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                                       “I’m Eighty-Four and Counting!”

             
Are you interested in longevity? Before you respond please allow me to phrase my question in a different way. Are you interested in being eighty-five years old? Here’s why I’m asking you that question. Several years ago I coordinated a seminar entitled “The Later Years” that focused on some of the issues related to the aging process. I invited a specialist in gerontology to provide our keynote lesson. His opening question was both startling and stimulating. He simply asked, “Who in his right mind would ever want to be eighty-five years old?” My initial mental response was, “No one! Not me—that’s just too old.” Following a pause for impact the speaker answered his own question with “I’ll tell you:  the person who is eighty-four years old!” Our smiles and chuckles covered the realization that his statement is true. Let’s face it; his statement makes sense. If I’m eighty-four, then I want to be eighty-five. Literally, I’m eighty-four and counting! In fact, at the age of eighty-five the age of ninety is looking better all the time. If I heard the speaker’s question at this point in my life, I would respond without reservation:  “Eighty-five! Bring it on!”
 

Until recent times the age of eighty-five was a mere dream, a goal far beyond the reach of the majority of people on our planet. Nowadays more and more people believe in a life expectancy that exceeds the proverbial “three-score and ten.” With modern medicine and terrific technology our description of longevity is continually changing. The number of octogenarians increases with each decade, and many more people are living even into the upper nineties. However, while we welcome the additional longevity we also must face the challenges that are generated by the longer lifespan. If we want to excel with life in our later years we must cultivate the attitudes and demonstrate the actions that promote safe and successful travels along the Seniors Highway.
 
In recent months I’ve given a great deal of thought to the issue of “growing old.” My personal exploration of this issue has resulted from a combination of my therapy work with older folks and my own number of birthdays. Without being too specific let me just say that the so-called “later years” are a lot closer than they were when I coordinated the seminar described earlier. My miscellaneous ponderings have prompted this three-part series on the topic of Aging. I see the aging experience (“getting old”) as a process that requires at least three important efforts, all of which are key components to a successful journey during this part of our travels through life. Each effort is suggested by a letter from the word “AGE.” The first letter (“A”) suggests the idea of acceptance. The first effort in aging well is to accept your longevity. The letter “G” suggests growth in that we must grow in learning.  As we continue to learn we will gain both knowledge and experience that together will increase our wisdom.  The letter “E” suggests engagement. We must engage with life in that we stay personally involved and assertively interactive with life’s day-to-day developments, activities, and relationships. 
 

Let’s begin this three-part series by looking more closely at the effort suggested by the letter “A”:  accept your longevity. The extent to which we develop a positive acceptance of our longevity is the extent to which our travels along the Seniors Highway will be a meaningful and enjoyable journey. To increase a positive acceptance we need to tackle three important tasks.

DISCERN THE LOSSES AND LIMITS . . .
 

A healthy perspective about the aging process involves wise discernment of the gains and losses inherent in the later years. Thankfully, most of us have little or no trouble dealing with the gains or the positive aspects of aging. Clearly, our usual struggle is with the adjustments related to various losses and limitations. Our struggle will be less difficult if we understand the truth and accept the reality that with age come personal losses that will limit our lifestyles in a variety of ways. Our challenge is to accept these changes and to use our resource network and our coping skills as effectively as possible. 
 
Many people dread “old age” because they fear the loss of personal health—and for good reason. The evidence certainly points to the conclusion that health problems increase along with the years. We often get a taste of this eventual decline during our middle-age struggles when we encounter the “B-Syndrome,” that is, battles related to bifocals, baldness, bulges, and such like. Older people tend to experience a decrease in daily stamina, an unwelcomed reality that could prompt any Senior to say “My get-up-and-go has got-up-and-went.” We must accept the reality that there is often too much day left at the end of our energy.
 

As health problems increase with age a person’s ability to perform daily tasks is often compromised or decreased significantly. This change is very difficult for elderly people who have practiced a strong work ethic and valued personal independence. They see themselves losing their personal productivity and can begin to feel useless. For example, I recall that my mother at age 93 said to me several times during a particular visit, “I just want to be useful.” She was grieving the decline in her ability to cook for the family and to perform other routine household tasks. She treasured usefulness as a vital part of her day-to-day lifestyle. I pondered the meaning of her words a few days later when she died from a stroke. The loss of productivity and independence poses a major change for any older person to accept. 
 

