Onwards Towards Death and Dying:  Part Two on Aging

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This is the second part of a blog that I wrote a few weeks ago.  Part one dealt with the issue of death.  I was surprised by how many reader comments noted that people do not usually talk about this subject.  I realized from listening to several remarks that not only do we face death inevitably as we age but that there is a “journey” to death that we all take.  It is the final years of our lives.  These final years are perhaps the most important years for many of us.  They will certainly be the most difficult.

In this second part, I would like to discuss some ideas for making these last years or twilight years of our lives as happy and successful as they can be.  By success, I am not talking about making a lot of money or winning the lottery.  Being successful in old age is about living our final years with dignity and integrity.  It is not about recapturing our youth, but it is about capturing the maturity that many of us (myself included) never captured when we were younger.  There is no merit to the comment that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.  I know too many older people who are continually learning and growing in their twilight years.

Letting Go versus Giving Up

Many people confuse letting go with giving up.  I know many people who cannot quit work, hobbies, sports etc., that they are no longer capable of doing.  A woman friend of mine (who is my age) has recently bought a new motorcycle after crashing her last one.  She has for many years had difficulties handling her bikes, but she still insisted after her last accident on buying a new two wheeled bike.  Many older people who do not want to give up the sport finally realize that they will be better off with a trike or a three-wheeled motorcycle.  They are not giving up the sport, but they are letting go of something that they can no longer do.  You are all familiar with the adage of the aging boxer who cannot give up his dreams of becoming a champion again.  It is a dangerous dream based on not being willing to let go.

There are going to be many things that we once did as we get older that we either can no longer do or that we cannot hope to do at our former level of performance.  Giving up is to quit.  I am not advocating quitting.  Quitting is a formula for simply accepting death and waiting patiently for it.  I have no desire to share such a counsel.  I am advising that we realistically appraise our abilities and decide when it is time for us to hang up our spurs or gloves and perhaps pursue some other activity.

never give up

I have been running for nearly fifty years now.  I know that it gets harder to run each year, but I am still able to comfortably continue my outdoor runs.  When the time comes that it becomes too dangerous or too hard, I will either buy a treadmill, switch to bicycling or simply go out for long walks each day.  I will let go of running but I will not give up exercising.  Not letting go is generally motivated by too much pride and in the case of old age, pride definitely goes before a fall.  Witness the number of elderly people who still insist on climbing up on their roofs or getting up on that ladder to fix something.  The outcome is too often sadly predictable.  As Pete Seeger sang “When will they ever learn.”

Coping

When we were young, we did not put much effort into coping.  As we get older, it often becomes more difficult to cope with life.  We can become burdened by physical problems, problems with our loved ones, monetary problems, or many other social issues.  We need to have ways to cope with these issues as we get older.  I have found that we can break coping strategies into two categories:  Mental Fitness and Physical Fitness.

  • Mental Fitness

Perhaps the most difficult mental challenge we face as we age is to stay engaged in life.  Once we are no longer employed, it can seem that life has no meaning.  Suicide rates among the elderly are very high and attest to this loss of meaning and purpose as we age.

“Many associate suicides with young people, like troubled teens or twenty somethings who never quite got their lives off the ground.  In fact, it is much more common among older adults.  According to new figures just released this week from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the highest rate of suicides in America is among people age 45 to 64. There were more than 232,000 suicides in this age group from 1999 to 2016.”  — Forbes, 2018, Older Adults at Greatest Risk For Suicide

I believe that there are three keys to mental fitness.  We must stay interested in life, involved in life and active in life.

Staying interested might involve becoming interested.  Perhaps when you were working, you were so busy that you had no other outside interests.  You now have time to go to the library and find some area of knowledge that you are excited about.  The best way to stay interested in life is to keep learning.  It might mean continuing to read the paper or read some books or write some papers.  Write your memoirs for your family.  Too few elderly leave anything behind when they die except a box of lifeless pictures.  What about telling your children who, what and why you did the things you did when they were growing up.  Chances are they never went to work with you or really understood what you did when they were growing up.

My wife Karen has taken up playing the dulcimer.  She plays with a group of other dulcimer players (mostly retired women in Tucson) who go by the name of the Tucson Dulcimer Ensemble.  They play at churches, festivals, nursing homes and assisted living centers.  I have attended many of these sessions and I can safely say that Karen and her group are deeply appreciated by the older people at these centers who may be too frail to get out to concerts anymore.

