THE ART OF AGING – Part I

And So It Is!

Aside from ear hair, nose hair, even no hair, and barring muscle obstinance when doing things at age seventy that at thirty was a ‘piece of cake’, what is it that causes some to become miserable old people, to give in to ailments, to generally be timeworn and sad, while others appear to successfully sail on through the latter years? Why is it sometimes difficult to meet older adults who are truly happy with their current lives and/or happy about the lives they’ve lived so far? Is there an art to aging well, and if so, can it be learned?

Worthiness

As I live through the final years of my earthly existence, I notice that I’m not valued the way I used to be, even though I worked hard for so many years to be successful, to achieve healthy, productive goals, to count as being worthy to family, friends, and community. Rather, I see others turning to what’s new and fresh. I am shoved aside for the up-and-comer. To most, my experience is no longer of interest or valued. My stories are largely irrelevant—definitely not collecting social media fans lol!—possibly because they don’t include how my pic got on the cover of Time magazine, of my being a mega star, or of my parties on my superyacht… the purchase of which is supposedly “one of life’s pinnacle achievements”.

Not everyone is into old people… I get it. Unless we have a special connection to an old person, we are easy to ignore, for the most part.

I’m cool with watching from the sidelines. I’ve had the chance to be centre stage and enjoy the limelight. I get that it’s someone else’s turn to shine. Still, I’d like to think that I’m still worthy.

So, what makes us worthy? Is our worthiness only worthiness to a few close family or friends? Are we worthy because of our work, life achievements, our contribution to community? And, if we are deemed worthy in our later years, how do we maintain that status?

An older man sits alone in a popular restaurant, pretending to sip coffee from an empty cup.

His sad eyes watch younger diners laughing, chatting, and enjoying their meals. I want to invite him to join my husband and me, but we are on a tight schedule. Even if we did have the time to engage with this stranger, I hesitate to reach out because of his grumpy, nasty facial expression.

Is his grouch-on because he’s angry, depressed, lonely, feeling loss? Possibly… and, why not? Any occupation that might have once filled the hours of that elderly diner’s earlier days, that had once given him a sense of accomplishment and worth, are now over, gone, and most likely never to be replaced. Youthful strength and vigour are forgotten. Life has shifted. Adapting can be difficult.

I feel sorry for the elderly diner. Does he have no one? Does he frequently drink coffee alone? Companionship is obviously not part of his picture in the restaurant. What has he lost?

It All Boils Down To Loss

As I age, I feel loss…

… The loss of that which I have achieved and accrued, of relationships, of being valued. I still work hard and set goals that I hope to achieve, but one’s experience and culture blast warnings that ‘at this age’, don’t be too disappointed if you don’t reach your objective. After all, you’re getting up there, and those days are over, girl…

Loss… Two of my husband’s friends died a short while back. They were bright, ingenious gents in their mid-sixties. They closely monitored their lifestyle, each living to the best of his ability to know good health and wellbeing. One of the gents had finally come into a bit of money, something that gave him the freedom to buy whatever he wanted, something that he’d otherwise never been able to do, and now the outcome of which was something he’d never be able to enjoy. It was a sad farewell, as not only did we miss these two chaps and their vibrant minds, but their deaths were viewed as premature, as medical missteps.

Loss of relationships doesn’t only include the death of loved ones. A friend in his fifties is disappearing into the insidious realm of Alzheimer’s disease. The fear of disappearing from life as we know it haunts each of us.

Loss has many faces. I was embarrassed recently upon meeting a former colleague that I didn’t recognize because of the cruelty of cancer. Another associate had to cancel her dream trip abroad because of cancer, a trip she had saved her pennies for for thirty-five years. I chatted with both women in admiration of their having overcome their challenges, while also noticing their unconvincing efforts to be positive and forward thinking. Sadness and tones of regret, of negativity, tinged their words.

Loss of a business, of investments, identity, dignity, body part(s), choice, opportunities, friendship… Loss can quickly age one.

And… loss is deeply felt when no one asks us about us… like the mom approaching her fiftieth birthday confiding that no one asks her about her life experience. Is it because people don’t care? Is it because of social media, whereby if we want others to know something, we’re expected to post it on Facebook?

Or, are we agers simply expected to bite the bullet and accept that we’ve been deleted, unfriended, edited out because our ‘software’ is no longer viable… because maybe it’s gone soft? What about our still functioning OS… I sometimes feel the world simply waits for it to fizzle out and disappear altogether.

