Illustration: farago.com

Katharine Esty on managing unexpected change as we age

May 23, 2024

My phone rang at 6 a.m. as I was leaving for the airport. My travel agent announced, “Your flight has been canceled!” Oh, no. There goes all that planning for my trip to Bill’s memorial service in hard-to-get-to Flint Hill, Virginia. And I will miss my time on my way with the grandkids.

As a Nor’easter raged outside my windows, waves of anxiety ricocheted around my body. When will planes resume flying? As a speaker at the service, I can’t miss it. Will I get there at all? To say the cancellation was an unwelcome surprise would be an understatement.

As I get older, I realize I just want things to stay the same as they are now. This is a strange feeling for me as I am always seeking ways to improve. In all my jobs — as a psychotherapist, organizational consultant, and coach — I have always encouraged my clients to embrace change. As I age, I am aghast to find myself becoming more inflexible from time to time.

I’m not alone in this rigid feeling. Most of us dislike change. But this can impede our mental health and aging well. As psychologist Rachel Goldman explained in a recent article: Psychological flexibility boils down to… staying in the present moment and being open to experiencing whatever thoughts or feelings may arise, and then take action that is aligned with our values.” Recent studies suggest that those with more psychological flexibility experience less anxiety and enjoy higher levels of well-being.

When Unexpected Change Induces Panic

The American humorist James Thurber said, “Old age is the most unexpected of all things that can happen.” Here I am, almost 90, and I am constantly surprising myself. I develop new aches and pains and get new diagnoses for conditions I’ve never even heard of. I patch, patch, patch. I forget names, have trouble opening jars, fall asleep watching T.V., and am continually baffled by my phones.

Simultaneous changes are difficult to manage. See Katharine Esty’s tips below.
(illustration: farago.com)

However, my family’s motto, “Expect the unexpected,” helped me gain some needed perspective. Simply saying it to myself reminded me that everything would be okay and this was just a minor inconvenience. In six months, I may not even remember this incident.

Maybe that explains why I want my personal life to go smoothly along, no changes, and why traveling at 89 is such a big deal. When my flight got canceled, the uncertainty sent me into a panic. But there was nothing to do except wait, and I am not good at waiting.

After a few hours, my travel agent called again; I was booked on a flight the next day to get me to Virginia in good time for the service. Phew! Back on track.

These days, I sign up for a wheelchair because airports have become bewildering for me. Yet, because I actually walk well, I always feel somewhat like a fraud. When I arrived at the check-in counter, the airline attendant asked me to take a seat in a row of chairs nearby and assured me that someone would be coming with a wheelchair shortly.

After waiting patiently for 15 minutes, nobody had arrived to assist me. My stress level skyrocketed. To calm myself and distract from the frustration of waiting, I came up with a plan: if nobody came in the next 10 minutes, I would alert the airline attendant of my plight.

Just having a plan helped me relax. After 10 more minutes passed, I approached the counter to explain the situation. The attendant said she had noticed no one had come for me and she would call again. I felt reassured. I am a rational person, not a worry-wart complainer. In a few minutes, the wheelchair pusher arrived.

Just as I settled down at the gate, happily reading, my phone rang. The voice on the other end declared, “Your suitcase is back here at Security.” Oh no! I jumped up and started speed-walking back to get it. I was thinking, OMG, how stupid can you be, Katharine? How could you not notice? You are clearly losing it.

I arrived at Security and there — hallelujah — was my marooned suitcase. The man at the podium praised me for including my cell phone number on my bag’s tag. His comment broke up my black mood. It helped me re-frame the whole event and to see myself as both smart and foresighted to put my cellphone number on the suitcase.

I am happy to report that this was the final obstacle on my trip. I could tell you about the wonderful time I had with Bill’s family, but this is about managing change and a few of the lessons I have learned over my long life.