Losses also occur with aging in the form of physical deaths and personal relationships. The number of friends and family members who die seems to exceed the number of new relationships we cultivate, and the disparity results in shrinkage of our social life. A surprising amount of time is spent in grieving our frequent losses, and it might appear that we’re attending more funerals than weddings and other social events. We face the temptation to stop making new friends in our age bracket simply because we know that, since the age-clock is also ticking for them, they could die and leave us like other friends have already done.
 

Another heavy loss for many people is the ending of employment, usually referred to as retirement. For some people retirement is primarily a gain and is approached with positive expectations. However, for others retirement represents the loss of a valued lifestyle and the perks and positives that accompany work. Worse yet, retirement often brings a reduced income and the inability to maintain a preferred standard of living. An unwanted retirement can be complicated even further when personal disability has caused the end to one’s work life. Even if a retired person has the benefit of financial security his retirement plans can be frustrated by the loss of health, as in the case of a man I once met whose post-retirement travel adventures could not be fulfilled due to his wife’s onset of serious health problems. For some older people the financial “nest egg” is prematurely consumed by unexpected, uninsured medical problems that require costly medication and related treatment. Financial insecurity represents a major threat to our mental and emotional health during the later years.
 

Furthermore, the changes in physical appearance associated with aging often bring feelings of surprise and sadness. We look in a mirror and wonder just who that person is who is staring back at us. Surely the reflection is a representation of our appearance at some point in the distant future. Shocked and shaken we finally admit that we’re looking at ourselves in the current moment. Oh, no! How could it be? What happened to that face of the young adult I remember so well? What happened to that body that was so attractive and strong? Let’s face it:  the reality of physical aging is often a hard truth to accept. I recall an experience recounted by Carl, a friend who had recently attended his fiftieth high school reunion. After being at the reunion for a while he commented to a classmate, “I just can’t get over how old everybody looks. What happened to them?” According to Carl, the classmate responded with his own question:  “Carl, have you looked in a mirror lately?” Ouch! That question certainly brought Carl down to reality. Carl’s experience reminds me of a conversation between Granny and Jethro on a Beverly Hillbillies television episode. Granny was feeling frustrated about her physical appearance during her later years. As she fretted about her appearance she asked her grandson, “Jethro, am I showing my age?” With no concern for sensitivity Jethro responded, “Granny, you’ll never live long enough to be as old as you look.” I doubt that Granny felt any better following that interchange with her grandson. 
 
The so-called “later years” feel like the “sooner years” in that they arrive more quickly than most of us expect. Like it or not, we must face the reality we see in our mirrors and accept our age for what it is. Wishful thinking cannot turn back the clock of time. My ponderings about the “later years” reminded me of a poem I memorized many years ago for a speech I gave on “The Golden Years.” Perhaps you’ll be able to connect with some of the sentiments expressed by the unidentified author.
 
 
         “I wish I were a child again with time to run and play
          I wish that I could walk again the paths of yesterday
          Without a worry in my heart, or problem on my mind,
          And only more of happiness and friendliness to find
          When Spring was green, the Summer gold, and Fall an artist’s scheme,
          And Winter was a wonderland where we would laugh and dream.
          I wish that I could put away the burdens that are mine
          And be once more that little child of seven, eight, or nine.
          But time and tide can’t be denied as calendars unfold;
          Our worries weigh, our hair must gray, and all of us grow old.”

                                                                                                     (Author Unknown)

Another short poem suggests a perspective we might want to cultivate as we lose our youthful appearance through the aging process. The unknown poet expressed his perspective about appearance in simple, everyday language.
 
 
         “I know how ugly I are,
          I know my face ain’t no star,
                But I don’t mind it
                For I’m behind it—
          The folks in front get the jar!’

                                           (Author Unknown) 
 

The first step in accepting our longevity is to discern the losses and limits that accompany the aging process. Our acceptance increases when we remind ourselves that our changes are normal and consistent with aging. We also remind ourselves that “differences” are not automatically “bad” but simply are predictable changes that require appropriate adjustments and accommodations.

