On Being Adaptable

We can’t be blind to the deficits of aging, but we needn’t wallow in them.  The important question is how best to deal with decline in ways that bring satisfaction.  The eminent psychologist, Paul Baltes, loved to tell a story about the very eminent pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, that points the way.

Just in case you are too young to remember, Rubinstein may have been the greatest concert pianist of the twentieth century.  He played to sold-out houses well into his eighties, dazzling audiences with his virtuoso renditions of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Stravinsky, and others.  He was known for his extraordinary vitality.  At an age when most musical artists slow down, Rubinstein was giving two concerts a week.  Even in his dotage, one critic wrote, he could “transmit the joy of music.”

One day, when Rubinstein was eighty-one, an awestruck young TV interviewer asked him how he had sustained his virtuosity so far into old age.  First, said the maestro, he plays fewer pieces, and not just fewer: he limits himself to those he loves and is still able to master.  This kind of Selection, Baltes tells us, is the first of a three-part strategy for successful aging.

The second part of the strategy is called Optimization.  Rubinstein practiced each of the selected pieces much more than in the past, and much more than he could if he continued to play a larger repertoire.  At an old age, he could prepare his chosen repertoire better than in his youth.

The third strategy required a kind of slight of hand.  “…to counteract his loss of mechanical speed he now used a kind of impression management, such as playing more slowly before fast segments to make the latter appear faster.”  This is Compensation.

Selection asks us to develop and commit ourselves to obtainable goals.  The goals vary from person to person.  You might want to paint landscapes, to construct a Japanese garden, or to visit exotic, distant places. The key is to carefully align your desires and your resources to attain your goals.  Once you identify your goals and decide you have a reasonable chance of reaching them, you have to commit to them.

There are two types of selection: elective and loss-based.  “Elective selection aims at achieving higher levels of functioning. In contrast, loss-based selection is a response to the loss of previously available resources that are necessary to maintain functioning.” For instance, I now walk to get in shape where once I ran.  Unless we want to give up, all of us need to accept the loss of some goals.  No matter how I dream, I’m never going to play basketball again, to take one absurd example. But I can take long walks and I can write for hours, and they take up the room once occupied by more demanding activities.

Baltes’ emphasizes elective selection. “Selection promotes successful aging in a number of ways. To feel committed to goals contributes to feeling that one’s life has a purpose. Furthermore, goals help organize behavior over time and across situations and guide attention and behavior.”  The very act of committed activity is health promoting.

As with Selection, we each seek optimization in varied and distinctive ways.  To take a simple example, we each need to figure out how best to train our aging bodies to hike a favorite trail or learn to dance the Tango.  We each decide how much time and energy we want to invest to optimize our chances of success.  I say, be realistic—you don’t want to fail and discourage yourself too much—but generally, aim high.

Research does too. “Trying to achieve growth-oriented goals is associated with a higher degree of self-efficacy and leads to positive emotions and enhanced well-being. In old age, when losses are prevalent, it might be of particular importance to sustain growth-related goals for promoting well-being, rather than focusing primarily on losses.”

Compensation need not be as tricky as Rubinstein made it.  It’s about finding alternative methods to achieve your goals.  Let’s say you want to build a beautiful Japanese garden.  When young, you might haul all of the rocks and soil by yourself.  When older, you can hire some young people to do the heavy lifting.  You’d still be the creative force behind the project.  Or, you still want to run a 10K race.  To do so, you might cut down on the training miles and increase the time on the yoga mat.

Compensation requires mental flexibility.  It asks you not to confuse the goal with the method of achieving the goal.  While keeping your goal in mind, think as freely as you can about all the possible routes to get there, and then choose the one that will most likely lead to success.

Baltes urges us not to compromise on our goals too quickly.  “…it might be more adaptive to maintain one’s goal by acquiring new resources or activating unused internal or external resources for alternative means of pursuing goals.”

