At 50, I’m solidly middle-aged and I’m good with it. You honestly couldn’t pay me enough enough to go back to high school or college. Or even my 30’s. OK, I have the occasional day where I wouldn’t mind a little of the endless energy of youth, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my hard-earned wisdom for it. (Perhaps perspective is a better word than wisdom, or maybe they’re the same thing. I don’t know.) All I know is that every year finds me feeling happier than the year before so why would I want to go backward?
NOW… that doesn’t mean I’m any good at adulting, but it does mean that I’m ok with not being any good at it. It also means that I know that most people don’t adult quite as well as they pretend to.
It also doesn’t mean that I’ve left my adolescent sense of humor, sarcasm, and snark in my youth. Hell no, I embrace them. They help me get through those days that take the most intense adulting.
Before I get into aging well, Imma do a quick rant on aging badly. When I talk about aging badly, I’m talking about those 30ish year olds who proclaim, “I’m so OLD!” Oh, Shut. Up. Really. Your age is just a number; nothing more.* If you’re old at 30 and the average lifespan is 80 something, that means you’re going to spend more than half of your life as an OLD person. Screw that. Don’t you have better things to do than be OLD? Good lord. You may not be at the income level or health status you expected to be by whatever age, but few people are. That doesn’t make you old. Telling yourself you’re old, and believing it, is what makes you old.
*This is not a view or belief brought on by any hard-earned wisdom or perspective I may have gained over the years. I’ve had this belief since well before adulthood.
I want to be clear. When I talk about aging well, I’m not talking about the head-in-the-sand dream that we somehow won’t age or that we’ll reach the age of 70 while looking and acting as if we’re still somehow 35. I’m talking about facing whatever challenges age brings us with grace and courage. Bette Davis famously said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” She was right. It takes courage to take realistic stock of your health and abilities and to get help when and how you need it. That’s what I’m talking about.
There are tons of articles and advertisements out there about “healthy aging”, but most of them are bizarrely vague. Sadly, they all seem to be based on the premise that we can’t handle the truth of what aging is really like. So, we’re left with commercials of silver-haired couples taking romantic strolls on the beach, senior women lifting two-pound weights in yoga pants, and similarly-aged men mowing the lawn and looking purposefully at the horizon. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with beach dates or light workouts, but it doesn’t really address the issue of aging head-on. It’s like a dream of healthy seniorhood, as imagined by people who still don’t believe they’ll ever actually be old.
As an interesting side note, when I went looking for a picture to accompany this piece, I couldn’t find a single older-female-in-yoga-pants or silver-haired-man-looking-thoughtfully-toward-the-horizon. Instead, I found mostly well-weathered faces and decrepitude. Seems like advertisers and stock photographers have a very different idea of what it means to be a senior citizen.
I don’t know about you, but I know quite a few old people. For instance, I have a mother in her 80s, one aunt in her 90s and another in her 80s, as well as several other family members, friends, and clients who are in their 70s and 80s. None of them bears any resemblance to the gently active seniors we see in all the ads who are thinking deep thoughts as they gaze toward the horizon. Some of them wouldn’t make it more than a few steps if they tried to walk across soft shifting beach sand. A few of them no longer drive or mow the lawn themselves. And some of them have a hard enough time getting up and down off of low furniture that there’s no way in H-E-double-hockey-sticks that they’re going to get down on the floor to do yoga or gentle exercise.
But that doesn’t mean they’re all decrepit and unable to care for themselves. Not by a long shot. Luckily they all still live in their homes, but many of them do get help with some of the chores that are no longer within their abilities. A few of them have confided that they’re actually happy to finally have a “good excuse” to stop doing the house or yard chores that they’ve hated all their adult life. AND there are a fair few who still do things like play tennis or golf on at least a weekly basis.
But despite the fact that the glamorized version of “healthy seniors” is so pervasive in the media, healthy aging is a major concern. Across the world, the percentage of the population over the age of sixty is increasing, and by 2050 this percentage is expected to surpass 30% in Canada and most of Europe. As the saying goes, we aren’t getting any younger. So what does it mean to age well? And what do we need to do in order to get there?
Health is a broad term that means different things for different people. But in general, it’s looking at functional ability, regardless of the particular quirks that your own body or mind develops as you age. The World Health Organization defines functional ability in the following terms:
● The ability to meet your basic needs
● The ability to learn, grow and make decisions
● The ability to be mobile
● The ability to build and maintain relationships
● The ability to contribute to society.
We’ll take a look at each of these in a little more detail.
