How to Grow Old

I am in the process of acquiring some new skills. Like others my age, I first learned “how-to” by having my parents instruct me to “Look it up in the encyclopedia!”  Everybody had a set of encyclopedias in my neighborhood. You either had Britannica or World Book. The alphabetical volumes contained all the knowledge of the world, printed on slick pages in two columns of small type. Bolded entries were followed by pithy descriptions of the topic and were painstakingly transferred to term papers without attribution and turned in to our teachers for credit.

Mr. Wentzel, the orchestra teacher for the elementary schools in my district, moon-lighted as an encyclopedia salesman in the summers. I remember his coming to our house and selling us a set of World Books. My parents pondered whether to spend the extra money to get the deluxe version, which meant an extra volume or two and covers of white with green and gold highlights. Oh, the delight upon arrival when I unpacked the set of white and green volumes that contained all the known facts of the world.

Just Google It!

Nowadays of course, we Google our questions and through the magic of proprietary algorithms, are fed petites bouchées of presumed facts. Most of us (myself included), take the content to be valid, and share it widely without much assessment or critical analysis. Factual descriptions are now determined by how many “hits” and how effective the SEO (search engine optimization) is. Instead of academic rigor, we gauge the content by a collective positivity/negativity rating (thumbs up, hearts, emojis), and other representational voting methods. Even Wikipedia cautions users that information is, at best, crowd sourced.

All of this is preface to what I found when I went looking for information on how to grow old. This question arose out of a conversation with a friend who I have known most of my life. We share demographics in virtually every category: age, gender, economics, marital status, educational attainment, and political viewpoint. At one point in our conversation, one of us asked the question, “How did we get to be this old?”

Role Models

I spent a lifetime learning from, being taught by, modeling myself after, and aspiring to be like the older people in my life. When I was born, by definition, everybody was older than I was. (Pause for laughter). Since I never had siblings, I was mostly in the presence of adults (my parents) and older adults (my grandparents) except when with school chums or neighborhood playmates. My focus in graduate school was on aging, and my professional focus has been on aging issues. So, by definition, I should have learned something about growing old! And I do know a lot about aging in others.

But here’s the kicker – I can’t really say exactly how I have reached my late 60s. I’ve made it through surgery, mumps, measles, chicken pox and COVID.  I’ve survived earthquakes, fires, car accidents, and food poisoning.  I’ve had money in the bank and searched for pennies in the couch.  I’ve loved and lost loved ones. Any of these could have ended my life.

Researching How to Grow Old

When I research “how to grow old” by googling or checking Wikipedia, I find instruction on how to age gracefully, avoid aging altogether, set aside my fears of growing old, manage my body as it ages, or write songs about the process, not how I grew old.

Given who I am, it is unlikely that even with coaching and mentoring, I will ever grow old gracefully. Nor am I wanting to avoid aging, since it seems to me unavoidable. My fears about aging have not come to pass, so I am not sure that finding new fears to replace old ones is all that keen a strategy. I could use additional support around managing my aging body, as long as it doesn’t entail giving up eating, breathing, or require me to enter into contracts with amazingly fit Millennials who are over the top excited about wanting me to move my body and improve my abs. As for writing songs, well, there is possibility there.

Growing Old Doesn’t Take Effort; It Takes Compassion

Growing old does not take effort; it takes compassion. Aspects of aging, qualities of life, managing the changes that aging brings all take effort. But the actual growing old doesn’t.

Most information on aging focuses on the physiologic functional decline of different body systems. Biology has definitively described the cellular developmental process that starts with birth and ends when our teleomers finally erode. Psychology has provided developmental templates for personality, acquisition of skills, and brain disease. Sociology has defined roles and systems that change with age. Philosophy and religion have provided insight into growing old as opportunity for deepening what it means to be a human. Poetry and literature have filled in the background and foreground with descriptions of inner and outer experiences that follow the arc of birth to death.

DIY Growing Old

My ‘how to grow old’ instruction book contains a few foundational approaches that I have learned, stolen, or copied from some older folks who I thought had figured out the way things should be. None of these fit into the “New! Improved!” category. And they certainly aren’t “the latest scientific advancement!”  They are practical and, if followed most of the time (e.g., 51%), will result in you growing old.

    1. There is no guarantee that I will have a tomorrow, but I am going to act as if I do.
    2. Attitude influences how I grow old. I can change my attitude. I can be kind and loving toward myself and forgiving of others. I can be kind and loving toward others and forgive myself.
    3. The older I get, the more past I have. I can wallow in it, I can learn from it, or I can let it go. Two of the three are really good strategies, and I need to pay attention to which ones I am using.
    4. Planning for the future is helpful. There is room for spontaneity and flexibility if circumstances turn out to be different from what I imagine.  Having a plan for today, tomorrow, and the future helps me remain active and present in the world I am growing old in.
    5. I am growing old on my terms, based on the times I live in, the circumstances that I am given to deal with, and the opportunities I am offered. When I exercise personal power and authority, I have more influence on these things. When I am powerless and without agency, these things will determine how I grow old.
    6. I am no saint; nor am I a sinner. I am human.
    7. I am going to die. Accepting my mortality is my work alone. How I come to terms with this may include complete denial or involved conversations with others about what to do about keeping me out of pain, offering me life support, or just doing nothing. But I am the only one who is actually going to do it.

There are others who have written about this topic far more adroitly than I.  May I suggest  Bertrand Russell’s essay on “How to Grow Old” in Portraits from Memory and other essays?

2 comments

  1. Compassion for one’s self and for the process.
    Such wise advice in your 7 points. Will print it out to remind me.
    But, yes, how did we get this old???

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