Declining Conflict Handling Skills with Ageing

My late father always had a difficult strand, but it became worse with age, a higher proportion of whom he was, until in his 90s he could be very difficult to deal with, unable to meet his own interests in dealing with healthcare provider etc., though still in reasonable health, driving and wanting to and able to live alone until a few weeks before his death. My late in laws were both very reasonable, not difficult people until they were in their 80s, when they too became increasingly difficult and sometimes impossible.

So I was interested in what it is that makes this process happen. And I do know several people who have aged without this problem. My preliminary research (based on a desire to see what I can to head it off in myself) suggests the following possible cognitive causes and I leave it to the reader to follow up on any associated research:

  1. Self-censorship declines. There is evidence from brain scans that our frontal cortex, the executive part of the brain may atrophy with age, and this would mean that older people can blurt out things they in earlier life thought but didn’t express. The frontal cortex acts as a censor to help us fit in social settings and not offend and this declines in performance so our blurts hurt other and produce possible reciprocal unreasonableness
  2. Our Emotional Control over feelings of fear, anxiety, depression may decline for the same reason as our Self Censorship: reduced executive frontal cortex control. We become prisoners of our knee jerk feelings and inability to reflect before we feel or act.
  3. Our Theory of Mind of others worsens. This may reflect the decline in the performance of Mirror Neurons that seem to have some role in our ability to feel as others feel. They allow us to simulate others actions (they are motor neurons) and thus walk in their shoes. If our ability in this area declines with age, so will our Theory of Mind of others and our ability to de-center and see the other’s view point, a crucial quality in conflict handling effectively, will decline with very negative consequences for our social skills
  4. Neural plasticity. As the world changes, we need to adapt and understand a world increasingly remote from the one that imprinted itself on us when we were growing up, from our parents and our schooling and our experience of life. As the gap between how we constructed our personality and how the world is widens, then our ability to navigate the social environment will decline and we will become irritated by this navigational difficult and perhaps lash out at a world we find hard to understand or even more challenging: hard to influence. The neural plasticity, the ability to form new brain synaptic connections makes us an adaptive species, but this plasticity may decline with age so that also:
  5. Our Ability to Learn from Our Mistakes may also decline as neural plasticity declines, and also our ability to learn new things, new skills, though my father learned to write fiction and use a word processor in his 80s.
  6. Physical Decline and Pain restricts our mobility and is a source of anger and frustration. It may also mean we turn somewhat inwards and are less concerned about others, have less concern for other’s problems given our own.
  7. Use of Drink or Drugs to reduce the pain of ageing can exacerbate the problem. Drink is not a great help for many people’s empathy or connection to others though it can give the delusion of being powerful in this area. And drink fueled anger is not a pretty sight, or something that is easy to live with.
  8. Sexual Frustration: given reduced sexual feelings or performance and attractiveness, there may be difficulty in achieving the close emotional contact with another that provides solace for the above problems. Anger results and also increasing feelings of isolation. A friend of mine traveled from overseas to see his dying father in hospital and realized no one had hugged his Dad, so he gave him a big hug.
  9. Spiritual Focus would seem an obvious path as we age, but many are not interested, not equipped by education or earlier life experiences to consider this, which is also linked in Buddhism and other approaches to better more mindful control over our mind and body even if they are playing up or diminishing in performance
  10. Denial: And of course the biggest problem we face is denial that we are getting old, fear of acknowledging the limitations and therefore even more difficulty in slowing their onset, in navigating round them or in adapting to their inevitability without ‘raging against the dying of the light.’

So what is to be done? I guess physical exercise is so far the one proven way to slow cognitive decline, though healthy eating and avoidence of substance abuse no doubt helps too. I guess awareness of all these factors and perhaps even discussion of them with those close to us who may feel the brunt of these factor, may be useful. And I suppose a more spiritual and mindful approach to life can provide another channel, support a more introvert mental stance but there is also the danger in isolation that the factors above can accelerate and there is no feedback loop from others to help course correct. Any suggestions or insights into these issues would be welcome as I start to anticipate having to navigate this landscape, scary though that thought is.

And then there is Dylan Thomas’s reaction that maybe a little rage is fine: Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Poetry, Conflict Processes, Marital and Relationship Conflict, Neuro-science of conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Top Ten Conflict Tips from Great Thinkers, Types of conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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