About things…

I find myself telling my children that I’m getting rid of stuff so they don’t “have to clean up after me” when I leave this life. ‘Things’ are easily dismissed, passed over, ignored, often not valued by family when a loved one dies. What did she keep this for? He stored all this junk… Now we’re stuck paying to have it removed! Too often comments like this can be heard after someone’s passing.I

Things… trinkets, clothes, photos, furniture, collectibles, perfume, books, cutlery, dishes, toys… that we value or that trigger fond memories, are hustled off to a good-will store, garage sale, or more often than not, simply trashed.

Sadly, when we die, there’s also the vulture-family members who swoop in to ‘clean up’ on things left behind, with hopes of ‘getting’ a decent chunk of the estate. Too often have I seen how those who seldom or never gave the time of day to a dying family member, suddenly show up at the last minute and feign interest. Are we valued only by how much others get from us?

Legacy – who really cares?

Unless one has his/her name on a building or community structure of sorts, his/her name in a hall of fame or on an ongoing scholarship, our legacy often disappears with us when we die. Even if one’s name is cemented in limestone, or on a flag, or on a postage stamp, who does truly care about the life that that person actually lived? Who takes the time to get to know or better understand someone after s/he has passed away? Who amongst us relishes the reading of biographies, of researching historical people and events?

Fortunately, movies – a legacy of sorts – will sometimes portray a notable life. However, a goodly number of people make outstanding contributions that unfortunately go unrecognized.

Meet CECILIA PAYNE. She made the revolutionary discovery of the composition of our universe. Cecilia died in 1979, and to this day, there’s no mention of her remarkable contribution to science, no memorial building or plaque in her honour, no obituary or text book mentioning her unprecedented finding—that the most abundant atom in the universe is hydrogen.

Meet grandma. She’s the quiet soul whose matriarchal influence spans generations, yet her grave-site remains unvisited, her photos filed away or expunged, her stories forgotten.

Meet great-grandpa. He’s the one who lifted every boulder onto a wooden cart and cut down sprawling brush, clearing land that would feed a family for centuries. There’s no photo, no painted portrait, no display of his favourite book. I don’t know what great-grandpa looked like.

Meet my dad. He designed buildings across Canada, most of which are still standing in service to cities and smaller communities alike. No one invests time in discovering which building Dad designed, this including the users of those very structures. They might nod respectfully as I point out the shopping centre, school, or church as we pass by, but that’s the extent of his legacy.

Even if interest in a structure’s history is keen, much of an original design can be mutilated or veiled by renovations, updates, and resale. Take the Bank of Canada’s 12,749 square-foot atrium [that] is now at risk of privatization and threatened with destruction. This architectural sanctuary was designed by Canada’s own Arthur Erickson, whose 1979 Eppich House in Vancouver, BC, is currently priced at a cool $16 million. Erickson’s fame will play little to no role in the survival of his legacy.

Newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, and campfire stories can keep one’s contributions alive. Knick-knacks, a quilt, a painting or poem… we can honour our lineages in ways that are meaningful and worthy. Sadly, one’s contributions can also be quickly erased… as with gossip.

Gossiping—what some might consider to be storytelling, but what typically has a negative overtone—about someone who has died, can maintain a legacy whether good or bad. Do we gossip because we want to learn from another’s life choices, or is it more because we feel better about our own current aging status? Gossiping about someone ‘on her or his way out’ is also prevalent.

A legacy via gossip is hard to avoid. It seems that people like to talk about people, especially if the conversation includes chat about immorality, corruption, mischief, and ill feelings. Even if one lived as perfect a life as could ever be possible, humans enjoy talking about the darker side.

And now for the flip-side of growing old…

Secrets of Happy Aging

Articles abundant expound on the nine, ten, even one hundred ways to age well. If we want to be happy as we age, we’re told to eat fiber, do Tai Chi, take supplements, be optimistic, get good sleep, have friends, walk, ingest whole foods, minimize salt intake, avoid caffeine after two o’clock each afternoon, to not wear too much make-up, not smoke, not drink alcohol to excess, or overindulge in anything for that matter, this to include watching too much television, getting too much sun, and so on.

We’re supposed to manage our stress, since it can kill us, if it hasn’t already. We should use retinoid to reduce any wrinkles, keep good posture, build muscle through exercise, update our hairstyle, visit a dentist twice a year, drink plenty of water, take up ballroom dancing, and stay positive.

