opinion: Limitations that come with aging shouldn't be only change people see
After all these many years of getting through each decade in order to better cope with the next, we don’t see ourselves as different from our previous selves — except maybe a bit weaker, a little slower and, of course, in keeping with the supportive cliche of the aged — much wiser.
Such generosity in self-appreciation is not universal, but is rather a reaction of the individual, varying from person to person. I, for example, always believed my performance on the ski slopes in my early-80's was as smooth and accomplished as it was in the early days of my maturity — although that may say more about my limited earlier skills than about my longevity. And lately I’ve been troubled and more than a little surprised when using a cart for 18 holes of golf on a hot summer day is more a necessity than a luxury — and that not even with such indulgence can I reduce the number of strokes that accumulate during this exhausting exercise.
Fortunately, despite my new (or newly recognized) athletic limitations, my vision of myself as a reasonably skilled athlete, nourished by the fantasies of eight decades of delusion, remains intact, enabling me to perceive my poor performance as just another step in my continuing improvement.
For the better part of the last two years I have been fortunate to have some of my observations appear in the AnnArbor.com. The justification for this privilege was the expertise on aging assumed to have been granted me by my longevity, encouraging me to give advice — or perhaps solace — to seniors entering that late and worrisome stage of life.
While the focus of many of those articles reflected my natural optimism by concentrating on the high hopes and achievements of advanced senior status (an appealing concept for most aging activists), the instinctive reaction of many youngsters just entering that period of adulthood is a bit different. Many of our juniors tend to group all ancients together as a single force, convinced that under our greying or vanishing hair and beneath our newly wrinkled skin we are all pretty much the same. They may see us as antiques diminished by the fading efficiency of brain cells worn out by decades of too much thinking, or as beneficiaries of cells grown wise and strong by their decades of exercise in guiding us through some of the more obscure mysteries of life, but in either case we all appear as members of the same extinct tribe.
The reality, of course, is that old people are simply young people who have aged — perhaps who have aged a lot. That does not eliminate the natural changes that attend the process of aging, but it should justify a bit of caution in accepting any too hasty conclusions. My inadequacy on the golf course, for example, is hardly a new phenomenon, the sad consequence of an aging body, but is a failing that has hounded me for the past many decades. And my poker losses are not because of my inability to properly compute the odds of success before making or calling the net bet, but are more a product of the irrational optimism that had always guided my moves in life — both at and away from the poker table.
Out of all this scientific evaluation comes the inescapable truth — that the flaws and strengths of our older selves tend to be a continuation of who we were at the beginning. Our maturity may have given us some insights or new perspectives to enhance our several strong points, or perhaps further damaged our well-being by playing to our assorted weaknesses and short-comings, but the essence of who or what we are largely was determined at about the time of our exit from the womb.
And that is a concept with which many of our replacement generation, the youngsters just starting their journey to Senior status, seem to have problems comprehending. After so many decades on the firing line and now perceived to have been reduced to the role of obsolete observers, we are seen by the young almost as a different species altogether.
One of the facts of life, however, is that it is the flaws and strengths that had been built into us at birth that largely determined our character and that to some degree shaped and colored our future. With help from our early guides in life — our parents, our teachers, our friends — and by trying to be reasonable, objective and fair when approaching our dotage, we can modify our flaws and enhance our better points at least somewhat, but primarily we are the product of our genes.
Or, in the immortal words of Popeye, one of our great early American heroes, the basic truth for most of us is that, “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.” It is the problem of coming to terms with such limitations — thereby ending our dependence on the irrational hopes of unlikely dreams — that could be most illuminating and possibly most disturbing.