This is the last in a series of 4 consecutive posts on aging. I hope you’ve enjoyed these.
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The Art of Aging Well
“If you are mindful that old age has wisdom for its food, you will so exert yourself in youth, so that your old age will not lack sustenance.” –Leonardo
“A life not worth examining is not worth living.” –Plato
Engage with any type of media- newspaper, magazine, TV, radio, or internet and you’re likely to hear or see ads about aging. Plastic surgeons, drug companies, nutritional supplement companies, dermatologists, cosmetic companies, and even dentists, among many others have gotten very good at getting us to spend our dollars to try to stay young. America it seems, doesn’t value the wisdom and unique virtues of the older among us.
We know the positive impact exercise can have on the aging process but what about our perspective on aging?
What if our perspective on aging is actually causing us to age even faster? Could the stress we feel about aging exist partially because we haven’t come to terms with our own mortality?
I’ve noticed over the years from the many older adults I’ve worked with how young an ‘older’ person can seem when they have the right attitude, positive energy, and are upbeat and joyful about life. Most of us have known older people who seemed to stand out for their very real sense of youth and vigor.
One of my favorite people who meets this description is a client and friend, Ms. Lucy Willard of Atlanta. Lucy was a flight attendant for Pan-Am airlines back in the 40s but as of this writing, in her late 80s, she still wakes at 6am every morning for her 2 mile walk at the 2nd Ponce De Leon Baptist Church Fitness Center in Atlanta. She has a social calendar which would be the envy of many in their 20s or 30s. More telling, Lucy brings a smile to all those around her with her impeccable sense of fashion, upbeat demeanor, and witty sense of humor.
Hollywood perpetuates the notion that no one gets any older. Media stars spend millions of dollars to look younger than they really are. Most of us can’t afford these options.
It’s easy to see how we could get stressed out about aging if we compare ourselves to celebrities in superficial ways. Every culture’s perspective on aging is different. In the US we are not particularly kind to older people. Age is not celebrated as a marker of respect anymore.
Regardless of where you look in our country, aging is viewed in an almost entirely pessimistic light. I can remember a time in the not so distant past when I was a child in the 80s it seemed to be quite different. Maybe the pendulum will swing back the other direction so age is seen as something to be revered as a marker of wisdom and maturity.
In many cultures, older adults are held up as the great purveyors of wisdom and truth and are to be honored and respected before all. Perhaps it’s time for us to change our perspective back to one in which age is honored.
The biggest problem with a pessimistic view on aging is it perpetuates mental and physical inactivity and sedentary habits by exacerbating the decline of essential organ systems which need activity and stimulation as we age. We think aging is bad and this seems to demotivate us.
In his exceptional work on aging called The Art of Aging, Sherwin B. Nuland, MD, urges us to take a different point of view and approach aging as something to be cherished. According to Nuland’s work, aging should be viewed as an opportunity to prepare for the future, be productive, gain and impart wisdom, and shed false identities in regards to status or career. He urges us to become more authentic to our true selves and more engaged with our life as we age, not take things sitting down.
In the book, which I consider essential reading to anyone interested in the deeper aspects of aging, Dr. Nuland reminds us how many people age with little or no loss of function and that the brain has a remarkable ability to influence its own aging. He identifies 4 interdependent factors which affect aging:
1) Environmental influences
2) Normative genetic age changes
3) Decreased expectations in inactivity of body and mind
Nuland describes aging well as the ability to recover from injury and how nutrition, smoking, alcohol consumption, and the environments in which we live have an effect on the aging process. Learning ability slows as we age, but the ability to learn or learn from experience does not. Intellectual quickness and on-the-spot reasoning slows some, but wisdom can increase dramatically.
Aging, far from being a negative and pessimistic event far out on the horizon, should be faced and even embraced head on in a loving way, mindful that how we use our life matters deeply.
As Nuland urges in his book, instead of pretending the aging process isn’t happening, in order to sustain mental and physical health it is essential to plan ahead to be productive and lead a rewarding life of contribution. The wiser we use our younger years, the more rewarding we will find our later years.
My grandpa, who I wrote about in several earlier posts, and who I wrote about in Movement and Meaning, died at age 80 after being born in to a rural Appalachian family. He led a tough life of physical labor working for Norfolk Southern railways and running his small farm in Alabama, but his life had meaning. Grandpa is someone I look at as a model of how aging should occur.
The man was a man’s man, honorable to the core. He never bragged, boasted, or acted arrogantly and he never complained about his lot in life either. Grandpa worked hard to be a good father, a good husband, and a good member of the community and his church.
He was always very physically active, even though he probably never once even went in to a gym. A good part of his ‘exercise’ in the last 10 or so years of his life involved lifting, bathing, and feeding my Grandma who had severe health complications from childhood polio which resulted in all sorts of health issues for her in her later years, rendering her physically incapacitated. He took care of her not only physically, but mentally and spiritually, encouraging her and providing loving affection. Grandpa understood what it meant to live an honorable life and to give.
Without ever being a formal exerciser, his work on the farm and on the railroad kept him trim and fit up until he suffered a sudden heart attack and died at age 80, a few years after my Grandma died.
Thankfully, he got to have some fun and travel the last few years of his life with a new girlfriend. He was very active and never had to spend a day in a nursing home. He didn’t focus on being happy, he focused on doing the right thing and living a life that mattered. That’s what kept his heart strong.
When I look to the future and to the end of my life, I want to be like this. I want to be active, giving, and enjoying life up until the moment it’s time to go.
Aging is not a bad thing.
Aging is a good thing.
Aging can be a wonderful thing.
Many cultures the world over respect the older ones who have gone before us. Maybe we should do the same. Maybe they can teach us something.
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