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Staying involved might mean finding a charity or volunteer group to work with.  It might mean taking more time with your family and grandchildren.  A good friend of mine who is 86 has become quite involved with several groups including the Rotary, SCORE and a Marine Corp Honor Guard.  He told me this past week that he has participated at 451 funerals for former Marines.  Lou is involved in life and still making a difference in the lives of others.

Staying active.  I am not talking about physical activity here, but activity aimed at exploring the world.  Activity aimed at opening your mind to the world around you.  One way to stay active mentally is to go someplace you have not been before.  Go to a meeting of your political party.  Go to a church.  Go to a new restaurant.  Go to a park, museum, zoo or famous tourist sight.  Go anyplace, just don’t sit at home.  Become an explorer of life.  It is never too late.

Mental health experts will tell you that the best way to fight depression and thoughts of suicide is to stay active.  I know many people my age who are finally getting out to see the world.  They are taking Senior Classes at their local college, going on cruises, joining hiking clubs or other clubs that help them get out and explore the world.

Karen and I have been to thirty-three countries.  We are planning to go to Russia next year.  I know neither of us has the energy for the trips that we took forty years ago, but I cannot imagine my life without exploring some new places that I have not been before.  We cannot afford to go as frequently as we used to but with some foresight and planning, we can still manage to make a trip every few years.  By the way, almost every time we have planned a trip, someone has said “Don’t you think it is dangerous to go there.  What about the terrorists?”  I assure you that I would rather be shot by a terrorist then die a craven coward in my bed.

  • Physical Fitness

There are three components of physical fitness.  These are Exercise, Diet and Discipline.  I do not have to tell you why physical fitness is important.  I doubt if anyone in the world denies the importance of fitness.  However, let me tell you a story which I think (sadly) exemplifies the American approach to exercise and diet and discipline.

I walked into a Circle K one morning (Very typical for me each day) and poured a cup of decaf coffee.  I walked up to the cashier.  She was in her late twenties and quite obese.  She must have been following a protocol because she asked me (as all cashiers at Circle K usually did) if I wanted a donut.  I replied that “Yes, I wanted a donut, but I did not want the calories.”  She answered very solemnly “I used to care but I don’t care anymore.”

The gyms and athletic clubs joke each year about the New Year Goals Effect.  Right after New Years (every year) the parking lots at the gyms will be filled to overflowing with new members.  Newly minted exercise addicts who have decided to lose fifty pounds, build fantastic muscle and look like Supergirl or Superman.  The joke among the fitness crew is that this will only last about six weeks and then the parking lot will return to normal as the new members go back to watching sports and eating potato chips during the “big game.”  Every weekend there is a big game.  Americans have become the fattest and (dare I say) physically laziest people in the world.

  • Exercise:

It does not matter whether you are eight or eighty.  Physical exercise is good for you.  A good physical regime includes:  stretching, strength, balance and cardio.  An hour a day, four or five days a week for anyone over sixty is enough to keep you feeling fit and looking fit.  The problem you are going to face is that too many regimes are designed for younger people.  The idea of “exercise goal setting” is highly overrated for anyone over sixty.  I have written a blog on this aspect of fitness which has a great deal of useful information on setting up a realistic exercise program when you are over sixty.  Go to How Can We Set Realistic Exercise Goals as We Age?

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  • Diet:

Moderation and common sense are the two keys here.  Every other day some expert or study is telling you that something is good for you or bad for you.  Today, eggs are bad.  Tomorrow eggs are good.  Today gluten is bad.  Tomorrow gluten is good.  Today alcohol is bad.  Tomorrow alcohol is good.  Today butter is bad, tomorrow butter is good.  The conflicting studies, reports and information are enough to drive anyone crazy.  What I have found over the years is the adage “All things in moderation” is generally a good way to go.

True, some things are definitely bad for some people, even many people.  Smoking has no health benefits.  Excessive alcohol consumption is not going to do any good for your health.  In fact, though, excessive anything from donuts to beef to fish may not be good for you.  Our bodies seem to thrive on a balanced diet.

