Yes, according to most dictionaries, those of us who are over 65 are officially elderly. Read the attached list of synonyms for the word elderly to get a clear idea of what the world’s attitude toward the elderly is often like: that list of synonyms contains words like geezer, decrepit, in one’s dotage, and over the hill. I was shocked the first time I heard myself described as elderly in a memo from my health care provider. Then again, the provider was Medicare so why was I so surprised? Some days I still feel like a young spring chicken, at least until I try to climb out of bed. Other days, I’m all too aware that my joints are wearing out, my senses are becoming duller, my organs aren’t quite as efficient as they once were, and the reflection in the mirror has white hair and wrinkles. So why do I persist in thinking this stage of my life, which I have dubbed the final fifteen percent, can be the most fulfilling stage of all? Sadly, some people have told me that my blog is badly named and I’m crazy to think it is possible to enjoy being old.
I’m not blind. I know that many people are facing incredible challenges in life. But some of the people with the biggest challenges seem to feel as I do and others whose lives seem outwardly at least to be going reasonably well are among those who think I’m nuts. But I persist in thinking this stage of life can be the most rewarding of all if we just make some adjustments to our activities, our goals, and our standards. I’ve been pondering where the difference lies between those who feel it is possible to enjoy old age and those who don’t and I got some insightful communication from Betty Cadwell Barry and her husband, Bob Barry, that helped lead me to come to the conclusions I am going to express in this post.
As you can see from the graphic, my goals have changed since my youth. I think it is, in part, this adjustment that helps me maintain the idea that life can be wonderful in spite of my husband’s serious illness, my own more ordinary deterioration and responsibilities as a caregiver, and the fact that my friends have been dropping off at an alarming rate recently and I can see my own mortality beginning to stare me in the face. I have had five good friends die in the last 12 months and that is an average number for a person of my age.
In our youth, most of us have goals that focus on our bodies, our possessions, our careers, and on activities that may not be possible once we become elderly. I think that is as it should be. We are here on Planet Earth to participate fully in the activities dictated by the types of bodies we have, the resources that control the possessions we can own, and the types of activities that our culture and financial means allow. Most people also have some goals regarding building character, helping mankind, and increasing religious, spiritual, or ethical awareness but those goals sometimes take a back seat to more pressing needs and concerns. If we don’t reexamine our goals as we get older, face reality directly, and adjust our goals accordingly, then our elder years may be spent with an ever-increasing feeling of failure. Here is a table that spells out some of the harsh realities we have to face when our fate seems to be tied to a meat body with a fairly short shelf life.
Pretty grim, right? In fact, it can be so hard to confront that many of us spend a lot of money and time trying to fight the process of aging. There is nothing wrong with attempting to keep your body in the best condition possible for as long as possible but when the reality of aging causes pain and suffering, we need to look for some alternative points of view. We have all seen the results of someone’s decision to overuse plastic surgery, for example, to try to pretend that aging doesn’t have to happen. Nothing wrong with trying to maintain a pleasant appearance and if a little nip here and a tuck there helps, there is generally no harm done. But when surgery is done out of fear of reality, it can become destructive. So can excessive dieting or exercise, dressing inappropriately, or continuing activities that have become dangerous to our health.
Likewise, if we are still striving for all the same goals we had at 20 when we have reached the ripe old age of 75, it is likely we will feel a sense of failure most of the time and that is not conducive to happiness or a sense of fulfillment. There is, however, a very bright side in all of this grim reality. There is lots of controversy about what lays ahead for us old timers but I think, no matter what belief system you subscribe to, there is some help available in examining your goals when you are in the final fifteen percent of your life. See the graphic below for a question about the possibilities.
If you fit into any of the three categories listed on the graphic, you have some room for changes on your life goals. Using my own list of life goals as an example, I was able to let go of the goal to become more physically attractive as it is not likely to happen in the final fifteen percent of my life. By doing so, I stop feeling a sense of failure when I look in the mirror and I save a lot of money on cosmetics, fancy clothes, hair dressing appointments, etc. As a retired woman, I can give up the goal of earning a good living; like many seniors, my income is relatively fixed. I’m done rearing my children so I decided to just accept success on this one since they turned out to be wonderful people. I once owned a “nice” home but Bill and I have downsized ourselves into a more modest one and frankly find that a great relief since we didn’t succeed at the “make a good living” goal enough to hire servants to maintain the larger house. I decided to call that one a success and take it off the list. I did finish college, have my family, enjoy the arts and usually make my husband happy so I declared victory on those goals too. I did not travel the world and am never likely to be able to do so and I am taking the hit on that one, calling it a failure, and removing it from my list of goals. Clearly I failed miserably at the “lose a few pounds” goal as seen by my new goal to lose quite a few. Actually, that isn’t totally accurate. I did lose a few, maybe even a few hundred over the last 60 years, so clearly that goal was flawed. It should have read maintain a healthy weight. Obviously I haven’t learned much from my failure since I made the same mistake on my new list. Goals can be changed however so I will have to remedy that one.