The SOC model isn’t magic but it’s a damn good project design for living well during our later years.  It asks us to be thoughtful and open minded about what we want to do and what will give us satisfaction.  I’d bet that most of us have kept a lid on our own potential.  Take the lid off for a while, at least in your mind.  Then experiment before committing to goals.  Even the initial commitment may require a leap of faith.  If you’re going down uncharted waters, you can’t be sure about the outcome, but you do put yourself in position to learn what is possible and to grow in certainty.

Eventually, your new path will feel natural.  It will be easier to place your full resources behind it.  We all know how great it feels to put doubts behind and to go full bore towards some goal, however imperfect.  Engaged in that way, we literally lose self-consciousness.  As Arthur Rubinstein is when playing Chopin, we are at one with what we are doing.  We become timeless and ageless.  There is nothing better.

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Introducing Time Goes By

Dear Readers,

I’d like to break precedent.  Instead of discussing my own ideas, I’d like to introduce you to a wonderful new friend and resource.

I’ve recently gotten to know Ronni Bennett,  who a mutual acquaintance calls the Empress of Aging.  Her Time Goes Byhttp://www.timegoesby.net/ , is the most delightful and informative blog on aging that you will find on the net.  She keeps you up to date on news and strategic thinking about aging, health care, and the politics of both.  Her blog often takes the form of moving, hilarious, and personal essays, written with a light and deft hand, through links to tv programs, webinars, John Oliver-type humorists, and music to remind us of the nineteen fifties, sixties, and seventies.  In a recent conversation, Ronni confessed that she was imprinted by Ed Sullivan and her blog does, in fact, serve as a variety show for our generation—and others.  You’ll love it.

Barry

Old and Proud: We will not be defined by the standards of youth

I am grateful to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s for bringing James Baldwin back to us.  Just this week, I took my copy of The Fire Next Time,, with its browning and brittle pages, down from the bookshelf.  I bought it in 1964, my senior year in college, and underlined almost every word.  Each sentence is still shocking, strange, and resonant at the same time.  I knew nothing about growing up in Harlem at the time but felt passionately, as he did, that I did not want American culture to define me.

Baldwin tells us that his father was “defeated long before he died because at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.”  When white people called him “nigger,” it was unforgivable.  But when he internalized their view and became invisible, even to himself, a man without an identity, that might have been worse.

Baldwin tells his nephew that “There is no reason for you to try to become like White people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.”  Instead, “you must accept them and accept them…” And, by doing so, “force our brothers to see themselves as they are…”

It may be impertinent for a White man to say so but Baldwin’s cri de coeur also seems like a perfect battle cry for those of us who are aging: to force our younger brothers and sisters to see us as we are and, by doing so, to see themselves as they are.

American society wants old people to be young, which is how we are portrayed in the AARP Magazine, the flagship of affirmative aging.  According to the Magazine we should aspire to smooth skin and bright smiles; long hikes, sexual prowess, and working for as long as we want; to financial security and an upbeat disposition; and to ticking off the items on the bucket list we created to make up for unfulfilled lives.  The degree to which we imitate young people is the degree to which we can affirm ourselves.  In other words, we are enjoined to be anything but old.

While this injunction is silly on the face of it, we have absorbed it.  We are complicit, especially when we try to imitate youth.  In imitation we betray ourselves.  By the standards of youth, we are ugly, slow witted, graceless, and impotent.  We are defined, not by who we are but by our failure to be effectively young and, conversely, by an ineluctable movement towards frailty and death.

This youthful pretense magnifies our shame.  We are ashamed of our forgetfulness, our lined faces and crinkly skin, our diminished muscle mass and our increased fatty tissue, and our need to be cautious in the out-of-doors.  What’s more, these current ‘failings’ bring back ancient wounds.  Even as youth, we weren’t always beautiful, brilliant, agile, and bold.  We were taught to be ashamed then, which is now aggravated in old age.

Shame is a terrible feeling.  It isn’t like guilt, which focuses on what you have done or failed to do.  It speaks to your whole being.  It is being unworthy, unattractive, unloved.  It makes you want to crawl into a cave, to be unseen and unknown.  In old age, there is nothing worse than shame.

