“To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.” — Henri-Frederic Amiel (1821-81)
Today’s leading-edge baby boomers stand on the cusp of senior citizen status, and yet remain obsessed with youthfulness and longevity. Most have absolutely no interest in becoming old. Many have begun employing superficial remedies to delay the outer signs of aging — the creams and dyes, nips and tucks, implants and transplants, patches and rugs. Still, others are becoming interested in exploring their values, attitudes and lifestyles, and how all of it affects the process of aging.
How old is old anyway? Is old determined by the number of years one has been around, or the state of one’s being? Is there a particular age when one commences being old — is it when a state of decline becomes evident? And is decline a monolithic concept of degeneration for all people?
Sixty-five was the marker of old age in the day when retirement was first conceived in the late 19th century. Life expectancy back then meant a person might live only a couple of years beyond that age. Today, when we reach this landmark age, another 20 years of life can seriously be anticipated for well more than 50 percent of us. So, where do we place the marker for old age now?
Being old isn’t totally age-related, or completely linked to decline. Many older people in physical decline maintain superb mental, emotional and psychological health. The personalities and attitudes of these vital older people are inspirational and worthy of study.
Successful aging is a rich fabric woven of many threads. It produces a person who thrives, not merely survives. Some of these threads are common among people who age this way. One is the belief that their lives remain useful and purposeful. Another is their greater propensity for wit and humor, especially regarding themselves. The connection between one’s stress level and illness is well established, and the relationship between attitude and stress is becoming clearer. An attitude narrowly focused on constantly striving for material success is negatively associated with emotional and physical well-being.
Dr. Martin Seligman in his book Authentic Happiness says, “Beyond the safety net, more money adds little or nothing to subjective well-being. While real income has risen 16 percent in the last 30 years, the percentage of people who describe themselves as ‘very happy’ has fallen from 36 to 29 percent.”
Success can become toxic when it ends up costing too much in terms of what we say we truly value in life. Success fails when we lose the gifts that give life meaning — our presence and attention. This kind of striving poisons us when the ample opportunities to enjoy life are sacrificed to the constant obsession with seeking a better one. Detoxification becomes a matter of reclaiming our own attention and placing it on what we need to feel fully alive, to be able to give and receive love, and become who we are.
There are many euphemistic clichés associated with aging. Having a “senior moment” implies forgetfulness. He’s “slowing down” is a softer way of saying he’s slipping, or worse, becoming useless. Yet, in a positive sense, a senior moment may be any moment spent attending to what one truly values in life, and this can only be possible if one is willing and able to slow down and remain present.
We live in a frenetic success-oriented society where striving is valued above all else. We’re taught to never be satisfied, never give up and never stop competing. A feeling of deficiency is constantly reinforced. More is always required because enough is never enough.
The failure of material success is particularly evident in the lack of contentment and peace of mind experienced during the young and middle years, when striving is at or near peak levels and we are under the greatest amount of stress and pressure. Those who are lucky, or genetically well endowed, will survive these years and reach a potential turning point. This most often occurs toward the end of the work/career/parenting arc, and corresponds to the time of life when one becomes known as a third-ager, or senior.
Author Geoffrey Godbey had six words of advice for those seeking true happiness: “Own less, do less, say no.” Author Henry Van Dyke wrote, “It is better to desire the things we have than to have the things we desire.”
Both men are referring to the mind-set of “sufficiency,” a concept conspicuously absent from modern marketing and advertising. Older people have the opportunity to step off the treadmill and embrace this sense of sufficiency. For perhaps the first time in their lives, the opportunity exists to calm down, connect to all that matters and be content — all key ingredients in the recipe for aging well.
John Henry Cardinal Newman once wrote, “Fear not that life shall come to an end but rather that it shall never have a beginning.” We struggle coming to terms with what we want out of life from a young age. We embark on a long and arid quest to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and so often we come up empty.
In the words of a 26-year-old player in the Women’s National Basketball Association, “I’m at the top of my game, but I feel like I’m at the bottom of my life. I cry every night when I’m alone. I gave my whole young life to get here, and now I wonder if it was really worth it. I can never relax. There are so many young players coming up behind me that want to take my place.”
Old age may be the only time in life when becoming who we really are is possible. Time is what we lack when we’re being pushed and pulled by all the things we need to achieve, get done and have. But that pot of gold we seek is a chimera. Even when we think we’ve found it, and it’s full of more gold than we ever dreamed possible, it can’t buy back one moment of the time lost, or the things we gave up looking for it.
As baby-boomers enter this new chapter of life, perhaps the time has come to forget about the pot of gold and start enjoying the rainbow.
— Stuart Light, M.A., M.Ed, serves as affiliate faculty in the Master’s in Clinical Psychology Program at Antioch University Santa Barbara, where students in the program’s Healthy Aging concentration specialize in supporting the needs of elders and their families from a “wellness,” preventive perspective. Light also teaches in Antioch’s B.A. Program’s psychology concentration and at Santa Barbara City College in the Alcohol and Drug Certification Program. He is the author of numerous articles, columns and essays on political, social and psychological issues.