how to help yourself with nonevents.


My colleagues and I have found that people who recover successfully from nonevents follow these three steps…

1. Acknowledge the loss. Nonevents can be harder to spot than event-related transitions because they tend to be more gradual—the cherished goal or dream recedes further and further away. It is important to acknowledge what is bothering you and why you are feeling dismayed. You need to label the loss as a nonevent and tell the people close to you what you are experiencing.

Example: A former professor who ran a government agency was shaken when he learned that two of his former students had surpassed his professional achievements. Instead of being satisfied about the contribution he had made to the next generation, he felt envious and diminished. Only after admitting his disappointment in his own academic accomplishments was he able to refocus and begin taking pride in his former students’ success.

Helpful: Tell the story of your lost dream to people you trust. Choose people who can listen empathetically and won’t try to minimize your disappointment or try to talk you out of your feelings. If family and friends don’t have this ability, talk to a therapist or clergyperson.

2. Grieve. Separating from a dream takes time, and the pain of disappointment may come and go in cycles. Find ways to express your grief.

Examples: Write in a daily journal…cry if you have the urge…seek spiritual solace in a house of worship or with a meditation group.

3. Refocus. This is the time to let go of old expectations and look at your nonevent differently. You need to begin to think of possible new ways you might live your life and identify new goals and dreams.

Developing rituals or rites of passage is a way to help people separate from the past and move to a new place.

Example: A young woman who had given up hope of marrying sent an ­announcement to her friends and family members saying that she was moving into a beautiful new apartment and that she had registered for housewarming gifts at Macy’s.

Shifting focus is necessary as we shape new goals by identifying a new dream, a new vision, a new self.

Example: The lawyer who had wanted to become a commercial pilot began to see himself as someone with a satisfying hobby—he bought a small plane that he used to visit family and go on business trips. He realized that flying was essential to his well-being and that he could fly for fun instead of as a career. This outlet freed him to find enjoyment in his law career.

Because life does not follow a ­preordained script, it is important to have backup plans. All of us will have scripts for our lives that are interrupted and do not go according to plan. We cannot count on life just following a neat, arranged, linear script.

Aging Rebels Don’t Give Up: They Reinvest in Life

A group known as “Aging Rebels,” who are in their seventies, eighties and nineties and members of the Senior Friendship Centers in Sarasota, Fla., meet regularly to discuss issues that can press hard on us during the last third of life.

They ask, and answer, questions like these: Am I living in the right place? Can I deal with loneliness during the pandemic? How do I build relationships with family, partners, friends, and colleagues? How do I cope with losses that accompany aging? How can I build resiliency?

Here’s how a few of them have found the answers they were looking for:

Creating New Paths and Reframing Loss

Some Aging Rebels have crafted paths that help them remain in the moment after a devastating loss or multiple losses. Like Henry (who, like other Aging Rebels, prefers not to reveal his last name).

Henry represents the power of moving beyond yourself and caring for others, also known as the helper-therapy principle.

His father died when Henry was 16. In his 40s, Henry had a divorce followed by the unexpected death of his mother. This double-whammy left him feeling temporarily shut down and has reverberated throughout his life since then. Nevertheless, Henry has had a nourishing relationship with a cousin, an extended family, a close friend, and a second wife.

Perhaps most important for his dealing with loss, Henry developed a spiritual side, working with an old friend to develop a program training interfaith chaplains. He then helped start a singing group supporting people in hospice care. Lately, Henry has been helping other older adults write their memoirs.

Henry represents the power of moving beyond yourself and caring for others, also known as the helper-therapy principle.

Redefining Expectations

Beryl is an Aging Rebel who found a way to redefine the holidays when she was feeling isolated and lonely in the pandemic.

She has lost her best buddy, a close colleague and many other good friends. Given the limits on traveling during the Covid pandemic, Beryl had no friends with whom to celebrate Thanksgiving last fall. But she realized she could be alone without being lonely.

