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Aging is Hard: Denial May Be Harder

A recent report on demonstrates the muddled reality of aging. Boomers report feeling younger than they actually are, but at the same time report difficulties of aging and illness.

If you are feeling confused, don’t worry. It’s complicated; but then so are the dynamics of denial. Consider this conflicting statement:  “The comparative data shows that the notion that Boomers feel seven years younger than their age has been consistent since 1993. What’s grown worse is their view of their own health, which can be expected given the 18 years. In 1963, 64 percent saw themselves as being in very good/excellent health. That declined to 58 percent in 2003.”

Though the idea that one can feel young and sick seems contradictory, one possibility is that people who are ill are coping exceptionally well with their disease. Another idea is that some Boomers are in denial about aging. This second hypothesis may have some traction.

For example, in the world of writing and publishing I have heard that books geared toward Baby Boomers about aging and illness don’t sell because, as several people put it, “Boomers are in denial about aging and death.” And in the clinical world, I have had many patients of very advanced ages talk with me about living another couple of decades, sometimes even when they have had severe life-threatening illnesses.

So how can some people report feeling young while still acknowledging the limitations of aging and illness?  Denial.

Many in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, but particularly in psychoanalysis, have emphasized the ways we can all hold two (or more) very different ideas about things. We can have different states of minds in which opposite beliefs exist.

Denial is not always a bad thing. Research in oncology has shown that short-term denial can be adaptive in the early phases of illness. Additionally, I remember when I was being trained in hospitals with medically ill patients and my supervisors told me that the goal of treatment should be to reduce denial in patients who were dying. As clinicians, I am not sure that we always need to have this as a goal (especially when it is our goal and not the patient’s!) People often don’t want to change their psychology at the end of their lives, and it is not my place to enforce the “right” way of thinking.

Long-term denial can have a price, however. Particularly for Boomers, I worry that some people expect their bodies to do more than they can. I have known several people who have ignored warnings about certain physical activities, only to find that they become injured when they decide to hike 6 miles or jet ski, or even make sure they are fully oriented and able to walk when they get up in the middle of the night.

There are also profound psychological implications of denial. When we ignore reality, a part of us knows. It is as if we are making a Faustian bargain with our mind. No matter what we tell ourselves, some aspect of our psyche is engaged with reality. Anxiety and depression can result when we become aware that the story we are telling ourselves is not an accurate biography.

If denial works, that is just fine with me. Aging and illness are hard to think about. Unfortunately, it often does not work to pretend that aging does not have negative consequences.


Aging is Hard: Denial May Be Harder

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D.

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APA Reference
Greenberg, T. (2011). Aging is Hard: Denial May Be Harder. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Sep 2011
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