We will do almost anything to avoid it, even try to be someone or something else, like trying to look and act young.  We will cover our shame with anger, becoming the angry old men and women of satirical movies. Anger at least keeps people and shame at a distance.  We will allow ourselves to be seen as adorable—nice elderly people and doting grandparents.  If we don’t appear challenging, others won’t challenge us, or so we tell ourselves.  We hold back much of who we are.  We become withdrawn, no matter how lonely it makes us.

James Baldwin asks Black people to see themselves without the filter of White society.  Ta-Nehisi Coates, his partial reincarnation, doesn’t think that’s possible and urges his son to withdraw.  I am not sure if aging people can free themselves from the imagery of a youth-oriented culture.  But, short of withdrawal, we have to try.

To begin, we must ask: what makes us distinctive.  It is partly the losses we have incurred, physically and emotionally.  We cannot deny that.  If we do, we are giving in to ‘them.’  But look closely, my friends.  There’s something beautiful in the experience that is written into the lines of an older face.  There is something ancient, almost eternal, in the laughter when it comes forward.  What about the knowing glances in response to petty conflicts that we will no longer join.  What about the depth acceptance in our friendships.  There is wisdom in that acceptance.

When old people study and think about new subjects, there is a vast storehouse of knowledge and experience that they draw on, whether younger people want to benefit from that knowledge or not.  There is perspective and calm that lead to sound judgments.  There is wisdom in these judgments.  There is greater understanding that each, new sunrise is to be cherished.  Not in every old person, of course.  Not in as many old people as we might hope.  But this is the distinctive potential of old people who affirm themselves as they are, not as the absence of youth.

Baldwin tells us that, by being ourselves, we have the capacity to help others to see themselves more clearly.  Baldwin means that White people avoid themselves by externalizing their own fears and inadequacies.  By focusing their contempt and anger at Black people, White people can ignore the contempt and anger they feel towards themselves.  We see this in glaring form among the White Trump voters today, these defeated and abandoned men who momentarily lift their self-respect by venting their rage at immigrants, elites, and people of color.

Young people, with our complicity, do the same to us.  They do not want to face their inadequacies and they do not want to know that they are human, that they, too, will grow old.  They don’t want to look directly at our wrinkled skin.  They spend inordinate hours trying to be beautiful because they fear being old and ugly.  They don’t say ugly but they mean ugly.  They don’t want to face their own future.

Our challenge is to help them to see the beauty of life through its many stages, through all of its pains and triumphs.  We have the opportunity to make them less afraid, and to help them to celebrate life’s full passage.  Not by preaching or teaching them directly but by being wholeheartedly ourselves.

Howl

There are times when dreams and fantasies tell us more about ourselves than wakeful thinking, especially during times of stress.  In the current political climate, dystopian fantasies often leap from our sleep.  Here is a fictional rendering of mine.

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Howl

A few months ago, I wrote an article that got some play.  That led to an interview request from the local TV station.  For reasons I still don’t understand, the interview went viral on YouTube.  During the interview, I said that I have grown despondent about the fate of our country, now firmly under the thumb of the narcissistic, authoritarian child-man who poses as the leader of our once great nation.  The more I talked, the more the interviewer egged me on and my despondency burst into rage.  Months and months of feelings were released in a single moment; and the words that followed were forged in flame.

When I look back on that interview, I can see the fire.  I can even see an eloquence that was unusual for me.  I am a plain spoken man.  The man on the screen looked like someone else, an orator.  And, a month later, that’s who everyone expected once the curtain rose.

I feared the curtain rising but rise it did.  There was nothing I could do about it.  Andthere I was.  Alone and frightened, looking out through the lights, straining to find a face that would rescue me from the humiliation I knew would come.  There was no one.  I placed my speech on the podium and tried to tell a funny story in order to lighten the mood and dampen the expectations.  No one laughed.  I tried another story.  People only looked confused.  This wasn’t what they had come for. My hands held tightly to the podium and my voice cracked.  Had they no sympathy?  I’m not a public speaker.  I had spoken up , but just once. It was on TV, sheltered by the illusion of having a conversation with a single person who attended to my every word.

