As I age (yes, even me) it is hard not to notice certain body parts aren't quite the same. Squatting down to pick up something from a bottom shelf is now accompanied by a few groans as my knees protest. Standing back up takes a focus on the goal of becoming vertical again without help. My energy level starts to run out before the day does, even with an afternoon nap. The barber politely doesn't mention the growing thin patch on the crown of my head as he uses brush and hair dryer to fluff things up a bit. The morning stiffness in my fingers goes away quickly enough, but it didn't even exist a few years ago.
Clearly I am aging. Of course, all of us do so from the moment of our birth. But, until the later part of the 5th decade of my life I was able to ignore most of its effects. I used to have a nice career as a management consultant. Then I retired, so aging is what I do now. What I want to do, is age well.
A blog reader sent me an e-mail with a question that made me think. He was wondering what folks used to do in their 60s that no longer interest them in their 70s and 80s. He wasn't talking about physical changes or health care issues that prevented certain activities from continuing. Rather, his was really a budgeting question: what doesn't someone need money for as they move through retirement? That struck me as as an interesting question that fit with my idea of writing about the goal of most of us: aging well.
That raises the question, aging well how? Does that mean maintaining our physical health as long as possible by paying serious attention to our diet and exercise regimen? Does that mean keeping our complaints to ourselves, which would make most conversations with other older folks much shorter. Does it mean keeping our mind and competitive juices flowing by going back to school, starting a new business, or learning a new language?
In an excellent article on Yoga International's web site a few years ago, Deborah Willoughby made a very important point: "In our modern script, the third act—retirement—defines us in terms of what we’ve left behind instead of what lies ahead. Up through our late 50s and into our 60s, our energy has been mainly focused on tangible achievements: earning a degree, building a career, raising children, acquiring property, perhaps making a name for ourselves. Now, as these familiar identities and activities fall away, we find ourselves without a clear, purposeful direction."
To me, that is not aging well. That is what this blog, and hopefully my life, are determined to avoid. There is something called the law of use and disuse, which is the basis of the common understanding that if there is something you don't use, you lose it. That applies to your body, your mind, your spiritual development, your creativity...pretty much everything that makes you who and what you are. In reality, what is a satisfying retirement but a collection of a series of satisfying days, one after another.
Ms. Willoughby went on to say, "Capacities have the potential to expand in the later decades of life. For example, studies show that as we move into life’s third stage [retirement], we use both hemispheres of the brain more efficiently." The idea that the last few decades of our life is just a long, slow slide of decline is simply not supported anymore by scientific research.
Just as damaging is the cliché that 60 is the new 40 or 70 the new 50. No, 70 is the new 70. The brain continues to gather experiences and find new ways to process and use that information. Pretending we are looking backwards only cements in our mindset the idea that 70 is bad. It isn't bad, it is just different from 50...on purpose.
So, I will answer the reader's question this way: what you did in your 60's may no longer satisfy and stimulate you in your 70's and 80's. To assume one can save money as one ages because his or her universe shrinks and less money is needed is to accept the notion of steady, constant decline.
What turns you on at 75 is probably not exactly what lit your fire at 60. Will be it cheaper? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe by 80 you aren't physically able to travel the world. But, maybe you have discovered a passion for pottery, or woodworking, or photography. Maybe your latent writer has spring forth.
True, the $8,000 you spent to tour Europe for 3 weeks when you were 67 isn't needed anymore. But, woodworking, a pottery kiln, or a few fancy cameras can easily cost just as much. The point is, aging shouldn't be seen as a way to save money. Aging is not a budgeting strategy.
I want to age well and gracefully. My faith tells me I have an eternity ahead of me, but I'm in no rush to get there. There is too much living to do.