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Rhoda P. Curtis

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Coping With Change -- Especially As We Age

Posted: 11/11/11 12:16 PM ET

At a recent meeting with older adults, one of the participants leaned over and asked me, earnestly, "How do you cope with change?" I replied, "It's very difficult." Several possible answers flashed through my mind -- a flippant one, "with difficulty" -- but I managed too look carefully at this young man, 20-plus years younger than I, and realized he was suffering.

He was really asking me for help in managing the changes occurring in his life. The question he asked was very profound, and it is one that assails us through all phases of our lives. I knew he had just been promoted "up" from active director of a company he founded to chairman of the board, an honorary position, but not one that carried the responsibility of day-to-day management. He was suffering from a challenge to his identity and to his own adjustment to his changing status.

It occurred to me that the question of coping with change depended to some extent on who initiated the change. If you initiate the change, it becomes a positive act, and you look forward with anticipation to a challenging experience. If, however, you are the object of a change, pressed upon you by circumstance, your reaction is likely to be quite different.

When I was 21, I decided to leave Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and transfer to the University of California as a senior. This was an adventure that I deliberately undertook, with the full confidence of youth that I would succeed.

Later in my life, when I was 34, and had been running my own business for several years, I went broke and had to give up my business. I was a designer and manufacturer of leather clothing for women and men and had my own shop on Grant Avenue, San Francisco, called Rhoda Pack Leathers. That was hard; it marked a huge change in my life. Not only did I have to change the way I made a living, I had to give up the identity I had created for myself.

What happened? How did I deal with that momentous change? I considered my assets. I had a lifetime teaching credential for California public schools, but I didn't want to go back to teaching in an elementary school. So I took some classes at University of California Extension and got a credential to teach English as a Second Language. After teaching in the Berkeley Adult School for several years, I decided to attend San Francisco State University and get a master's degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). I was 60 years old, and thus launched myself on a new and rewarding career.

There are no easy answers to the question of coping with change. I talked to several people in different stages of their lives, looking for answers while I was preparing this article. I talked to professional and non-professional immigrants of all ages; I talked to elders living in places other than their own homes; I talked to college graduates facing a non-existent job market; I talked to retirees who changed their lives and found similar attitudes toward coping. In general, the people I talked to were survivors. Here are some comments they made on what helped them cope with change:

• A deep sense of strength in self.

• A period of stock-taking; making lists.

• A willingness to re-assess the need to adapt and to adjust.

• It's not easy.

Those of us who lose our jobs after years of perfecting our skills find it difficult to re-assess our assets and find the courage to learn something new. But there is no other way to cope with change imposed upon us. The sense of ground shifting beneath our feet is extremely unsettling, even though we know, intellectually, that there is no such thing as "terra firma." We are comfortable with routines; patterns are reassuring. When the patterns break, we are faced with enormous challenges.

In today's world, we have fewer opportunities to move into new careers, especially as we age. There are fewer opportunities for older women than there are for older men, and the opportunities for change and flexibility are not what they have been.

There are no alternatives to the aging process; therefore, the only way to cope with change is to be willing to take a chance on changing our attitude toward many things.

Security lies in our own strength. If we are willing to break out of comfortable modes, we will find that engagement with other people makes our lives easier. We are all part of a volatile universe, and the only feasible way to cope with change is to take an active part in the life around us.

Rhoda P. Curtis is the author of "Rhoda: Her First Ninety Years," a candid memoir of a first-generation American woman who was willing to change the direction of her life every 12 years, and "After Ninety: What." To buy Rhoda's books and to read her blog, visit her on Red Room.