DISARM THE LIES AND LABELS . . .
 

Now let’s tackle a second task that is essential to a healthy acceptance of our longevity: disarming the lies and labels that are often hurled at older people. Each lie is like a military IED (Improvised Explosive Device) hidden by the enemy and waiting to explode and harm us as we travel along the Seniors Highway.  A safe journey requires that we recognize each IED or lie and disarm it effectively. This disarmament of lies and labels involves an examination of our personal beliefs about growing old. Clearly, the amount of stress and suffering we experience during the aging process is highly correlated to our belief system about aging. Unfortunately, our culture has bombarded us with a picture of old age that is unsettling, if not downright scary. If we take to heart these negative media messages we will approach old age with much fear and anxiety. Our challenge is to disarm the lies and labels and to make sure that our belief system about aging is accurate and positive. With that challenge in mind let’s examine briefly several of these lies and labels.
 
 
Lie #1:  “All Old People are Unwanted.”
 

One lie that threatens our acceptance of longevity is the notion that “All old people are unwanted.” In contrast to some cultures in which the elderly are highly valued and deeply respected our current culture seems to devalue and disrespect older people. Given these cultural trends it’s no wonder that people approaching the later years do experience fears of rejection from younger generations. It is tempting to think, “When I get old no one will want me.” If we predict that we will somehow automatically become part of the “unwanted generation” we’ll probably resist rather than accept our longevity. The statement “All old people are unwanted.” is a lie in that the word “all” is contained in the assertion. The truth is that even in our culture not all old people are deemed to be undesirable. Some older people are indeed wanted and loved; many of them are valued and respected.
 

One factor that determines how we are esteemed and treated in our later years is the history of how we dealt with people in our younger years. If in our younger years we mistreated and disrespected our family members and friends, we’re likely to receive similar responses from them when we grow older. If we’re not “likable” before the later years, on what basis would we assume that we will magically become “likable” during our later years? The principle about sowing and reaping seems applicable here:  “What we sow, that shall we reap.” We can disarm the lie by rejecting the over-generalization that “all” old people are unwanted. We can also disarm the lie preventively by being the kind of person whom our family and friends would want in their lives.  We need to remember that we determine our own future simply by the way we treat other people on our journey toward the later years. Furthermore, we need to examine, and perhaps revise, our basic expectations about the amount of attention and assistance we think we should receive when we’re older. Too often our unrealistic expectations set us up for disappointment and dissatisfaction.
 
 
Lie #2:  “All Old People are Unhappy.”
 

A second lie that needs to be disarmed is the notion that “All old people are unhappy.” Again, the word “all” makes the statement an over-generalization. The truth is that many older people are happy, some even very happy. If we buy into the lie we will probably commit a self-fulfilling prophecy in that we will feel unhappy and say, “I’m not surprised. I predicted all along that I’d be unhappy when I got to this age.” While these negative self-predictions tend to come true it is also the case that a positive prediction (that is, “I plan to be happy in my later years.”) will tend to be fulfilled. Our personal mindset is a powerful predictor of our level of happiness in our journey along the Seniors Highway. 
 
 
Lie #3:  “All Old People are Unproductive.”
 

A third lie deals with productivity:  “All old people are unproductive.” Again, the word “all” makes the statement inaccurate. Many older people view themselves as unproductive, and they tend to feel useless and unneeded. Other older people have determined to live a lifestyle of productivity through continuing employment or perhaps through volunteer activities and through the positive influence they have on family and friends.
 

As we discussed earlier, the later years usually bring a decline in health and stamina, and with that decline often comes a decrease in our ability to be productive in the same way we were in past years. Therefore, we may need to redefine the meaning of productivity and restructure our efforts. We may be helping other people less through manual labor and more through verbal encouragement. We might tell a neighbor who has been sick, “I’m not able to cook a meal for you like I used to do, but I promise you that I’ll be praying for your recovery on a daily basis.” We may be unable to drive across town to visit someone in the hospital, but we can send her a get-well card with a note of encouragement. Through telephone calls we can reach out and touch the lives of many people around us in a helpful manner. The positive example through which we endure suffering or approach our death provides a powerful influence upon everyone around us. The bottom line is simply this: through creative restructuring we can continue to be very productive throughout our later years. 