Beryl made a delicious turkey breast along with her favorite cranberry sauce, and ate a lovely lunch by herself, followed by watching one of her favorite movies on Netflix.

She consciously decided to reframe her holiday, redefining it from the Norman Rockwell version to an opportunity to create new holiday traditions, ones that were different but still enjoyable and meaningful.

Beryl was experiencing what’s sometimes called a “non-event.” That’s a tradition or event that you expect to occur — but doesn’t.

Reinventing Yourself

Samantha has found ways to reinvent herself despite overwhelming losses that “kept piling up,” she said.

After ending a toxic relationship with her husband, she fell in love but that ended when she became aware her new partner was having multiple affairs. At the same time, one of Samantha’s daughters was killed in an accident. Samantha felt she wanted to die.

Over time, with the support of a therapist, she began to get her life in order.

In her 50s, she went back to school and became a licensed clinical social worker. Slowly, her self-esteem returned. She eventually met and married a loving man. At almost 84, despite a chronic illness, Samantha is about to retire from her psychotherapy practice to make time in her life for her volunteer work and her newfound passion for art printmaking.

Michael is another Aging Rebel who reinvented himself.

His loving wife died when he was 82; she’d also been his best friend and social director. Faced with creating a new life, Michael met regularly with a small group of men for lunch at the Senior Friendship Center. That led him to start a current events discussion group. It was so successful, another nonprofit invited him to replicate the group. Michael also started and co-led a group focused on aging issues, which eventually became the Aging Rebels.

Learning to Rebound

Other Aging Rebels, like Ruth, have learned to just let life take you along.

After Ruth’s husband died, she relocated to Florida and, at 97, moved into a retirement community where she met a man who became the love of her life. After he died when she was over 100, Ruth faced the reality that men would no longer be her focus.

As Ruth says: “I just go with the flow and enjoy life.”

So, she continued performing on the piano at private gatherings, playing bridge four times each week and taking charge of her investments. As Ruth says: “I just go with the flow and enjoy life.”

Joan was her husband’s caregiver as he developed dementia. She felt trapped, lonely and often frustrated. Both their families were up north and not able to help.

Taking care of him and their house was too much for Joan, so she and her husband moved into an apartment building downtown about five years ago. After Joan’s husband died, she realized what a wonderful community of caring women and staff were in her building. They all reached out to her, and she never felt alone. Many have since become her friends; they socialize, enjoy dinners and theater together.

Her advice: Keep looking, don’t give up.

Strengthening Existing Bonds

Stan is a very active man in his mid-80s who wants and needs attachments. But he is absolutely not interested in romance or intimacy.

He explains: “My wife was the love of my life. When she died after several years of fighting cancer, I was devastated. I knew that loss could never be replaced.”

To compensate, Stan has focused on relationships that are still central to his life: his three children, who rotate calling him daily and visit at least once a month; two sets of local in-laws; his biweekly men’s discussion group and other scattered friends in the community.

Stan’s advice: Nurture your existing relationships.

Forming a Bond with a Non-Human Companion

Irene, an elegant lady who was a media personality and singer, had it all – a fabulous career and an adoring husband. But when she was 82, her husband died and she lost her hearing and ability to perform.

Overwhelmed by grief, Irene discovered through an organization called Canine Companions that there are dogs specially trained to help those with hearing loss. After a two year wait, she became eligible to get one. These days, she’s totally invested in her relationship with her certified service companion: “Butter.”

The Lesson From the Aging Rebels

Unfortunately, as we age, there will inevitably be breaks in our attachments — because of illness, death, moving, vulnerability, and misunderstandings. To handle this, we need resilience, the emotional flexibility to grieve losses, while opening ourselves to new relationships and experiences, and savoring the surprises life has in store for us.

As one Aging Rebel says, “We are adventurers in this life, with no assurance that each adventure will work out as planned. But we must be willing to take risks.”

How to Overcome Loneliness

Does Saturday night have to be the loneliest night of the week?

Next Page »