In despair, I was ready to give up, to face my failure and humiliation, to walk off the stage and fall into the arms of the first friendly looking person I met.

Then a woman in the rafters asked me what I thought of our leader today.  “Not much,” I said.  There was some tentative laughter, especially from those up close to the stage, as if they were looking for a sign about how to react to me.  Was I being droll and understated?  Was I kidding?  Is that what I really believed?

Someone else in the rafters asked what I thought about his immigration policy and the oncoming brutality of the Homeland Security troops.  My heart was pounding and I began to talk, god knows why, about my grandfather and the family that never made it to the American shores.  The story went on for a bit, maybe too long. Then, at the first pause, a very young man called out:  “He hates us, doesn’t he.”

“Yes he does,” I called out, my voice strong and resonant.  “He hates every one of us because we are different.  Our skin and our voices and the way we talk—we are different.  And proud of it, by the way.  He hates us because he is afraid of us.  And he should be afraid of us.”  The crowd was with me now.

All of a sudden, my words took on a deep, staccato rhythm.   I wasn’t thinking.  Words seemed to erupt from my chest and to take over my whole being.   I couldn’t stop; nor did anyone want me to.  “Yes! Yes!  Yes!” they said. “We will fight.”

Then some men, dressed in black began to walk down the aisles and to approach from back stage.  They were large men.  And they wore the kind of masks you see in movies.  There were no guns that I could see.  Just the large men in black moving forward, ineluctably forward, until they grabbed me.  They had known where to find me.

Solitude

Even though I’m a sociable person, with good friends and a close family, I need solitude.  When life crowds in on me, when I feel jostled or fragmented, being alone helps restore my equanimity and my sense of wholeness.  Solitude is like rebooting a computer.  You turn it off, then on, and, magically, it’s fully aligned. Even the virus is gone. But it’s more than that.  Following times of quiet, new thoughts, solutions to problems, even inspirations appear out of nowhere and of their own accord.

I may crave solitude more than most, having grown up a very sensitive boy, easily hurt and prone to feeling left out.  But I’m hardly alone.  Almost everyone I know tells me that, underneath it all, they are shy and keep at least partly hidden.  They can identify.

It is often hard to distinguish between loneliness and solitude.  More often than not, I  would choose to be with good friends.  Solitude used to feel more like compensation than a prize.  Even so, I have known from early on that I needed to conquer my fear of loneliness.  If I could be happy alone and only join others when I wanted to, I would feel so much stronger, and others would want my company.

Loneliness speaks to absence, a feeling of missing something.  Solitude speaks to plenitude, a contentment in your own company.  I discovered this secret as a child.  I’d lay down in the shower, feel the water on what I would later know was my diaphragm, and enter what I might now call a kind of meditative state.  I did this when I was worried and invariably emerged with ways to cope with those worries.  I know now that the relaxation and isolation had given me access to the mental resources that anxiety had frozen.

But I didn’t yet understand the meaning of this discovery.  Most of the time, I tried to flee from loneliness.  It never worked.  The more I fled, the more it held me in its grip.  By the time I was a young man, I knew that, paradoxically, I needed to win my battle with loneliness by embracing solitude.

I began to take long, solitary hikes and to build a cabin deep in the woods in New Hampshire, where solitude was easy to find.  But my first great victory came from another, unexpected, source.  In 1970, I found myself spending every hour of the day taking care of my infant daughter and seeing patients in psychotherapy.  I felt exhausted and besieged, and increasingly irritated with people’s demand on my attention.  I needed a refuge, a place of minimal stimulation, and I found one in journal writing.

I vowed that I would wake at least an hour before Jessie did in order to share my innermost thoughts with a blank sheet of paper.  Even if it was babble, I would write just to be alone.  Soon the writing became a ritual, guarded by my comfortable chair, notebook, and pen.  At first, I was tempted to stop every few minutes but I pushed on until the words just flowed.  I felt held and protected by the bounded hour, and very calm.  Soon I needed that hour of solitude the way that some people need drugs.   My journal became a holy place.