Google, film stars, and auntie all have their advice on aging well. In sum, we’re told that being religious, being socially and physically active, that mind exercises, maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes moderation in food, alcohol, and so on, and that being happily married are all tickets to aging gracefully.

Inspiring is 72-year old Lauren Bruzzone, whose exercise regime is now her global legacy because of a YouTube video. So it also goes for 80-year old Jacinto Bonilla, known around the world as the grandfather of cross-fit. Lauren and Jacinto are changing our North American view of how life can be as a senior.

Because I plan to age gracefully, I do take spiritual matters seriously, I enjoy physical and brain exercises, I socialize, maintain a sensible nutritional regimen, and I’m happily married. After watching the Bruzzone/Bonilla videos, however, I’m seeing how I could do more and do it better.

One bit that I am particularly fond of and sincerely committed to is mental stimulation. In socializing, I feel blessed when encountering a bright mind. Indulging in computer games with an intellectual edge is fun. Online learning opportunities keep my brain abuzz. I get excited about all the courses from world-class universities that are readily available—portals such as Coursera offer an abundance of learning opportunities, all accessible by phone or tablet.

Anything else?

Yes! CREATIVITY! I believe that being creative throughout one’s lifetime is the booster of vitality in young and old alike! Following is a list of just some of the things people do to enjoy life:

Creative activities that bring you joy, peace, and hope without the concern of proving your worth, or in other words ‘just for the fun of it’, can infuse strength and promise into one’s body, mind, and spirit.

A hobby can be deeply fulfilling on many levels. It can provide a creative outlet for someone struggling. It can bring people of like minds and interests together, thereby providing the social connection we’re told we need to enjoy growing old. It can give us a sense of purpose and self-worth. Hobbies can open doors to advancement, even possible income. Nurturing a hobby or two early on in life can lead to the reaping of long-lasting benefits overall.

An older couple that holds my admiration, visited with us recently. They hadn’t aged a day! I know we often make comments like this in all kindness, and are thrilled when we’re told the same, but seriously, when I compared their current visage with photos from a decade ago, there was absolutely no difference… except of course in a hairstyle, clothing, or shape of their eye glass frames.

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The couple shared about the annual musicals they write and stage, delivering quality productions that entertain Canadians annually. They spoke about their various community involvements both local and national. At seventy-five, they remain fit, committed to long walks by the ocean, or cycling into a nearby village to shop at the Farmer’s Market. They enjoy traveling, and above all, connecting with family and friends. Each has a share of physical challenges, but none that hold him or her back from doing what’s most rewarding.

I reflect on our visit, and realize that they model how being older can mean being happy and fulfilled. Interestingly, the things the couple does now differ little from what they did when we first met fifteen years ago … translation: keep doing what brings you joy, peace, and hope.

And at the root of it all? HOPE

I submit that hope is what motivates us from our very core, SURVIVAL. We hope to survive, so make choices and decisions that we believe will keep us alive. We hope to better our survival, so take action towards that which will potentially improve our wellbeing.

Hope is fundamental, if not critical, to aging and wellbeing. Studies show that hope is essential for the wellbeing of all age groups.

As we nurture ourselves physically, mentally, and socially, we do so with the hope that it will make a difference, that we will enjoy life right to the end, that hopefully all will turn out well, or that we will make it to heaven, that we will be missed when we die.

The key to knowing achievement and success throughout our time on earth is found in hoping… hoping that a grandchild will be interested in our trinkets or creations, that our lifelong work will be appreciated by someone, that when we do die, folks will show up to celebrate our gift of life. We hope that our dying won’t be shrouded in suffering and loneliness.

Hope Lost and Regained

It’s not hard to lose hope, especially when we run into one of life’s brick walls of failure and defeat. “Hope is easily drained and depleted”, so says best-selling author R. L. Adams. Adams goes on to say—

People achieve their goals through one of two means: inspiration or desperation. Either we’re inspired by events or other people to keep going, or so desperate and in such dire straits, that we push through no matter what we see or hear. (Adams, 30 September 2016)

About restoring hope or keeping it alive, Adams suggests five things we need to do:

  1. Reassess the Situation
  2. Be Objective and Honest About the Situation
  3. Lean on Others for Support
  4. Be Grateful
  5. Have Faith

For a closer look at the concepts Adams’ and others are selling—

Shift your focus

Generally, we tend to focus on failure and negativity. By shifting our lens on life, we then understand that successful people have failed many times. This shifting of focus is sometimes referred to as positive reappraisal.

