Aging: going where no one has gone before…



Dance of living


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What images or words do you think of when you hear or read "aging"?

  • Stumbling, bent or standing straight??
  • Actively involved with others?
  • Dependent or independent?
  • At home in the past or at home in the present?
  • Fear filled or anticipating tomorrow?
  • Easily falling asleep or alert and interacting?
  • vintage? more later

Is a particular aging person living alone or with another?

  • Alone but rich with memories of friends of many years.
  • Alone and happy in a life with interests and friends.
  • Alone and bitter and resentful of what might have been.
  • Living with another in a frustrating relationship or in a lively, interactive relationship.
  • Wrapped up in the self or with an attitude of openness and interest in others.

When I think of aging, I remember some who were in their 80s yet as lively and involved as many decades younger. And I have known some who were in their 50s but acted as if they were in their 80s in attitude and sometimes physically.

How about imagining aging as "vintage" — the older the finer, the more pleasant. Would that we would age like fine wine!

Do some say that physical condition dictates attitude? Remember Elizabeth Barrett Browning before she added Browning to her name. She was crippled and limited to a chair when she met the poet Robert Browning. She was as accomplished a poet as was he. He came often to her home, because of her condition. Deepening friendship grew into love. Unknown to him, and wanting to more fully share in life with him, she worked very hard, until the day Robert Browning walked in the door, and she said wait there, slowly rose from her chair, and step by step moved across the room into his waiting arms.

Not all who are limited to chair or bed can walk as she did. I have known people limited to their beds or chairs who made your day by their attitude. There was a special quality of life in that person, so after spending time with them I was always richer.

The series "Star Trek" added a line to our cultural language: "To go where no one has gone before." Retirement is anticipated by some but dreaded by others. My employer years before I retired wisely offered pre-retirement day-long seminars, and the invitation urged those several years from retirement to attend. These sessions included many facets of retirement, and the necessity to plan.

If you are now many years away from retirement, think how to make that a time of anticipation, expectation, fulfillment in your attitudes, dreams, and money plans.

Plan B
One essential part of planning for "vintage" aging is money. The age of pensions and health coverage for retirees may be an endangered species, so prudence suggests that everyone younger than fifty start a Plan B. And better if you start Plan B much earlier. If you don’t do this well, you may face standing to greet people at WalMart or any job for wages when you expected to take it easy.

Here as simple as possible is what you need for Plan B.

  1. Figure out a budget for living after retirement. Total all the costs for a month’s living you can think of: food, shelter, medical expenses, clothing, recreation, travel, hobby based on your current style of life. Can you plan now so your home mortgage will be paid off?
  2. Multiply by 12 to get a yearly total then multiply by how many years you will probably live after retirement. Add some more years as a fudge-factor that your family may inherit.
  3. Subtract your present age from 65, then from 70. Multiply your annual cost by those two numbers to find how much you need to build up for retirement. Does that total scare you?
  4. Get from Social Security what you can expect in payments, and subtract that from the annual retirement total.

Between now and 65 (or 70) you need to set aside enough monthly to build that annual comfy total. Find a trustworthy professional to help you plan diversified IRAs and 401ks that will safely result in that amount you need. With luck your money will grow faster than inflation.

A final dose of reality for plan B: watch the PBS Frontline program, "Can you Afford to Retire?"

Over the hill and on a roll
Some after retirement have launched new careers that are often less stressful than work was, because they are their own bosses, and doing what they have long wanted to do. Their work hours may be less, but satisfaction is higher.

Many spend much of their time writing memoirs, searching their genealogy, traveling, reading, exercising, and enjoying family and friends.

Third age education is described elsewhere on this site, and is available in many cities across the country. Often it is related to a college or university. The ones I know offer a wide range of seminars and lectures, and provide socials and special interest groups that enrich and deepen and broaden the experience of those who participate.

When a friend at work turned fifty, we had a party with many of the usual black balloon things suggesting a glum future, but those who planned the party, knowing her attitude, had many banners that read, "Over the hill and on a roll."

Aging can be glum as our physical abilities seem to fade, but careful diet and exercise starting in the thirties or forties can reduce these problems. An attitude that looks out and enjoys relating with other persons, that seeks interests, can more than compensate for any fading of some parts of our lives as we age.

Instead of "age" think of the many meanings of vintage, for many wines improve with aging. Those who age with creativity and social interaction can find they are an improving vintage.

Nursing homes
Some people deeply fear what they visualize nursing homes to be. Some ask or plead with their partner to promise they will never place them in a nursing home. Many partners have promised, then years later are filled with anger and depression when they have to place their loved one in a nursing home. It may be easy when young and fit to make such a rash promise, but beware. Such a promise can damn the one who promised.

Perhaps many of us would be better able to think about nursing homes if we visited people in nursing homes, or volunteered in one. We might learn that there are a variety of types of nursing homes. We could learn that many staff are deeply dedicated to improving life for the elderly. We might also see that many people’s health requires the care of a nursing home.

Actually a minority of people need nursing home care, and many of those only need care while they recover enough from accident or surgery to return home.

Robert Browning wrote in Rabbi ben Ezra:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith, 'A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!'

With that attitude we can age gracefully, even if with a limp, plastic joint, glasses, or a hearing aid, feeling that we are over the hill, but on a roll. Feeling that we are going where no one has gone before.

Copyright © 2002 2006 John F. Yeaman