Psychologist Nicola Gates on Leading a Long and Happy Life

In March, leading Sydney psychologist Nicola Gates is giving an intriguing talk on leading a long and happy life at Glebe library, as part of Seniors Week. You can book for that free event here. It sounds fascinating, and I am certainly going along.
I had a few questions I wanted to ask Nicola about maintaining energy and enthusiasm as we age, and she was kind enough to share a few of her insights.More about Nicola and how to get in touch with her at the end of this Q&A:

Q: Do you think our culture exhibits a healthy attitude towards aging, or are there areas where we could improve?

I think we are actually in a state of transition and developing a much more positive attitude towards aging.  I do think that previously there was a lot of pessimism.  For the vast majority gone are the days of the golden handshake and death within 5 years.   This change has come about through a number of changes- increased life span, better health services, increased number of older adults - the boomer generation with their great expectations and higher disposable wealth.  Consequently for many, older age is now a time of possibilities.   This awakening is increasingly being reflected by society, the media, and general social and cultural attitudes.  However, the most important determinant of our own older age that we can control is our own attitude and health promoting activities and lifestyles.  Science suggests that the journey starts in our middle years.

Q: What do we do about maintaining our energy and curiosity into our old age?

Studies suggest that as much as 60% of diseases / health issues and discomfort are associated with life style.  Although we can’t change our genes, and for the most part our socio-economic situation, we can certainly change our life style to insure that we are in tip top form in terms of  our individual optimal physical, mental, spiritual and social health.  A great term is TLC - we all need  tender love and care, but TLC also means therapeutic lifestyle change. The reality is our bodies do get old but there are many ways to exercise and keep physically fit with flexible joints and strength. A healthy diet is necessary to fuel the body, improve our immune system, and increase our capacity to resist and recover from any ill-health issues.  Relaxation and stress reduction is vital, as is having meaning and purpose in our lives.  Lastly, being socially connected to family or friends and having lots positive emotional experiences. I have had the fortune to interview hundreds of older Australians and one thing I learnt from their collective wisdom is that attitude makes a huge difference.  The Harvard University “Counter-clockwise Study” certainly demonstrated that thinking ‘old’ makes people old and their lives contract.  One way is to be positive, optimistic and be open to the world.  I am inspired by a lovely 83 year old nun who upon very late ‘retirement’  discovered information technology and purchased an ipad!  Be inspired – and make necessary life style changes. 

Nicola Gates is speaking at Glebe Library in March

Q: As so many developed societies are aging rapidly, do you think we are moving into the era of the late bloomer? Is 60 the new 30?

Marketing and media like using catchy phrases to describe social phenomena so the cliché 60 is the new 30 may have appeal.  I think the expression is trying to encapsulate that at 60 you have another possible 30 years of time to grow and explore.  However I do not think 60 is the new thirty because it essentially means that years of life experience and developing wisdom are forfeited.  Psychology has a long history of describing different stages of the life span– developmental, social, neurological, physiological, etc.  – and 60 is another  stage – albeit different now to how it was a generation or two ago.  I also think caution is required as even within developed first world societies, there is a huge discrepancy between how individuals experience 60 and older.  It is wonderful that there are the late bloomers – usually those in good health with economic and social resources, however, sadly, there are many who certainly feel that they are in their autumn.  The essential idea is that everyone gets the opportunities to carve out their later years as they would wish and to have optimal functioning-or as is being described  ‘positive aging’.

Q: What books or authors do you recommend to help us cultivate our wisdom and enthusiasm as we grow older?

There are many books, programs, websites, and blogs  proffering advice and stories of life journeys and self-help guides.  However one of the fabulous things that happens as we get older is that our life experience makes us more unique. Consequently I can’t recommend anything specific as my suggestions wont resonate with lots of people- instead I would just suggest: explore and remain curious and reflective.  There are many wonderful discoveries yet to be made.  Perhaps on that note maybe I can say that one of my favourite books for life is Dr Suess’  Oh the places you’ll go  - it is a life touch-stone disguised as a children’s book.  Work out which page you are on and keep moving forward……

Q: What’s something I could do right now that would spark my inspiration and help me prepare for a healthy and happy old age?

Sit comfortably, let yourself relax into a daydream and imagine what you want your ideal healthy and happy older age to look like. What are you doing? Who are you with? Where are you? How do you feel?  By imagining what you want you are significantly closer to making it become a reality.   Then write down your ‘blue sky’ ideal and work out the relevant steps or strategies.  Make the life you want.  It is yours.

Nicola Gates is a neuroscientist and registered clinical neuropsychologist and psychologist with a wealth of clinical experience in both public health and the private sector.
You can see more about her and her work at her website


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