As the year begins, I want to ask you a question.
What are your views on aging?
This year I want to explore what it means to age well. I also want to offer positive things you can do to improve your experience of aging. We all do it – so let’s do it well together.
Aging Well – A Line in the Sand
Do you consider there is a magic age – a line in the sand – when life is no longer worth living?
Some people think that is the case. Dr. Emanuel, a healthcare leader in the USA, took this position in an article he wrote in the Atlantic. He titled it, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”
He drew a line in the sand for himself saying that when he was 65, he was going to stop seeking health care. He was going to stop getting the flu shot and he was going to stop seeing his doctor. His reasoning was that life after 65 was not worth living. He measured a worthwhile life using productivity and creativity as his guideposts. And post-65 that type of life in his estimation did not exist.
When he was approached for a revisit of that article in 2019 he was a little more nuanced saying that post-75 he was hoping to have a gentle decline. He also admitted that his family was not happy with his position.
So let’s look at that a little more in-depth.
Aging Well – Attitude Matters
If we embrace the attitude of a hard line in the sand, what would we miss?
We would miss Nelson Mandela, who came out of prison at 70 and at 75 went on to become the President of South Africa. He helped his country heal from the wounds of apartheid. His maturity and experience changed his approach. The leadership he provided to his country at 75 was far different from the leadership he offered at 45.
We would miss Keizo Miura, a Japanese skier who, at the age of 70 climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. At the age of 77 he climbed Mount Everest. And at the age of 100, he had a downhill ski party with four generations of his family in Salt Lake City Utah. He and his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren skied from the summit. He inspires us to be active.
If we drew an age line at 65, we would miss Oscar Hammerstein. He was still writing music after the age of 65, including the awesome score for the Sound of Music. We would also miss Grandma Moses. She picked up a paintbrush at the age of 65 and painted everyday until she was over 100. She produced thousands of pieces of work. They inspire us to be creative.
Dr. Emanuel might argue that these people are outliers and that most people do not age well. He would argue that individuals over the age of 65 are often not cognitively well.
So what if we are sick – what if we have Alzheimer’s Disease?
Should we quit living then?
Don’t Quit Living
Terry Pratchett is one of my favourite authors. In 2007 he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Until his death in 2015 he was still writing. From the point of his diagnosis until his death, he wrote six (6) more best-selling novels. He inspires us to continue living to the best of our abilities.
I disagree with Dr. Emanuel on drawing an age line. I do agree with him, however that we can miss asking ourselves the big questions. By ignoring our mortality, we can neglect asking questions about meaning and purpose.
Most people have in their heads their own mental checklist of what it means to be successful. Their paradigm of success often looks like this:
- Finish school – complete.
- Buy a car – complete.
- Build a career – complete.
- Buy a house – complete.
But what happens when the passage of time starts to reduce those things? When school is a distant memory and your career has come to its natural end. When you’ve downsized and moved into a condominium or a retirement home. Do you measure who you are based on those criteria?
And if you base your satisfaction with life on your ‘success’ checklist, how satisfied will you feel when those things are completed?
How do you value your life when those things are no longer there?
Shift Your Paradigm
The trick is to shift from measuring your life in terms of success to measuring it on a scale of significance. Focus on the relationships that are significant to you. Put more emphasis on the ways you can contribute. This is an important paradigm shift. Change your focus from success to significance. That shifted focus will help you live with passion and purpose.
If we return to Dr. Emmanuel, we can see in his comments that his family values him for who he is as a person, not for what he does. And in many ways that is what we should be focusing on, our relationships of mutual giving and graceful receiving.
Best Version of Yourself
I attended the funeral of a man I didn’t know at all. He had never been a part of my life, but his son-in-law was a business colleague of my husband. And my husband was out of town, so I went to represent the family.
His daughter got up to talk at the end of the service about her dad. She talked about the relationship she had with her father through her life. Some of it was quite stormy and she was candid about it. And then she reflected on their relationship in the last years of his life. And she said, “that last year, he became the best version of himself.”
And I thought – wow – I hope my kids can say that of me when I die; that by the end of my life I was the best version of myself. And I hope that your family and friends can say that about you. That when you come to the end of your life that you were the best version of yourself.
Being the best version of yourself doesn’t refer to being in tip top physical condition. It doesn’t mean having an amazing bank account, or the best collection of artwork. It refers to that internal quality of spirit that shines from you.
Shift your paradigm and measure your life on a scale of significance. Become the best version of yourself.
Significance Looks Like This
So, what could that look like:
I’m going to offer you three ideas which I have found helpful. You can choose what makes sense to you, but I would encourage you to reflect on all three.
The first idea is mentoring. Find opportunities to pass on your knowledge and your wisdom to someone else. It could be an individual who is following you professionally. They might benefit from just having someone to bounce ideas off or go to for problem solving. Sometimes a fifteen-minute conversation can make all the difference in the world.
Mentoring can also take the form of passing on practical wisdom. A teenager or a young parent in the middle of the chaos of life needs encouragement. Your lived experience is a valuable asset. The insight from someone who has been where they are now and survived is invaluable.
You have a lot of wisdom to pass on to others.
The second idea to consider is volunteering. We all have a skill set that we can use to make a difference and there are lots of needs in our community. Consider giving of your time or talent in an organization that means a lot to you personally. There are times in your life when giving of your time is more difficult. But usually after 50 that becomes easier. So, think about getting involved. It will make a difference in your life – guaranteed.
The third idea is simple, but the most powerful one. Love.
Love those in your life through everyday acts of kindness. Words of affections and support can have a huge impact. It is important to build on the relationships we have. And being kind through word and deed can have a significant impact on their quality.
Shaunti Feldhahn, is a social science researcher and author. In her book, The Kindness Challenge, she showed that being kind for 30 days improved relationships. People who took The Kindness Challenge built a habit of kindness. If you think you need to improve in this area, or this idea intrigues you, I highly recommend her book.
How Will You Age?
So, returning to the question I posed at the beginning, what are your views on aging? Is there a line in the sand or is it more nuanced?
Whatever your answer, the health of your brain plays an important role in aging well. This year let’s focus on the lifestyle changes that you can make to improve your brain health.
It all starts with the right attitude!