Positive Aging

Bittersweet Moments—Past, Present, Future

Bittersweet moments illustrated as a women stepping into an image of blue sky with clouds.


I remember sitting in the dining room of my home about to enter junior high school and sobbing because I thought I needed to put aside the activities I loved to do as a child because I was too old. Even though I was looking forward to a new school, I believed that since I was entering into a new world, life would be markedly changed, and I experienced a sadness that I had not felt before.

Life is filled with bittersweet moments, times of pleasure that at the same time may be accompanied by suffering or regret. Although we may be more aware of such occasions as we get older, I am convinced that since we are constantly aging, we will experience many such moments in each decade of life.

In The Third Chapter, Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot recounts the example of a woman who shared her simultaneous feelings of liberation and loss as she pulled away from a leadership role in her company, while at the same time sending her child off to college.

Consider the young mother who shares a child’s excitement of going to school for the first time, yet grieves the ending of the early, carefree childhood years. Or the graduate excited to be assuming new responsibilities, while at the same time experiencing the sadness of leaving college friends behind. Think of the continuing feelings of sadness one might experience after the loss of a significant other, even as the exciting prospect of a new love grows. When Patricia moved into a continuing care community, she felt immense sadness. Over time, however, she experienced a growing sense of gratitude for the care available, as well as for the opportunity of rekindling her interest in art.

When I interviewed Dr. Leila Denmark at age 103, she had recently retired as a pediatrician, due to her failing eyesight, although that did not stop her former patients from consulting with her by phone or even stopping by her home seeking advice. “My greatest concern is growing old,” she confessed. Without a doubt, even at her age, retiring was bittersweet. Even so, she found satisfaction in the recognition she received from the significant contributions she had made to medicine and from the relationships she maintained with the families who sought her advice.

Realizing that the older we are, the more bittersweet moments we will have, I can only hope that I am wise enough to cherish the happy and satisfying times, and to embrace the new with wisdom. In Aging Well, author and director of the Harvard Medical School’s study on adult development Dr. George E. Vaillant concludes that positive aging means to love, to work, to learn something we did not know yesterday, and to enjoy the remaining precious moments with loved ones. May it be so.

As Fred Rogers reminds us, “Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”

Linda Henry writes regularly on topics related to aging, health care, and communication, and is the co-author of several books, including Transformational Eldercare from the Inside Out: Strengths-Based Strategies for Caring. She conducts workshops nationally on aging and creating caring work environments. Her volunteer emphasis is with age-friendly communities.

Read more on life’s bittersweet moments:

That Box of Chocolates We Call Aging — Forrest Gump said, “My mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.”  Read this essay by chaplain Stephen Sinclair on how to take the sweet with the bitter and get on with the business of living.

Jennifer James on the Bittersweet Reality of Being 80: What you gain at 80, says Jennifer James, “is yourself. It sounds self-centered—but it’s that you have one life.”

Finding Joy in Sorrow — Music can often be a redemptive power for sad moments. Brain scientists even have a word for this phenomenon: “pleasurable sadness.”

Book Review: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole


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