For several years now there has been a lot of talk about “successful ageing” (also called “ageing well”) and how to do it. Hardly a day goes by that I don't see a new article about it and in fact, Google the phrase and you'll get nearly half a million returns.
The not-very-clever joke told by people like me who don't like the phrase is, What is UNsuccessful ageing? Death?
The advocates of successful ageing - who are government and non-governmental agencies concerned with old people, academic researchers who specialize in ageing, and healthy lifestyle advisers who range from physicians to media bloviators like me – emphasize the big three prescriptions for successful ageing:
• Physical and cognitive fitness
• Active social life
• Good diet and other healthy habits
There's nothing wrong with those admonitions except that they are all we are told about successful ageing with the accompanying implication that they will help us maintain a facsimile of youth.
As if that is the meaning of growing old. It is not.So today, let's take those three “rules” as a given, set them aside and talk about some some other ways to think about how we age.
It is a blessing that I am intrigued with how my body and face show increasing signs of age - almost by the day now. A deeper wrinkle next to my mouth. Creases in my forehead more permanent. The crepe-y skin on my belly getting crepe-ier.
I cannot take credit for my fascination with these changes; it just happened along the way but I am grateful for it.
Imagine what it must be to regret one's face in the mirror every morning. It would be a dreadful affliction made worse in that it cannot be changed and attempts to do so – Botox, surgery, etc. – fool no one.
We all get old. When we do, we all look old. Get over it, stop paying attention to wrinkle remover ads (none of them work) and do something more interesting.
Without giving a single inch to the cultural conviction that growing old is only about disease and decline, it is good to learn acceptance, as becomes necessary.
If you can't clean the whole house in one go anymore, slow down. Do it in two days, three days or as long as it takes.
If, like me, you need a day off from people the day after a social engagement, do it. Learn to say no.
In recent years, there has been a not-so-subtle urging for old people to push themselves to physical extremes. Every time there is a news story about an 80-year-old climbing Mt. Everest or bungee jumping off a bridge, the unspoken question to the reader is, what are you doing sitting there watching television?
Do not accept this kind of thinking.
Even among the healthiest among us, if we live long enough, our physical capabilities will wane. It's okay. Do as much as you can or feel like doing and let the rest go. You won't be a bad person for it.
GETTING TO KNOW YOURSELF
One of the most common things you hear from the recently retired is that they don't know what to do with all the time they have. Advice from the advocates is always the same: volunteer, join a club, get active.
You can do all those things if they are what interest you but now, at last, there is time to reflect on your life, think about where your life has taken you, what you have learned, note your accomplishments, forgive yourself for your failures and maybe set a new course.
This takes quiet time, alone time. Make notes, write a memoir even if it's only for yourself. These years are the time to remember, recall and work out what it all has meant to you.
This hardly covers it. The point I wanted to make today, and this doesn't really do it well, is that the emphasis of the “successful ageing movement” is pretty much 100 percent on physical health and the appearance of youth, and that is not good enough.
There is so much more to life and whatever the gurus of ageing well think, that IS what we are still doing at our age: living. In all ways available to us. Just like younger people.
The first and most important thing to remember about growing old is this: there is no wrong way to do it.
AFTERWORD: I was/am dissatisfied with this piece. It had been rolling around in my head for several days, I liked the general idea and had made some notes. But as happens sometimes, it is lacking. It just didn't develop well.
Nevertheless, I needed to move on with other plans and – good, bad or indifferent, the post needed to be to be finished.
Now, five or six hours later on a Sunday afternoon, I've been reading a couple of chapters in a book about perception of time that I will tell you more about at a later date because a great deal of it addresses the issue of how time seems to accelerate as we age.
In that regard, there is a relatively short passage that relates to the question of ageing well that applies to today's post. It is from Felt Time by Marc Wittman.
The author is discussing a work titled On the Shortness of Life by first century CE statesman and philosopher, Seneca, in which he scolds his countrymen who put off living until too late.
”...in Seneca's opinion, life only seems short to us – that is, to pass faster and faster - because we waste time on so many useless activities. 'Useless' does not necessarily mean lazy Sunday afternoons on the couch. Seneca endorses anything but an unconditional work ethic," writes Wittman.
“On the contrary, he wants to demonstrate that many of our pursuits in life – and especially the work we choose, which eats up all our time – keep us from things that would really prove fulfilling and offer an emotionally rich existence.
“At this juncture, the reader may reflect on his or her own activities. What is keeping us from doing what we really want to do? In other words: life is, in fact, long, if only we know how to use our time.
“In the language of memory psychology: Live in such a way that your life is varied and emotionally rich; then you will live for a long time.”
Wittman and Seneca are a bit more concerned with longevity than I intended to discuss today, but Seneca's advice is an excellent prescription for successful ageing.
Or, I could have kept this a lot shorter by quoting Joseph Campbell: "Follow your bliss."