column: Old age must be approached with positive outlook to make the most of it
Old age may be restful or frightening or boring, but however it plays out, growing old is simply a fact of life — if we’re lucky. Until we reach that stage it is more an abstraction than a fact, but at some point, varying greatly according to the attitudes and the fortunes or misfortunes of the journey, that benign abstraction becomes a reality that cannot be ignored. The problem is how we define that reality.
A too common perception of Senior life, at least by those only part of the way there, is a blend of bored, slowed and defeated — of drowning in the vacuum of an empty life. One of the several problems with such assumptions is that for many seniors the diminished routines and responsibilities that had been reliable cornerstones now seem slated for extinction, a loss accepted by many of the aged as inevitable — simply the way life goes. And much of that may well be as advertised, but not necessarily, and certainly not to the extent that so many people fear. To some degree, of course, deterioration is an inevitable fact of aging, but the likelihood of it becoming seriously debilitating can be minimized by the attitude and efforts of the individual. The familiar old-age ogres are always threatening from the wings — greatly reduced mobility, loss of vision, dementia, advanced osteoporosis, as examples — but as much as those tragedies are largely beyond our control, our concentration is more profitably focused on what is still within our manageable domain.
By applying a positive approach to each of the emerging stages of life — and, as observed by Alfred P. Doolittle in “My Fair Lady, “with a little bit o’ luck” — anything is possible, even including an old age of productivity and pleasure. It’s not all luck, of course, but an inordinate amount of it certainly is:
- luck in having the health for independence
- luck in having the financial freedom to pursue more appealing paths
- luck in having the opportunity to utilize that luck
The key point in this is that a significant amount of interest and challenge and activity still remains for those determined enough to pursue it and use it. Essential for continuing productivity during old age is an attitude that enables and encourages us to keep on going. During our more productive years, most of us concentrated so relentlessly on doing the work and honing the skills necessary to succeed, that little time was left for pleasures or opportunities unrelated to our “breadwinner” obligations.
A too common attitude now is that working all those hours on tasks requiring full attention took out of us all we had to give, so now we are what we are — get used to it and accept it. That is not true. At every age, what is necessary for a continuing engagement with life remains evident and available. In his book, “Successful Aging,” Dr. Robert Kahn, professor emeritus in Public Health at the University of Michigan, notes that “most people seem to feel that how well one ages is hereditary... [but] environment and lifestyle may be more important... There’s lot one can do to keep one’s mind sharp with age.”
He refers to “The horse is out of the barn” syndrome, by which he means that the excuse, “I’ve done this for half a century and it’s too late now to change,” is simply an untenable excuse for giving up. Changing lifestyles in one’s eighth decade is not easy, so the pain of revision may be hard to manage or justify, but the satisfaction of success — even a little and late — can be a wonderful reward in itself.
The health of a lifelong smoker, for example, will not be much improved by quitting the habit when in one’s seventies, nor will the obesity of an eighty-year-old lover of food be greatly reduced by giving up rich desserts, but merely as evidence of continuing control over some of the challenges of life this far down the road, simply knowing that we still have some reasonable control of our lives, can be very satisfying and reassuring.
It certainly is true that in the late decades of life, the assumptions and routines of youth have only a limited role to play, but neither are they to be disdained or dismissed. Even despite the constrictions of advanced age and frailty — the exercise of a game of golf, for instance (when unimpaired by the score), or simply participation in the controversies of the community, can be pleasant and beneficial. A surprising and encouraging example was evident in one of Dr. Kahn’s experiments in a nursing facility. In it he had all the aged residents — even including a 98-year-old woman — participate in the exercise of “pumping iron” (lifting weights) three times each week. Overall, the results were very encouraging, showing an average strength increase of 174 percent — even including the 98-year-old woman.
Participation — in everything that comes your way — is the key. Walking and talking are natural and pleasing activities, but aiming a bit higher than that, when possible, is a good alternative to many of the limitations of old age.
Robert Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He and his wife, Eunice, owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.