How and what we think about ourselves affects hope, and therefore our level of wellbeing and overall life satisfaction. Improving our attitudes towards and perceptions about aging can thwart depressive thoughts that often accompany our later years.

Something I’ve learned after a few decades of investment is that my level of wellbeing is better when I don’t hang my hopes on project outcomes. For example, one invests six days a week into a thriving business, only to see it crumble six months after it is sold. A mom lovingly dedicates nineteen years of her life towards her firstborn, only to find him frozen to death in a snowbank. An artist’s paint drips unexpectedly on the canvas, creating an angel rather than a cabin. The musician prepares her concerts a year in advance, only to have it cancelled because the venue burned down.

Stuff happens! We either roll with it, or we put up our dukes and hang on to a fight that might also end up throwing us a curve ball.

Get real

When you take a hard look in the mirror, ask yourself, “Did things go south in life because of something I/we did? Because we were caught in the aftermath of a major event?”

Whatever the cause of the distress or tragedy, being able to stand back and view the situation honestly and objectively is necessary if one wants to ‘move past’ or through it. Dr. Robert Wicks, psychologist and author of the book, BOUNCE: Living the Resilient Life, says that “hidden worries can be sources of help when they become conscious, are viewed neutrally, and are examined with an eye to see how they can profitably direct our energies to develop and change.”

If one is so wrapped up in the situation that s/he ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’, professional help is available. Often, an outsider can offer a new or different perspective, especially if s/he has no connection to the person struggling and his/her problem – emotional or otherwise.

“Swallow your pride”

(Lyric from the song by Bill Withers, LEAN ON ME)

Finding those who have walked through similar situations can provide the support we need when facing life’s difficulties. Brochures of supportive groups can be found in hospitals, schools, and other community services. Reaching out to a help-line, joining a church group, attending a meeting with someone we trust, can all be advantageous in our recovering hope. It’s said that the very act of reaching out for help is a demonstration of hope.

Gratitude

List the things that you can be grateful for. This can be as simple as having the ability to read, write, having food to eat, a place to sleep, having someone who cares, and so on. I’m forever grateful for running water, for indoor plumbing, for hot showers, and for my family.

As a child, I was taught to express gratitude. My siblings and I were expected to be grateful for all things. In my travels, visiting people who struggle to experience the basics of survival, underlines my very desire to celebrate life in gratitude.

Volunteer

Volunteering at a hospital or hospice can soothe a withering spirit by seeing others who are so much worse off. Helping the infirmed get through their day, a withering spirit can feel uplifted and valued.

This brings to mind a ninety-three year old friend who left her apartment each morning to help out at a nearby nursing home. Mrs. Price was her name, and giving was her game. She did the shopping for shut-ins, read to them, folded their laundry, wrote letters for them, fed them, and spent time chatting, encouraging, and sometimes just quietly sitting with them.

One day, on her way to the nursing home, Mrs. Price was in the crosswalk when she was hit by a speeding car. Her tiny body bounced off the hood of the vehicle, flew through the air, finally smacking down on the cement sidewalk. Traffic came to a halt. Authorities were on the scene in moments.

Mrs. Price rose from the sidewalk to gasps and cheers, dusted herself off, straightened her dress, picked up her purse, and proceeded to finish her walk to the nursing home.

Her spirit of giving, and her hoping to make a difference in this world and in the lives of others, gave her a vitality right through to her final earthly departure years later.

Meet Helen Wells. After 23 years of active duty in the United States Air Force, this dynamic 94 year-old woman continues to serve as a volunteer at the 59th Medical Wing, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

I don’t know how Helen Wells fares today, but her online legacy is active, brimming with hope and honour.

And Mrs. Price? Decades later, many like me still think about her and tell her story!

Rather terrific legacies, don’t you think?

In closing…

I had the honour of spending a week with the Grande Dame of film and stage, Sophia Loren. One day was particularly memorable, as we sat on a park bench and chatted for hours. I had recently moved back to Canada, was at the start of my work in film and television, and had just found out that I was pregnant. These rather momentous shifts in my life all happened over the course of a few short weeks.

Ms. Loren’s grace, wisdom, and maturity in that time so long ago, continue to resonate for me today. I leave you with her words about aging:


What the experts have to say…