Does age have an impact on one’s ability to let go?

February 16, 2015

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

The information on aging and the anecdotal evidence I have gleaned from my own clients suggest that the magical age is around 70. If you have not developed a succession plan by then, and you have not begun the activity/training necessary to transfer the authority/responsibility to the next generation, it will become more and more difficult as each year passes.

We all struggle with issues of mortality. For our first 30 or 40 years, believing that we are invincible, we take enormous risks. As we get more mature, we begin to understand that we need to modify our risk taking. Then we slide into middle age where we know intellectually that there is a finite time to our existence. We all react to the “middle age crisis” in different ways. I once met a fellow who, at 55, bought a “muscle car.” When I asked him why, he said that it was the safest response he could think of to his middle age crisis.

The interesting thing about our awareness of our own mortality is that there is a disconnection between our knowledge of the fact that nobody leaves this earth alive and the emotional integration of that fact. (The exception is people who have had a near death experience or have a terminal illness with a finite time to live.) However, when you reach 70, your body starts to send you messages that cannot be ignored. The slow integration occurs of the intellectual awareness and the emotional awareness of the reality of mortality.

Naturally, that integration process produces anxiety and internal tension. All of us have developed coping mechanisms throughout our lives to manage the anxiety and tension that life heaps on us. An effective coping mechanism is to participate in activities with which you are familiar and that make you feel competent, relevant, productive and important. Running the family business can sooth one’s anxieties regarding the inevitable. Consequently, the older one gets and the closer to the end one gets,  the more difficult it is to walk away from the position of authority (the coping mechanism), i.e. to “let go.” Do it now, or certainly start to plan for it now. It will never be easier than it is today.

Do not lose heart. However, I once worked with an 83 year who could not let go. I integrated his wife and the mother of their (competent) son into the engagement. We got to the attorney’s office to sign the papers, and he found a clause in the document with which he was uncomfortable and to which he objected.  His wife said, “Harry, sign it.”  And he did. He then turned to his son and asked if he had to move his office and would he still have his secretary. The son said, “The office and the secretary are yours for as long as you want.”