Okay, that’s a HUGE category. It means healthy finances, a safe place to live, warm clothes, clean water, nutritious food. It means access to whatever medications or treatments (including massage) that keep you functioning. If you’re having problems with some aspect of meeting your basic needs, it means you have supports in place to help with that, whether these are physical supports like a grab bar in the bathroom, mental supports like reminders to take care of important tasks, or social supports like a neighbor who checks in on you regularly.
For those of us who are wondering how to age well, it means making plans for how these needs will be met in the future. Talking with your primary care physician, your financial planner, your family, and even your friends can help you build a solid plan for ensuring your needs continue to be met over the coming years.
Learning and growth are a huge part of a happy and healthy life. It can be comfortable to fall into routines, but that shouldn’t stop you from branching out as well. Reading a book, taking a dance class, or exploring a new museum or park are all simple examples. More challenging can be traveling, taking up an entirely new hobby, or learning another language.
But the greatest fear that many people have about getting older isn’t about failing to learn new things. It’s not even developing poor health. It’s the potential for lost autonomy The longer you’ve been empowered to make your own decisions, the more you cherish it. The idea of losing that is horrifying. This is especially true when we think about the two primary sets of people who might take on our decision-making power down the road: our own children, for whom we made decisions for years, and strangers.
As we get older, most of us end up leaning more heavily on others than we would have wished. What’s the solution here? Making as many decisions as possible now. Again, this involves some (possibly uncomfortable) conversations, especially with family members who’d rather pretend aging simply doesn’t happen. An advance directive is also a key part of this process.
If you’re in Michigan, Making Choices Michigan offers advance directive planning for FREE. Making Choices will schedule 2 30-60 minute conversations with you. The first one is with you to clarify your wishes, and the second is with both you and the person you choose to be your advocate to make sure they fully understand and will act upon your wishes.
If you’re not in Michigan, Five Wishes is one of the easiest and most common versions of advance directive, and makes your choices known in five key areas:
● Who you want to make decisions for you when you can’t
● What kind of medical treatment you want or don’t want
● How comfortable you want to be
● How you want people to treat you
● What you want your loved ones to know.
Even if not choosing this particular template, developing an advance directive is a good practice for people of all ages to consider, if they want to preserve their decision-making powers in the event of a catastrophic illness or injury.
Mobility comes in two flavors. The first is the ability to get around by the power of your own body. The very best thing you can do to maintain your mobility is to use your mobility. That means taking advantage of opportunities to walk, exercise, and stretch. Strength training can help, as well as getting regular massage. (Just sayin’) For folks whose mobility is limited in one or more ways, this can require taking advantage of what your body can do, even while there are things it can’t. Maybe you take t’ai chi instead of Zumba fitness, or you walk laps in the pool instead of around the track. Your physician or physical therapist can help you figure out what maintaining your personal mobility looks like.
The second form of mobility is about how you get around in the world. People in their 80s often give up driving for a number of reasons, most commonly due to vision problems. Having access to alternative sources of transportation can be huge in assuring quality of life as we age. Living within walking distance of important resources such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and social spaces can as well.
Some people naturally seem to collect new friends wherever they go. Those of us who are introverts struggle a little more. Either way, building and maintaining relationships with others is a key part of health at every stage of life. Volunteering is a fantastic way to get to know people in a structured environment. Groups based around walking, reading, gardening, games, or other hobbies are another great option. Whatever you choose, you’ll be spending time with people who enjoy and appreciate the same things you do.
And what about family? If you’re lucky, they also fall into this category. If you’re not so lucky, these relationships can be fraught with challenges. It’s worth considering individual or family therapy if there are family relationship you’d like to strengthen. And if they’re not the sort of relationships that ought to be maintained, a good therapist can help you through that process as well.
Know that you have something to offer the world. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve spent most of your life as a NASA scientist or a full-time parent, whether you were a pillar of the community or the town’s biggest screw-up. If you believe that the world could be better with a little help, you are never too old to offer it. Volunteer. Share your experiences. Model your values. Make the world more just, friendly, beautiful, or honest. A huge part of health is hope. So act on it, however you can.
It would be nice if our minds and bodies kept functioning as though we were perpetually 25, but that’s not the reality we live in. What is our reality is that we have choices available to us that can help us lead meaningful and fulfilling lives at every age, even as we face new challenges. So today? Think a little bit about the future. Plan to take that walk, call your sister, write that op-ed, or schedule that massage.
Aging isn’t always easy, but it’s a privilege all the same. So here’s to making the most of the opportunity.