I am a calorie counter.  Every day, I enter my calories in an online software program called “Fatsecret.”  This program allows me to research calories for thousands of food items, enter them in a calorie spreadsheet and at the end of the day, it tells me how many fat, carbs, proteins and total calories I have ingested.  It is easy to use, and I find that when I use it faithfully, I can keep my weight and body measurements in acceptable ranges.  I use a weight scale at home which measures about six different body factors to monitor my health.  These scales are cheap to purchase and easy to use.  I calculate my body indexes about every six months or so.  It takes less than one minute on the scale and then I enter the data in an Excel Spreadsheet.   As of this month, my latest data is:

Body fat: 18.1

Muscle:  29.9

Bone:  4.6

TBW:  67

BMI:  24

Weight:  Average for this month – 149.42

I enter the following data from my annual physical into my spread sheet as well to help me track trends and to see whether I am maintaining, declining or improving.  Trend data is much more relevant for determining health priorities than single data points taken once per year.  Few if any doctors routinely track trend data for their patients.  My latest annual physical gave me the following data:

Glucose:  92

Total Cholesterol:  211

HDL:  71

LDL:  128

Blood pressure:  115/70

Resting pulse rate:  60

  •  Discipline:

 The last factor in staying physically fit is discipline.  You might think that some of the above is “overkill.”  What you need to remember is that you do not have to enter data every day.  If you manage to do two out of every three days in the month, you will still have plenty of data to manage your diet and health.  There are many days when Karen and I are traveling, when I forget, when we are busy with friends or when we are at someone else’s house, that it is difficult to chart any data.  I do not worry.  Just like you do not have to exercise every day to be healthy, you do not have to chart data every single day.  If you manage to get sixty percent of your days charted, you will be doing great.  I set my goal at sixty percent for the month in terms of charting as well as days to exercise.  If I miss my goal, I simply try again next month.  The secret is to keep trying and not to give up.  If I have a bad month, I get up and try again next month.

Thinking back to the joke about health wannabees on New Year’s Day trying to get fit in less than six weeks.   It probably will not happen.  Some will make it to fitness, but it is not a six-week project, it is more likely (depending on your present level of fitness) a two to three-year project.  What will separate the winners in this battle from the “wannabees”, is simply the factor of discipline and determination.  Can you get up today and go to the gym?  If not, can you get up tomorrow and go to the gym?  Can you manage to go to the gym at least 35 percent of the days in this month?  Can you manage 25 percent?  My goal is sixty percent.   Many months I do not make this goal.  I try again the next month.  Goals are not etched in stone.  You need to be determined and disciplined but you also need to be flexible and fallible.  We are all only human and we will fail, time and time again.  It takes discipline to keep trying and not to give up.

michael jordan

There are two more segments to aging that I would like to cover, but I fear that this blog has become too long.  In part three, we will look at what I call “Facing Reality” issues as well as the problem of “Economics.”  This latter issue will address money problems, budgets and finances as we age.  I specifically want to deal with those of us who are not rich and did not set aside enough to simply live happily ever after with no worries about money.  I for one need to be concerned about money every day, but I do not use the term worry since I generally have some things under control.  I want to share with you some of my strategies in these areas next blog.

Time for Questions:

What did you find helpful in my blog?  What ideas will you try?  What strategies have you found that you think help you to age gracefully?  Can you share your ideas in the comments section?

Life is just beginning.

“Age has no reality except in the physical world. The essence of a human being is resistant to the passage of time. Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom. Think of love as a state of grace, not the means to anything, but the alpha and omega. An end in itself.”  ― Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grow Old Along with Me

We think of growing old and we think of aged people, old people, retired people, elderly people, nursing home people and dying people.  When we think of growing old, we don’t think of babies, teenagers, young people and college students.  Ironic in a way, since everyone from birth to death is growing old or is at least growing older.  Perhaps that is the difference.  Growing old seems to Imagemean aged.  Growing older is a process while growing old denotes a physical condition.    Old means droopy skin, failing health, difficulty walking and a general decline in one’s ability to be mobile.  To some, old is a state of being or as others would say a state of mind.  Call old what you will, but none can deny the physical deterioration that comes with growing older.

In the Velveteen Rabbit, as the stuffed toy rabbit grows older, he becomes more and more worn and raggedy.  Despite his aging, the rabbit becomes more and more loved by the boy who has become his constant companion through the years.  The love of the boy eventually makes the ImageVelveteen Rabbit “real.”  Regardless of the rabbit’s becoming threadbare, torn and disfigured, the Velveteen Rabbit gains a persona that can only be understood by someone who values longevity, companionship and friendship.

Of course, we all value companionship and longevity; many people in our lives are like the Velveteen Rabbit.  Our sisters and brothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers, our mothers and fathers and our good friends and spouses; will all become older and older and older.  Eventually, they all become aged, misshapen, wrinkled and decrepit.  But if they have been good companions through the years, we are blind to their aging process.  We only see the love and caring that they have shown us.  We are blind to their difficulty with hearing and their inability to keep up with us.  We only see the person who was kind and thoughtful to us.  We are blind to their infirmaries and disabilities.  We only see the person who took care of us and helped us in our time of need.