DISCOVER THE LEISURE AND LIBERTY . . .
 

As we strive to accept our longevity we need to expand our vision of the later years as a time of leisure and liberty. Each individual must discover the potential for leisure and liberty in his own unique travel along the Seniors Highway. In exploring this issue let’s understand that the celebration of leisure and liberty does not negate the need for continuing productivity in the later years. The goal is to find and follow a healthy balance of “being productive” and “enjoying life.”
 

The term “leisure” suggests the freedom we receive through the cessation of certain activities. For example, we retire from a full-time job and through that cessation of work we find time for leisure. With that leisure time we enjoy certain liberties we’ve not experienced before. There could be the liberty of additional sleep in the mornings or “cat-naps” during the day. We could have the freedom for developing talents or enjoying hobbies. Another liberty could be the opportunity for travel and adventure.  
 

If we view the years ahead as a time of adventure and opportunity we will travel the Seniors Highway with optimism and hope. I like the example of a lady who celebrated her 95th birthday. After her birthday party a friend asked her about her gifts, particularly which gift she liked most. She pondered the question for a few moments and then responded, “When I had my 90th birthday a grandson gave me a five-year calendar that I’ve treasured and used daily. Well, today as I turn 95 he gave me another five-year calendar. I’m set until I reach 100!” This elderly lady was very curious and optimistic about what the next five years would bring for her to experience. She’s definitely a lady worth imitating!
 

To enjoy the leisure and liberty of the later years we have to give ourselves permission to rest and relax. For many people that transition or adjustment is difficult, depending upon each person’s past work ethic and present resources. It’s important to say “It’s okay” to indulge more often in naps and hobbies. Like many older adults you might have your personal “bucket list” of things you want to do while you’re alive. Now may be the time for you to tackle that list and complete the activities you always wanted to do. Hopefully, we will use good judgment and practice wise stewardship in our “bucket list” fulfillment. You might not be a good candidate for parachuting out of an airplane on your 90th birthday, and climbing Mount Everest could be a little beyond your physical capabilities at age 85. Our personal resources may be a huge factor in how we manage our “bucket list.” For example, we might want to travel the world and visit numerous foreign countries, but our “financial nest egg” will not allow for such expenses. Our challenge is to allow our spirit of adventure to be expressed in activities that are appropriate for us in terms of health and resources.
 


​CONCLUDING THOUGHTS . . .
 

Aging is not optional; how we age is our choice. We cannot stop the predicted changes that occur naturally with the aging process, but we can control our attitudes and actions as we respond to those changes. Our personal choices about the specific issues addressed in this article will significantly impact the positive or negative manner with which we experience the later years. Basically, the way we choose to travel the Seniors Highway will determine our level of happiness or heartache.
 

In this article we’ve explored one important effort in a successful journey—accepting our longevity. Specifically, we’ve considered three critically important tasks:  discerning the losses and limits, disarming the lies and labels, and discovering the leisure and liberty. I hope that our exploration has encouraged you and will equip you to travel well on your journey along the Seniors Highway. In the next article we’ll examine the second effort regarding the aging process, an effort suggested by the letter “G” in the word AGE:  Growth in Learning!
 

Allow me to add an additional recommendation. As you travel please add some positive humor to your daily experiences. Look for humor as it occurs around you; let yourself laugh; savor the humorous moments. Create your own levity through humorous resources like books and videos. Learn to laugh at yourself as you experience the changes and adjustments of the later years. Genuine levity and laughter make our journey much more pleasant and pleasurable. I’d like to share a short poem I composed recently about the importance of levity during our later years.
 

                          "Longevity"

         "The years have passed with such brevity
           And now we’re facing longevity;
                   The perspective to gain
                   That reduces the pain?
           Let’s smile and travel with levity."

                                              --Dr. Bill Baker (2013)

I wish you well as you travel the Seniors Highway during your later years. As always, I wish you the best in all of your relationship journeys.
 
 
 
 
 


VIDEO:  To see a short television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses the issue of "Aging:  Accept your Longevity!" please click on the image to the right or just click here.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)

 

             (Later Years: Blog #1201)

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