Living Old is Optional

We all know that growing older is inevitable. It is just a fact of life. And a lot of people think that growing older means our best and most productive days are behind us and that our peak years are long past. How wrong they are. Ask yourself why your biological age would stand in the way of continuing to grow, accept and accomplish challenges, seek new adventures and live life to the fullest extent possible?

Just because our physical body no longer has the svelte appearance or buoyant strength of these presumed peak years does not mean it does not continue to serve us well. You can comfortably challenge that fiat. Maybe our joints are less flexible, our eyesight needs some assistance and our mental sharpness takes a while to engage but we are still capable of extraordinary feats.

Think of 64 year-old Diana Nyad who swam from Cuba to Florida in less than 53 hours in 2013, braving sharks and poisonous jellyfish. Or Robert Alsopp who, at age 71, became the oldest person to cross the English Channel in 2011, swimming for 18 hours to claim a new Guinness World Record. In the same year 81-year-old Lew Hollander became the oldest person to ever complete the annual Ford Ironman World Championship in Hawaii including a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon run. 69-year old Sir Richard Branson loves extreme sports and has a mile-long bucket list that includes space travel on his own Virgin Galactic space flight. These feats are not all that rare. I bet you know or heard about seniors in Bali still surfing, abseiling or running marathons in their 70s and 80s.

Do you accept the maxim that your mind is bound to deteriorate with age? That our memories will fail or worse? The Journal of Psychological Science has published a curve that shows your brain can maintain high-functioning activity until well into your 90s. Which means you can do your best mental work late in life. Like 101 year-old Sarah Yerkes who published her first collection of poems this year or the golden aged Shakespearean theatre actors who deliver 2-hour performances without faltering. You heard about 90-year olds earning university degrees and elderly academics, physicists, authors who earn Nobel prizes at an advanced age. So don’t think these are rare accomplishments; on the contrary, lots of ordinary older folks still do extraordinary things. It means that the longer our lifespan becomes, the healthier we can live and the more we can accomplish.

Why are we thinking that advancing in age equals advancing in decrepitude, loss of energy, loss of physical and mental faculties? At 71, I am healthier, more energetic, more balanced, more creative, happy and content than at any previous age and I intend to stay in that frame of mind till whenever. The awkward and agonising moments of childhood and young adult hood when we are trying to form a character and a personality are behind us; so are the travails of young adulthood when we are working ourselves in a frenzy to earn degrees, establish a career, form families and raise children. The disappointments and discontents of middle life have been processed and shelved. We have now reached an age where we can reflect back on a full life, be glad or accepting of the accomplishments we have attained, the goals we have scored. The hard work is done. Now we can turn our sights to do what we have always dreamt about, unencumbered with responsibilities for bosses and families. It’s time to polish off our bucket lists, whether it is reading all the classics, travelling to new countries or old, designing your dream house, climbing a new mountain, building that flight simulator or other fancied contraption, volunteering at NGOs or getting involved in worthwhile causes. The list is rather endless.

Our best days Are.So.Not.Behind.Us. On the contrary, this could be the happiest and most fulfilled time of your life. Think of it: you’re retired with plenty of free time; your kids are on their own; your responsibilities have ended. This is the time you can really come into your own.

Don’t wallow in regrets for things left unaccomplished, for disappointments in relationships, for misdeeds or mistakes in the past, or yearn for things that could have been but were not. You know you cannot go back. So don’t look back. It serves no purpose other than reinforcing negative feelings. The past is gone and the present is a wonderful time to enjoy what is and what you have. And what you can still experience and achieve. Now is the time to envision the future years and make a plan to accomplish what’s left on your bucket list, even create a new one, learn new skills and find new hobbies, make new friends or relink with old, almost forgotten friendships, to reinvent yourself and bask in the joy of being older, wiser and being on that level where inner peace means something other than the hippie-yogi spoutings of some 30-years olds who have not yet attained that frame of reference to fully understand the meaning.

You’re in the U-bend of life. According to economists at the Warwick Business School in Coventry life is really not a slow and linear decline towards old age and death. It is shaped more like a U-bend. Statistics show that if you use happiness as an indicator, the progress from youth to old age shows that the sense of well being and happiness quotient is fairly high in youth but dips to an all-time low in our 40s to mid-50s. Apparently, that’s when we feel the least happy and go through that dreaded mid-life phase.

After that our enjoyment and happiness again rises and peaks in our 70s and beyond, thus creating the U. The left side of the U represents youthful radicalism, anxieties, anger, worries and stress which tend to increase as we reach our twenties and thirties but get tempered and dealt with as we reach the right side of the bend. The midlife crisis is behind us and we gain in happiness and contentment. This growing happiness seems to be associated with internal changes. Older people are coping better, they are more accepting, less prone to anger, tend to be better at finding solutions to conflicts and better at living in the present. This U bend is universal across countries, cultures, life experiences and economic circumstances.

Physical health and a positive mental outlook are crucial to preventing the diseases and deterioration one encounters in old age. Lifestyle, more than genetics will help you in that. So if you do have a physical illness or condition, there is much evidence to show that living a healthier life will aid and abet its demise or at least control its severity. This means banning toxins from your food and environment, including toxic relationships. It means eating a fruit and plant rich diet to beef up on antioxidants and limit free radical damage to your cells. It means dealing with the unavoidable stresses of life in a balanced and laissez faire-laissez aller way. It means getting out and exercise, having regular checkups to monitor your health and boost your nutritional deficiencies. Above all, it’s a mental thing. If you act young, you will feel young. If you give in to the occasional aches and pains and feel old, you will age yourself prematurely. Feeling old is really an option.

You can be a quadriplegic or suffer from a debilitating disease like the late Stephen Hawking whose mind was brilliant to the end, yet have such an upbeat mood and youth-like confidence in the future that you stimulate and motivate yourself to do great things, discover new adventures and enjoy life from whatever perch you’re on.

Take a clue from Grandma Moses who started painting when she was 76 or Keiko Fukuda who still taught judo and self-defence classes at 98. True, you cannot halt the biological and physiological process of aging but you can control the way you feel about it and set your mind with the sails that will take you on a joyful voyage to the end of your life.

By Ines Wynn
The Boomer Corner is a column dedicated to people over 60 living in Bali. Its mandate is to cover topics, practicalities, activities, issues, concerns and events related to senior life in Bali. We welcome suggestions from readers.
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