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There Can Be an Upside to Aging

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am part of a book group of couples who are their late 60s and 70s.  Some members are upbeat about aging; others are rather down on it.  The subject of getting old seems to come up regularly.  Is there a consensus on the benefits of aging?   

Answer: I am not sure we can get agreement about the upside of aging since older adults are more diverse than any other age group.  Although there is a tendency to generalize about the “senior population,” these individuals have different life experiences, history and circumstances.  And they have had a long time to accumulate all of these.

To answer your question, I spoke to about 25 people, men and women ages 65 to 80, some retired and other working and asked them, “What is the up side to aging?”

Several answered, “Is there one?”  And others answered, “I’m here.” That was before describing some benefits they were experiencing.

Time: Time was described as precious.“There is time to do all of the things you could not do while working,” said one respondent. Hobbies were important as was spending time with family and taking care of one’s health.

Legacy: The most important gift that most of those interviewed wanted was to have an impact on their grandchildren, creating memories with them and for them.  Although community involvement and accomplishments were important, it was the grandchildren who took center stage.

Greater focus:
“I haven’t changed what is important in my life; now I just am more focused to be with people I care about including being available for sick friends,” one said. “I also give myself permission to focus on my feelings and what is important in my life.”

Looking back, one woman reflected on her childhood, remembering watching rodents running around her home.  She and others were grateful for everything they had now, including health.

Patience: Patience seemed to come with the years.  “I don’t get as upset with my children’s problems,” said one person.  “With all of the emotional anguish, after time I know that things do get better.”

“I want to age gracefully and avoid being a burden on my family,” another said.  “Before I die, I want to be better about money, have an iPhone and know how to use it, learn how to text and have time to read my books.”

In reference to the book, “1000 Places to See Before You Die,” (Workman, 2003), one person said, “I want to go to those places and see and do new things. I also want to have my life in order.”

All acknowledged poor health and lack of money as negatives.  Caregiving was not identified as a downside. A male caregiver to his wife commented, “Good is what you make of it.  Being healthy I can deal with the good and the bad.”

In dealing with the good and bad, you might recall the story of Art Buchwald.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist was diagnosed with a terminal kidney condition and opted to stop dialysis, knowing that his kidneys would fail.  Residing at a hospice facility, he described his stay as having the time of his life – and he outlived predictions of his life expectancy.

On May 26, 2006, the Washington Post quoted Buchwald as saying, “The more publicity I got, the more attention my kidneys got, and instead of going quietly into the night, I was holding news conferences every day.  …Then the mail poured in. The letters and e-mails were in the thousands. At the same time, friends came to the hospice to say goodbye. Everybody felt they should make the pilgrimage. They came with flowers, cheesecake and corned beef sandwiches.  …I never realized dying was so much fun.”

Clearly Buchwald was the exception. However, he lived fully during what for others would likely have been a dark period.

For the book “80 – Our most Famous Eighty Year Olds Reveal Why They Never Felt So Young” (Sourcebooks, 2007), authors Gerald Gardner and Jim Bellows interviewed 80 exceptional people who reveal why they felt so young in their 80s. The list includes, Carl Reiner, Lena Horne, Frankie Lane and Kitty Carlisle Hart.

Bellows, who died at age 86 was editor of the New York Herald Tribune, the Washington Star and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and creator of New York Magazine.

Here are some examples of views on being 80, as expressed in the book:

Ray Bradbury, author: Bradbury’s answer to growing old – well – at any age is to fall in love and stay in love. He fell in love with libraries.  When he left high school he couldn’t write essays, plays, poems – anything.  His love affair with libraries changed everything.  He wrote his first “decent’ short story, he says, at age 22.   He then fell in love with poetry and the great poets, writing his first “decent” poem at age 42. And then he fell in love with screenplays and wrote the screenplay “Moby Dick.”  He also fell in love with novels and plays and wrote both.  Love is Bradbury’s secret answer to growing old successfully.

Rhonda Fleming, actress:
Fleming was considered one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood, and even more beautiful in her later years when she founded the Rhonda Fleming Mann Resource Center for Women with Cancer at UCLA.  Fleming does not waste time anymore, she says, and has learned to say no.   In her 80s, she is doing what she loves most, helping others.  No longer in show business, she considers herself free to do what she wants to do – and has never been busier.

Hugh Hefner, magazine publisher: Hefner, who founded Playboy magazine in 1953, is quoted as saying, “What surprises me about getting older is that I remain so young.  If you do it right, the only thing that really changes is the outer shell.”  He found the most recent years of his life to be the best.  A stroke in 1985 motivated him to change his lifestyle, which meant giving up smoking a pipe, reducing his stress and changing his diet.  He calls his stroke a “stroke of luck” because he is less driven.

Nina Foch actress:
In her interview for the book, the late actress said she did not enjoy getting old.  “It’s very uncomfortable,” she says. “Physically it’s not good.”  Foch commented that her strong will overcame a body that was not behaving.  Admitting that she had made mistakes in her life, she found something that made her feel useful -teaching two classes a week at USC.  “People come to me for wisdom which gives me great pleasure,” she says in the book. “It would be a pity if I went to my death without giving back all this great stuff that I’ve learned.” And she did.

Dominick Dunne, journalist/author:
Dunne, who passed away in 2009, was a celebrity journalist familiar with the dark side of fame. A bestselling novelist, he also was a special correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine covering “criminal entanglements of the rich and famous.”  He is quoted as saying, “There is something very freeing about being 80.”  Dunne had young friends and encouraged young writers.  “I learn from them and they learn from me,” he says in the book. He was shocked they didn’t read newspapers, something he did for 1 ½ hours each morning.

Rise Stevens, opera singer:
This former star of New York’s metropolitan Opera says she loves being older and gets a “thrill out of listening to something that’s very successful and very exciting at the Met,” where she spends most of her time.  Now retired, Stevens thinks of young people and how they should build their lives.  “I give advice whenever asked,” she says.

What are the messages?

Attitude plays a role in how we feel about getting older.  Opportunities for giving and enrichment are there if we just see them. Love was a theme, as was generosity, giving, mentoring – and a strong will.

These notables are inspiring as are the everyday folks who continue to grow, cope and give graciously. At any age, let’s pay attention to the older adults around us.  We are their students.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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