What’s Wrong with Aging?

Our culture is obsessed with youth. Only youth is desirable. Once you get “older,” you’re “out.” Everywhere I look, there are these books and articles: “Beating back the clock” – “Ageless body ” – “Stay young forever” – “Banish wrinkles!” – and so on and so forth. Scientists say we could possibly live to be 200, 300 years old. Cosmetic surgery is now so common that you seem out of it if you don’t have it done.

Give me a break! Have you ever tried beating back a clock? With what? And how can the body be “ageless” if it so clearly shows the stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood? I don’t want to stay young forever; I’d be completely mortified if I remain, say, twenty years old, and all my friends turn 40, 50, 60 — would it mean I also didn’t learn anything?

Years ago I read a children’s book called Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit. It was about a family who had found the fountain of youth in a patch of woods near their home, and they remained the age they were when they had drunk from it for over 80 years, while all around them aged and died. They could never stay very long in any one place, because their neighbours, after a few years, became suspicious, then stand-offish, then hostile. It was a miserable life, and they wished most deeply to age just like anybody else.

I don’t want to live forever either. What would I do with all that time? Life is hard work. I can envision getting really tired and fed up with it all after a couple of hundred years. There are stories of alchemists who remain youthful for centuries, but they also have to keep travelling to avoid the envy, greed, and hostility of their fellow humans who age normally.

Instead of living forever, let’s live well today. Instead of remaining youthful, let’s remain healthy and happy. Why make an enemy of time? I’m pleased to be getting older. There are a lot of mistakes that I don’t have to make again; of course, that means I have the opportunity of making new ones! Getting older is like taking a slow balloon or helicopter up into the air: as you go up, you begin to see a broader and wider panorama, you see relationships and connections between points you only say as isolated close-ups. Having lived through various ups and downs, you remember on the next down that soon enough that will pass, and some up is bound to happen soon — as well as the reverse. Keeps you from freaking about the down, from exulting about the up. This too shall pass becomes the password.

How to live well? It’s very easy these days. We are generally protected from the elements and from predators; we have indoor plumbing, potable drinking water, plenty of food, places to sleep and rest well. More of us have the opportunity to live longer for such protections. Other than that, there are some things we can do to enjoy our longer lives and be useful. Here are some ideas, most of which you already know if you’re old enough:

A) Making sure we are well-nourished — not starved, not over-indulged, not strict, not careless, and not fanatical about what we eat, just satisfied. The healthiest older people that I have known always ate frugally — even in parties (they had seen enough), or special outings (ditto). “I’ve had practically every food our society has to offer,” an old friend told me once. “Why eat too much when I already know how it tastes?”

B) Making sure we move. Either by exercising formally, doing yard work, chopping wood, walking or running, the body needs to move. It needs to move every day, to keep the muscles, blood vessels, heart, and all other organs active. Use it or lose it, goes the saying. This is particularly true of our bodies. Strength and aerobic fitness are important, but flexibility, balance and endurance are just as vital. A combination of strength training (good for the bones) and yoga or tai chi is excellent for those of us over 50.

C) Keep using our brains and memory. We need to keep our minds active by improving what we know, learning new things, exploring new ideas, acquiring new skills. I am often struck by the fact that many artists and musicians, who practice daily, live to a ripe old age — think of Toscanini, Rostropovich, Georgia O’Keeffe, and many others.

D) Expanding our capacity for altruism. Older people have the need, as well as the obligation, to nurture and teach the younger generations. Mentoring, advising, helping others in their lives and work is an essential part of a successful and satisfying second half-century.

I think we can drop the idea of “staying young.” Nothing is more embarrassing than an older person trying desperately to look “younger” through excessive makeup, surgery, hair arrangements, and other attempts. More often than not, these attempts are transparent to anyone who’s looking, and what really appears is a picture of fear and insecurity. It’s time we accepted that maturing is a wonderful thing. We can let go of many insecurities, knowing that we have survived great odds already. Let us begin by respecting ourselves and others as we get older, by welcoming the knowledge that ageing brings. Once we respect ourselves, and we respect those who are older than we are, then we can elicit the respect of others as well. This country needs the wisdom of older people, and older people need to notice that they have it. Let’s rejoice in the passing of years, and in our growing knowledge and usefulness.

Usually, I finish these columns with a recipe. This one I want to finish with the story of a conversation I once had with a tree. When I was about 37 or 38, and beginning to feel “older”, I was walking one day with my daughter through Central Park. All the while I was whining and complaining to myself about minor creaks and aches I thought I had, about getting older, uglier, perhaps sicker, about how I wasn’t like I used to be. At one point I looked up and saw a large, beautiful, old tree. As I admired it, I distinctly “felt” or “heard” some communication coming from the tree to me. This is what it said: “Come over here. You are admiring to me now. Look at my wide branches, there is plenty of room for birds to play, to put their nests here. I give lots of shade to heat-weary travellers I add oxygen to the air, even protect you from the wind if necessary. I am useful — but I am old. My branches are gnarled, my bark is full of holes and pieces have fallen off. I look wrinkled, not pretty. You want pretty, you want smooth? Look around, there are the young ones, smooth and pretty – but they’re good for nothing right now. There is not enough room yet in their branches for the birds, they barely make some shade. What counts is a function — how you’re doing, what you’re doing for others — not form. Remember that.” Thus spake the tree. This is a true story. I think I stopped complaining after that, for the most part. And I was so young at the time!

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