This was a transformative moment for me.  Choosing to be alone, loving being alone.  The isolation had become restorative.  It prepared me for the day better than any pep talk or plan ever could.

The second transformation was more intentional and hard won. I now knew the power of solitude and decided to probe its secret passages.  And I knew that I would never wear its colors fully until I enjoyed my own company.  So I undertook a journey that has taken years and remains an ongoing quest.

Like everyone else, I had reservations about myself.  I fell into self-criticism with remarkable ease.  What’s more, I related to myself the way a parent does to a child. “For god’s sake, Barry, sit up, speak clearly, be kinder, grow up.”  I’m pretty sure you recognize this chiding voice within you.

I chose two strategies for this major combat.  First, I took a series of week-long solo retreats.  I allowed myself no telephones, no TV, no books.  Just me and my journal, me and myself.  I wanted to face the immense threat of boredom and self criticism head on.  At times it was excruciating. I badly wanted to call up a friend or at least lose myself in a book.  And progress was halting.  But I was dogged; with time, I began to relax and to notice the smell the pine and the sway of the birch trees, and the sound of the stream that ran by my New Hampshire cabin.  My mind began to slow down.  The pleasure of not having to respond to anyone or to make anything happen came to the fore.  I could just sit quietly. I began, at last, to relax deeply.  True solitude is always married to relaxation, even when you are physically active.

I would find this moment, then lose it, find it and lose it many times over.  Not every moment of solitude was so sweet, but each moment became acceptable, and the range between acceptable and sweetness held firm though the next decades of my life.

The second strategy was more active.  I wrote letters to myself and descriptions of myself.  I wrote them over and over again until it sounded like I was writing about a friend, someone whose company I enjoyed, whose character I respected.  It takes a good deal of discipline.  I didn’t lie and I didn’t deny.  I had to overcome boredom and a sense that this was a precious or futile thing to do. I simply learned to focus on the parts of myself that I liked and respected.  In the process, I made friends with myself and became a very acceptable partner in my solitude.

My strategies didn’t make me a hermit or a mystical savant.  I love the company of family and friends, and I love it more because I don’t seek it compulsively and for fear of being alone.  I do believe that my love of solitude has made me a stronger person.

Un-Tethered: Freedom in Aging

When we are young, we generally seek independence.  We want the freedom to form our own relationships, to discover and to articulate our own thoughts—to find our own way.  When we are old, freedom comes almost unbidden and the ties that bind us to activities, relationships, and communities often take flight.

As we move through our sixties and into our seventies, and as we near or enter retirement, we grow increasingly disengaged from family and work.  Our children have flown the coop, often settling in other states and regions.  We see them as often as possible—as often as they permit, we say—but they no longer fill our daily and weekly lives.  Nor does the contact define us as much as it once did.  For many of us, this includes grandchildren.  We adore them but they are elsewhere.  Even when we see them weekly, they are not the center of our lives as our children had been.

In addition to the loving contact and the intensity of relationships within families, there is an everydayness to the lives they required that gave shape to our days, weeks, and months.  The teacher conferences and the vacations, the bedtime stories and the meals to prepare—they determined the rhythm and texture of our lives.  It was easy to imagine that this, the quotidian, would be the hardest to relinquish.

The empty nest at home is joined by a comparable experience at work.  Like family, work is more than a series of activities.  It’s a community of sorts, a web of relationships.  Many of us may have spent more time within that web than with family and friends.  Who we are within that context seems to be who we are.  Our identities have been partly forged by our projects, our roles, our ambitions—or lack of ambitions—and by the relationships we cultivated.

Some of us, freed from what seemed like limiting marriages or intractable conflict, were at our best at work.  When we have been nurtured by work, it can be particularly hard to separate from it.  At the extreme, there were those among us who virtually lived at work and became virtual strangers at home.  As strangers, we lost our standing in the family, where the primary relationships were between the children and their mothers—or, in rare cases, with their father.  In such cases, leaving work meant leaving our true homes.