Then came the hard part. What new goals could I add to my list that were realistic in my current stage of life and given what I am likely to experience in the next 30 years. This is where the grim list of harsh realities comes in. My future will include the continued aging and decay of my physical body; its final death; hopefully a trip to the “other side;” the likely loss of many of my current friends and loved ones along the way; a manner of death (will it be a fatal accident, a fatal illness, or the preferred “natural causes?”); and, if I live long enough, the likely loss of some of my beloved independence. (No need to question at this point why my children think I’m morbid, is there?)
I think I am an optimistic person; a realistic optimist, if there is such a thing. When I started looking for some new attainable goals, I seized on the following positive things in my future:
- The hoped-for trip to the other side (or the journey home as I like to call it)
- The fact that, without the need to be gainfully employed, I have time to indulge myself
- The presence of all those wonderful children, grand- and great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews
- The time to gain new skills, preferably spiritual skills rather than physical ones since the body will likely only be with me for a portion of the next 30 years and I hate to waste time on temporary efforts
- Plenty of time to enjoy music, the arts, literature, etc.
- The company of my partner in life for at least part of that time
- The ability to still have fun
I came up with the new goals by imagining how I would answer for myself if there is, in fact, some sort of opportunity to evaluate this lifetime when it is about to end or is just completed. My own particular fantasy about this period of judgment is that I am helped in the process by a caring spirit who encourages me to confront both the failures and successes and learn from them, rather than that there is a distant and harsh judge who focuses only on pointing out failure and handing out punishment. I realized when I imagined this event fully that I would like to be able to say that I had worked at becoming a more compassionate and kind person and had experienced some success. I also wanted to be able to say I had strived for more honesty and integrity and had at least some success at that. I wanted to be of some help to others since I receive so much wonderful help and I believe in keeping an even exchange with my fellow man as much as possible. And lastly, I wanted to be able to say I had taken advantage of many of the pleasures life on this planet offers and that I had enjoyed them thoroughly.
Once I had those ideas in mind, it became easier to set some new goals for myself for this last stage of my life. Now I had to find some creative ways to accomplish those goals. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to focus in my blog posts on describing some of those creative ways I have discovered. Many of them were suggested by good friends and I will feature their ideas as well as my own. But I’m going to end this post with an idea that fit under my “have some fun every day” goal.
I had decided some time ago to scan all of my collection of photographs. Since the collection numbered more than 2000 photos, this was no easy task. I started with the oldest photographs that were beginning to deteriorate and worked my way forward. Part of the job was disposing of poor quality or duplicative photos, always a tough decision to make as I whittled the number of photos down to 1300. I began the project working on my own and was finding it difficult and sometimes tedious. I wanted to be able to present each of my offspring (including children and grandchildren) with a flash drive containing all the photos rather than sticking them with the task (after I was gone) of trying to figure out how to divide up the 12 original albums filled with photos, some of which I had inherited from my own or Bill’s parents. I worked alone on the project until I had this brilliant idea. It was fun for me remembering the past events and people featured in the photos and I realized it would be even more fun if I included Bill in the project and the sight of the photos prompted conversations and remembrances between us. I moved the scanner to the living room next to his favorite chair and we began the first of many wonderful discussions of the memories connected with each photo. Note that this did not speed up the task; on the contrary, it lengthened it considerably, but the hour or so we spent working on the project each day became a treasured part of our routine. It also was very therapeutic for our failing memories.
Even folks who haven’t fully entered the digital age can make a project of sorting through the photo collection and assessing the photos with an eye toward dividing them amongst family members some day. Even though Bill and I have been married for over 52 years, I learned many new things about him during our conversations. It was particularly helpful, when we were viewing photos of significant life events, to ask each other what we thought or felt during the event. I was often surprised at the answers Bill gave as well as at my own answers. Just for fun, I’ve included my favorite of the photos we scanned. It happens to be a picture of my youngest granddaughter but when I used the facial recognition software in the Photos program on my Mac, it mistook the photo for my other granddaughter as well as for my eldest daughter and for me. Apparently we all share similar features. (Part of the fun for me was watching that software work) Anyone who is living on their own can work on their photographs when family or close friends visit. Their enjoyment of the photographs will add the same element of fun to the task.
I am collecting ideas of actions that can be taken to make the final fifteen years of our lives more fun. If you have some ideas to share, please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or add them as a comment to this blog post. Thanks!