I sometimes look at my spouse Karen who has put on pounds and wrinkles and walks slower than she used to.  Over the years, she has become more and more beautiful.  Looking back, I am not sure Karen was real to me when we were first dating and even married.  It has taken nearly 30 years of togetherness for Imageme to more fully appreciate the person that she is and it is still a process that is evolving.  The commitments that she makes to others often go beyond my understanding.   The kindness and compassion that she shows to those who are in need is more than touching.  The many ways she sacrifices what she wants so that she can help me get what I want have all made Karen real to me.

One of the saddest things, you hear at funerals, is the comment “I wish I had spent more time with them.”   It is probably inevitable that we feel this way.  Having pondered this comment over many wakes and funerals, I wonder if more time would really have made a difference.  I rather think it would be the “quality” of time we spent with others.  You may think that I am simply citing a cliché “quality of time?”  What is this elusive quality of time?  Some examples from my own life with Karen illustrate this concept for me.  Perhaps for you it will be different:

  • Sharing meals together
  • Going to hospital visits together
  • Sharing back rubs and massages
  • Reading together
  • Traveling together
  • Shopping together
  • Spending quiet time together
  • Being concerned with each other’s work
  • Helping each other whenever we can
  • Checking in each day to see how the other is doing
  • Always hugging and greeting each other when going or coming
  • Taking care of each other when sick

My list might seem trivial to you.  Your list might be very different.  Nevertheless, what if we spent the time with our loved ones that enabled all of us to say when they are no longer with us that:  “I am glad I spent the time with them that I did.”   Is the time we spend watching TV or football or golfing, or fishing so precious that we could not have spent a little more time growing older with our loved ones?

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We are inundated with emails, text messages, advertisements, news, news and more news.  Our minds and brains are saturated with people beseeching us to buy, sell, rent, borrow, donate, loan or vote.  The rest of our time, we are numbed by media depictions of trivia, deprivations and horror.   We are fascinated by Hollywood, Bollywood and royalty.  For many of us, Princess Kate is more real than our own brother or sister.

When Princess Diana was killed, I remember seeing a co-worker who had a shrine in her cubicle for the Princess.   Princess Diana was one of the most popular people in the world.  She was real for many because they lived her life with her.  Recent polls show ImagePrincess Kate is now as popular as Diana once was.  The media is making Kate real for us just as it once did for Diana.  The sad part of this is not that we identify with and make these people real, it is that we fail to make the truly important people in our lives real.  How much do you know about the lives, wishes, hopes, dreams and fears of the really important people in your life?  Do you get as much news about and with them as you get about Princess Kate?

GROW old along with me!   (From Rabbi Ben Ezra by Robert Browning)

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!’

I think we fail to teach our children the value of time.  We teach the value of money, but we neglect to teach the value of time.  It might be argued that money and time are valued according to their scarcity.  To the young, time is plentiful and money is scarce.  To the old, time is scarce and money is (if not plentiful) at least often more abundant.  If this argument is correct, then it would be a waste of time trying to teach the value of either time or money.  Their value is fixed according to age.  I disagree with this argument.

ImageI think if you look closely, many older people have never valued time as much as they still value money.  And many young people fully understand the value of time and would readily put it over the lure of more and more money.  If this is so, then it suggests that the value of each is not fixed by age but by some mental process perhaps not fully understood.  If a mental concept or construct is at work here, it can be modified or changed by reason and logic.   I may be justified in thinking that young children need to be told that time is valuable and that in many cases it is not fungible.  You can never replace or substitute money or goods for the time that you did not spend with your family, friends or loved ones.

Time has every right to be as respected a discipline as the study of money.  In capitalism, money becomes King, money is good. We pervert nature by upending the true value of things. Tangibles become more important than intangibles.  Goods become more important than services.  Greed becomes more important than charity.  Youth becomes more important than experience.

Aristotle was right in his use of the Golden Mean concept to show how to create a balance that was harmonious with the world.  ImageAnything taken to extremes becomes evil or distorted.  Time and money are the pivots upon which the world rotates.  They must be kept in harmony.  We have lost our balance though and let money become the sacred source of happiness and success.  Perhaps the really wealthy people are the ones with more time.  Why wait until retirement to become truly wealthy?

Time for Questions:

Do you have a balance in your life between time and money?  Do you keep the really important things in your life in proper perspective?  Do you value time as much as you value money?  Do you think we need to do more to help have a balance in our country?  Are you willing to share your time with others?  How about your money?

Life is just beginning. 

 

 

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