Broadly speaking, our sense of responsibility to people and institutions grows thinner with age.  And this isn’t just a numbers game.  It speaks to the way that the ties have held us. When we know what’s expected of us, when we know the rules by which we succeed and fail—and what will happen in both instances—when even the mostly implicit rules are known, there is a comfort in the clarity.  Paradoxically, the very clarity of the constraints and expectations make us free.

There’s another paradox here: even though you choose your work freely, day by day, you don’t choose.  You are just there, at work, within the work community, the web that holds you.  And, though deeply immersed in these webs, you are free to leave.  When you leave, the feeling of freedom and loss mingle in confusing ways.

For most of us, the power of family and work comes in good part from the sense of belonging, the virtually unsought and implicit sense of connection.  We don’t have to seek it.  We don’t have to risk rejection or embarrassment.  We are just a member.  And there is a quality of membership, hard to define, that feels larger than ourselves, larger than any group of individuals.

Unlike a contract, which is based on a quid pro quo—you do this and I’ll do that—family and work are based on a covenant or sorts.  A covenant is not a two but a three legged stool: you, me, and something larger.  It could be shared beliefs, shared goals, an almost religious sense of the ties that bind us together.  When this covenant is threatened, we are threatened.  We are un-tethered, potentially alone in a vast and uncomprehending world.

That is why you would think that old age and retirement would shake most of us to our core.  The prospect of facing ourselves without these twin holding relationships seems daunting.  Who are we in the midst of this new and puzzling freedom.  How do we nurture ourselves? Do we have only ourselves to answer to and to please?  At first—and at second—glance, that seems a flimsy basis for living.

And yet, and yet, this seems like a very good time of life, less needy and more easily filled than imagined.  I have been watching my friends bask in the freedom, which most of the time does not seem puzzling at all.  In fact, I’d say that they celebrate the freedom: freedom from pressure on the job; freedom from the fear of failure which is always present when you put yourself on the line; freedom, for the most part, from having to please other people; and freedom from having to try to control others.  What an unbelievable relief to be responsible only to ourselves and a to few others.  And for those of us who have been fortunate enough to retire with enough money to live comfortably, the time for anxious saving is done.

The empty nests mean that we have completed or mostly completed the work of parenting and the long labor to earn a living and a reputation.  We have probably taken time to assess our lives, acknowledged our limitations and found gratitude for successes.  What’s done is done and it is mostly in the past.

My friends celebrate time to read what they hadn’t had time to read, to take up photography, art, music.  To learn.  For years, it seemed like we had stopped learning.  There was too much to do.  And when we did learn, it was begrudging.  There was the need to keep up professionally, to make sure advisors weren’t taking advantage of our tax and financial positions.  These felt like chores not openings to new worlds.  Now Learning in old age becomes a source of delight and deep satisfaction.

 

My friends celebrate spontaneity.  We don’t have to run from task to task. We need sprint right home from work to make sure the kids have dinner or rides.  If we want to have dinner or drinks with a friend, we do.  Friends become more central to life than they had been since childhood.  If and when we want to take a walk, we do.  Read a book, go to a movie, take a nap—any time of day, any day of the week.  What a privilege this seems.  Sometimes it feels illicit but that hardly dims the pleasure.

Maybe the greatest and unexpected pleasure brought on by the combination of empty nests is a sense of detachment.  This is a subject that the great psychologist, Erik Erikson, talked about so eloquently.  He described our lives as passing through a number of stages, each with its own great challenge.  The challenge for the last stage (sixty-five and beyond) is to cultivate “ego integrity” over “despair.  Despair represents the fear that our lives haven’t gone the way we wished and there isn’t enough time to begin anew.

Ego integrity means embracing our sense of wholeness, a belief that life as it is, is enough.  To achieve that wholeness, people have accepted setbacks and disappointments, celebrated successes, and found meaning in both.  Those who find such meaning arrive at a sense of well being, a peaceful contemplation of their own mortality.  This, if anything, is wisdom.