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Managing Unexpected Change as We Age

Your Flight Has Been Cancelled!

Illustration of the chaos we feel when plans change unexpectedly - a man in his room as everything swirls around him in disarray.
Image designed by ©Jorm Sangsorn on AdobeStock

Last week my phone rang at 6 am as I was leaving for the airport. My travel agent announced, “Your flight has been cancelled!” 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 ninety, 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 TV, and am continually baffled by my phones.

Illustration of anxiety and negative self-talk - woman's head covered by black cloud and her face covered in black ink, not able to think clearly.
Image designed by ©Jorm Sangsorn on AdobeStock

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

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 before 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 fifteen 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 ten minutes, I would alert the airline attendant of my plight. Just having a plan helped me relax. After ten 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-wort complainer. In a few minutes, the wheelchair pusher arrived.

Illustration of plans foiled - a man standing on a broken path trying to decide what to do next.
Image designed by ©Jorm Sangsorn on AdobeStock

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.

5 Do’s and Don’ts for Managing Change

1. Do ask for help.

Seeking help is a crucial skill for aging well. As we age, we will be tempted to try to do things by ourselves — it becomes a matter of pride. Getting help is usually the wiser option.

2. Don’t ignore your feelings.

Feelings are facts that demand our attention. “Name it, to tame it.” Acknowledging our feelings almost magically dissipates them and makes them more manageable. 

Illustration of making a plan - a man standing calmly on a stack of lightbulbs as he forms a plan for what next step to take.
Image designed by ©Jorm Sangsorn on AdobeStock

3. Do make a plan.

Having a plan puts temporary closure around uncertainty. You are taking some control over the situation where you actually have little control.

4. Do eliminate negative self-talk.

Berating ourselves isn’t useful. We all thrive with understanding and empathy. And we need to learn to see ourselves through lenses of compassion.

Illustration of psychological balance- luscious green plant growth in the form a silhouette with peaceful views in the background.
Image designed by ©Jorm Sangsorn on AdobeStock

5. Do re-frame what happens in the best light possible.

Re-framing what happens from another angle helps us recover our equanimity and optimism in the face of an unwelcome event.

These techniques are all about attitude. Our happiness does not depend upon avoiding setbacks, disappointments, and even tragedies. Our well-being depends on the meaning we make of whatever happens to us. We are the stories we tell ourselves!

What other steps help you handle unexpected change?


To explore this topic further, I am recommending the following articles discussing Resilience in the Face of Change and Getting Comfortable with Uncertainty.


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5 commentaires

Judy Quint
Judy Quint
21 avr.

as always great advice at any age!


As a psychotherapist myself I use and teach all those tools. As a woman who experienced panic disorder and agoraphobia for over a decade (twenties and thirties) I still fight this need for certainty and uncomfortable with change feeling at times (I'm now almost 73). I usually get to where you reminding myself of the truth and making a plan. But your article reminded me of work I still need to do. Thank you!

En réponse à

Thank you so much for your comment. I'm especially pleased as a psychotherapist that you found my blog to be interesting and helpful.


21 avr.

Thank you for your insight and sharing you adventures. Getting old is easy being old is hard. I don't want things to stay the way they are, I want them to be the way they were. Your wise words always seem to help me understand aging. Best regards and good health to you. Paul (82)

En réponse à

I'm glad you are finding the blog useful. Getting old is a challenge and aging well is always a work in progress. Best to you.

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