The other day I realized I am exactly two thirds of my mother’s age. That hit me hard, as I began to think of life as being divided in thirds…and realized that if the first two thirds of my life went by in a blink, then I want this last third to go by very slowly.
The way we look at aging has changed drastically over the years. People are doing great things in this stage of life, some with assistance, and rather than looking at help as taking away independence, they view accepting assistance as a means to reaching potential – to being everything they can be. I recently listened to a talk given by the actress Jane Fonda on reaching what she calls life’s “third act.” She realized that she could control a good part of this time of her life and decided that she was not going to live the old paradigm of aging (think of a bell curve where the start of the curve is birth, the peak is middle age and then it declines sharply to old age,) but rather to view aging as a staircase that you climb to make added years happier, more successful and more liberating. Think of it – when you are an adolescent, you plan for college, then you plan for your work and your family years. Why not view the “boomer years” as a time to plan for this next stage of your life and to use those years to make a difference.
Six years ago, a gerontologist at Cornell University started asking older people for their advice towards solving life’s major challenges. Called the Cornell Legacy Project, it asked seniors for their advice as to how to age fearlessly and well.
The researchers were surprised to find that those in the study held a generally positive view about old age. One response came from an 81-year old man: “Embrace it. You still enjoy life, and there’s still purpose in your life. A 94-year old woman suggested: “My advice about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic.” Old age is very different from what seniors anticipated – and it exceeds their expectations. People felt freer to pursue interests and clearer about their life goals and how they wanted to spend their time. Many described their life after 70 as a quest or an adventure.
There was overall agreement on the importance of maintaining social connections finding meaningful ways to participate in activities in order to assure a positive and enjoyable old age. These relationships and productive roles can be difficult as life transitions such as retirement, widowhood, and health problems occur. The seniors interviewed for this study suggested that starting around age 60, everyone needs to become aware of the possibility of becoming isolated and take steps to stay involved.
Many seniors also said that the lesson they had learned was to plan carefully for where you will live in old age. Based on their own experience and those of parents and friends, they agreed that younger people should begin to think about living arrangements when they are still active and healthy – both to increase their options for where they can live and also to reduce responsibility and anxiety on the part of their children. The seniors noted that some people unnecessarily suffer with insecurity, isolation, and inconvenience because they stay in their homes rather than move to a more stimulating environment.
Travel. Take a class. Volunteer. Mentor. Aging can mean an extended active and productive life. Most aging Americans do not think that when they retire they will no longer be productive. Many of us believe old age begins after age 80. We exercise regularly and eat a healthier diet so we feel years younger than we are. We envision years and years of health and activity and being able to afford what we want. We believe 60 is the new 40, and the older we get, the younger those older than us become. In many cases, we will continue to learn, grow, and find new ways to be productive, creative and relevant.
We still need to think ahead. Not all of us are really thinking about the time when we may become frail and many of us are very unprepared for that time in our lives. We have begun to lose our parents and some friends. Some of us have lost spouses. But we still do not put much thought into about what happens when we are no longer able to be as independent and active as we currently are, even if it is at age 90 plus.
Aging is more of an attitude than a number. This is a time to re-assess what you want from life and what makes you really happy. Know your capabilities and what makes life exciting for you.
Live for today, but remember to plan for tomorrow.