I just finished reading a recently published book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans by Karl Pillemer. I'd heard about it a while ago and placed a hold at my library. (I don't know about you, but for me it typically takes a few weeks to get a "held" book from the library, usually because someone else has it checked out.) Then, coincidentally, The Week magazine is running an excerpt from the book in its current issue.
Author Pillemer takes the position that people over the age of 60 are the wisest Americans. Why? Because they "possess a deep knowledge of just about every problem a human being can experience." In the book he gathers advice on how to maintain a happy marriage, raise your children, build a successful career. But the perspective I found most valuable centered on how to approach the inevitability of old age.
He reminds us that we Baby Boomers (Pillemer and I share this dubious distinction) have an especially difficult time comprehending the reality of growing old. After all, we are the ones who didn't trust anyone over 30, who invented the Peter Pan syndrome.
"For many Baby Boomers, turning 60 is a fairly significant shock," he says. "The generation that believed it would be young forever, clearly will not. The boomers are having a hard time with the existential reality of life not being one open-ended opportunity after another."
This statement came as a shock to me because lately I've found myself thinking: I'm having a good time in life. I'm not doing much of anything -- my kids are grown, my career is over -- but I'm happy and I love living with B and I like hanging out with my friends and I enjoy watching the world. I don't want my story to end.
I think maybe the death of Steve Jobs brought on my recent pensiveness. It's a shock to my system when I hear that someone younger than me has died. And Jobs was only 56 when he left us last October. But also, he seemed so much a part of our lives, for so long, and he was leading the way into the future. And now, suddenly, for him there is no future.
So I looked to Pillemer's experts for advice on how to approach my prospects for aging. The first thing they said is: Don't waste your time worrying about it. It's a process no one can escape.
The fear of aging is rampant in our society -- we imagine what life must be like based on old stereotypes, rather than real individuals who can actually tell us about it. And as one sage said, "Being old is much better than we think it is."
For one thing, we can do pretty much what we damn well please, and nobody is going to fault us for it. We're not tied down to a job or a family, and so we can go wherever we want. Most of us are no longer constrained by social restrictions, either. They somehow shed their power as we grow older and realize how manufactured they all are. We are free to drop old resentments and rekindle relationships. We can accept or turn down invitations based on what we really want to do, rather than factoring in who we need to impress or who we might offend.
One man reveled in the volunteer activities he's doing. "I enjoy the opportunity to share whatever advice I might be able to offer. You can't do that when you're 20. You haven't built a body of experience ... yet in the part of life I'm in now, you can put all those pieces together and offer to society the benefit of what you've learned."
Ironically, most of the older people said they do not think about death too often. Or, as Pillemer concludes, "The intense, overpowering fear of dying is very much a young person's game."
When one older woman was asked if she believed in life after death, she responded, "I wonder if there really is. I wouldn't bother worrying about it too much, because I'm going to find out." A 94-year-old woman said, "I'm not afraid to die. Nobody knows where we go, and we'll never know because that's a mystery. Like my husband used to say, 'If you go to heaven, how wonderful. But if you go to sleep, what's wrong with that?'"
While many elders seem matter-of-fact about dying, they do agree on one thing: Plan for the journey so you don't leave a pile of problems for your family. They advise people to get organized, tidy up their homes, their belongings, their financial situation, so people will know what to do after you're gone. Some people even take comfort in tidying up their lives -- seeing it as a metaphor for bringing disparate elements together in a meaningful way, rather than leaving everything in a disorganized jumble of unrelated parts.
The wisest Americans also agree that it's crucial to stay connected as you get older. Some people are lucky and remain tied to a stable social network until the day they die. But if you do lose important people in your life, you need to develop new relationships. Human beings are not meant to live solitary lives, and all the research has shown that meaningful roles and satisfying relationships are strongly correlated to emotional and physical health. But it can sometimes be a challenge. So take steps to remain engaged -- move near your children, reach out to new friends, join a club or social group or support group, sign up for an event at your library or a class at your community college.
Also, before the aches and pains of life slow you down too much, figure out where you're going to live. Maybe the decision is as simple as staying in your old family home, or moving to your long-held dream house at the beach. But you need to consider if you should move to one-level house, because at some point you might find it difficult to negotiate stairs. You might have to face the question of whether or not you're ready to give up your home and live in a group situation. Many older people now reside in independent or assisted living communities. Almost without exception, they were initially reluctant to make the move, but later said it was one of the best decisions of their lives as they realized the lost independence was more than made up for by new opportunities.
One elderly sage summed up, "I have found each decade, each age, has opportunities that weren't there in the previous time. There've been joys in each stage of my life. The thing is -- people are so afraid of getting old. Don't worry about it. It's an adventure."
I'd love to hear about your joys, opportunities, surprises or insights about growing older. Because there is one thing I do know. We're all in this together.