Meeting the Five Challenges to Aging Well

After posting essays on aging for fifteen months, I decided to see if there is a common thread that binds them together, a set of ideas, a personal philosophy.  What I discovered is a sequence of challenges.  In the Eriksonian spirit, I believe that we have to meet one challenge after another in order to move with energy and integrity to the next.

Together, the sequence of challenges forms a map.  The value of a developmental map is that it creates order out of our messy, complex lives.  The danger is that the map oversimplifies.  As Gregory Bateson insisted, “the map is not the territory.”  But even though we travel in the territory in our own distinctive ways, I believe that we share a general course.  That’s the idea, anyway.  It will be up to you to determine if my map clarifies or muddies your own journey.

The first challenge begins before old, old age sets in.  It concerns the vulnerability that is always there and simply increases with aging, the decline of our bodies, the fear that our minds will soon follow, and our uneasy place in the social fabric.  The decline is inevitable. The experience of vulnerability, anxiety, and confusion almost as certain.  In the face of our vulnerability, we are tempted to deny it—I’m fine, just the same as ever—or, in the opposite direction, fear it and yield to what we think are its implications too soon and too completely.  The first response leads to superficiality.  The second makes us old and disabled before our time.

To meet the challenge, we must learn to look at life as it is, not as it might be.  We must meet difficulties without denial and with a clear, unblinking gaze.  And we must meet pleasures with the same simplicity.  This is the baseline for the honesty and authenticity required of aging well and to begin a journey towards wisdom.  We cannot meet the other challenges until we learn to eliminate most of the distortions we have grown accustomed to.

The second challenge comes with retirement and the empty nest.  These are powerful developmental passages that presage a time of unrivaled freedom and spaciousness but, almost invariably, they also demand an assessment of the life we have lived so far.  Many of us are judgmental to our bones, others less so; but self-evaluation is never easy.  The challenge here is examine our lives with that same clear gaze that we have learned to bring to our vulnerabilities, and to find ways to say “yes, it has been good enough.”

I may have been an imperfect parent, for example, but my children are good people and I am proud of them.  That assessment means I have been good enough and I can move on.  My career may have been more modest than my dreams would have had it, but it has also been “good enough” to free me from a life colored by regrets and recriminations.   I might add that, whatever my life has lacked, my last fifteen years felt redeeming.  During those last professional years, my focus on social justice permitted me to bring my values and my skills more closely together.

In my essay, Completing a Career, I wrote: “It was like completing a circle, from childhood to old age:  living my values more deeply, more immediately, and to some effect.  My parents might be proud.  At last, I did too.  I felt at one with myself, peaceful and fierce in my work.  And ready to let it go, ready to enter the post-retirement stage of life.”

Once you have learned to see clearly and to put the past mostly in the past, the next and most enduring challenge is transform even great difficulties into positive, sometimes triumphant experience.  This is the third challenge.  My essays on loneliness, physical and mental decline, fear of irrelevance, and fear, among others search out pathways to such transformations.

In almost every case, I ask myself and my readers to begin by allowing themselves to fully experience their pain or confusion.  The paradox here is that by resisting pain, we are stuck in it, like Brer Rabbit in molasses.  The more we resist, the more it becomes an impenetrable barrier.  Yielding to the pain, on the other hand, enables us to move through it into relief and joy.  That was the message of “Singing the Blues,” “How Do I Know Thee: Relations With Adult Children,” and “Through the Dark and Into the Light.”

In The Freshness of Old Age, I wrote about a deep acceptance of our own, not our culture’s idea of old age.  “When we slip off the strait jacket of cultural narratives and family expectations, of social prescriptions and proscriptions, even for a while, we enter a world of radical possibilities.  In that world, we can experience the sunshine on our faces and the scent of the forest, the smiles of friendship and the embrace of lovers as if for the first time.  That is the possibility of freedom in old age.”

You may have noticed that the map I have drawn is almost entirely about individuals, and that makes it incomplete.  We are not isolated beings.  Our experience of each challenge and of the entire journey is profoundly influenced by the company of others, husbands and wives, children, siblings, and friends.  The experience of our vulnerability, for example, depends in part on how others respond to it.  Do they worry?  Do they ignore it?  Do they care or not?  In response, we might emphasize our ills, protect ourselves from unsolicited concern, isolate ourselves or seek the company of fellow stoics or sufferers.

So, too, retirement and empty nests take on the character of our relationships.  Our ability to transform pain into triumph will depend on the attitudes of our intimates.  Even dying can be as much a collective as an individual experience.  Do we, for instance, let our spouses, our children, our friends know our thoughts?  Will they hold us or will we insist that they “respect” our need for separateness, even as we pass away from them.

The fourth challenge, then, is, at every stage, to square away our relationships with those most important to us.

Finally, there is the fifth challenge, the great existential conundrum presented by the imminence of death, which becomes increasingly present in old age. We avoid it at the risk of becoming alienated from our selves.  In the end we must make our peace with dying.

A year ago, I wrote: “That I have already lived the great majority of my life is a fact.  That I am declining and, soon enough, will find myself infirm—that’s for damn sure.  And I’m pretty sure that I will die one of these days.  If the obituaries that I now find myself reading more closely are to be trusted, that day will come sooner than I would like.

“How I respond to these ‘facts’ though, that’s partly up to me.  It’s a state of mind that can shade many ways: gloomy, sunny, ironically, matter-of-factly.  I believe that I have some control over this.  Victor Frankl, writing of his time in a German concentration camp, put it this way.  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  I can at least try.”

There it is, then.  A sequence of four challenges, each accompanied by the challenge of relationships, presenting a mighty and unavoidable obstacle course, with its pitfalls and triumphs.  Do they shine a light for you?  I am thinking about expanding on these thoughts in a longer piece of writing, maybe a short book, and would like to have your guidance.

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In the Age of Hurricanes

It was the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.   Biblical images of the Houston flood were engraved on my retina.  I had dropped my grandson, Eli, at his home in Needham after a couple of hours of basketball and Sudoku.  WGBH was on the radio and the deep male voice was reviewing the particular vulnerability of the elderly during storms.  I had seen picture after picture of old people being rescued from their roofs, despairing at the loss of all that they had called home.

My four and a half year old grandson, Jack, and I had collected supplies from neighbors to send to Houston.  A gesture, a paltry contribution.  There are hundreds of millions of people like me, though, watching from afar, for whom the hurricanes are immensely evocative, and no amalgam of fascination and guilt can eliminate our experience.  So I decided to share my own in common cause with that distant multitude.

At first, I sympathized but didn’t identify with the victims of Harvey, nor the impending suffering of those in Irma’s path.  I didn’t feel like an old man.  I felt above it all, like I could deal with the winds and the cascading waters, the food shortages, and surrounding pain.  I told myself that I would be helpful to others.  I would man the rescue boats.  I would serve food and water at shelters.  I would help to rebuild the wreckage.  I would not be a burden to others.  And, as I sat in my Toyota Camry on Route 128 outside of Boston, I was immensely reassured by my bravado.  In a guilty way, I felt good, grateful, almost celebratory.

For a while, I began to feel stronger and stronger, younger and younger.  It was the type of musing I have experienced many times of late.  In spite of the fact that I can no longer outrun Eli, Jack’s seven year old brother, I imagine myself running like the wind and leaping high fences as I once did.  I reminded myself that my planned knee replacement would prepare me for the adventures I’d loved in the past.  Unhindered by the bone-on-bone grind of my knee that made hiking downhill too painful, I made mental plans to renew my backpacking journeys into the High Sierras.  I might play tennis again.  Maybe I’d enter 75-and-older tournaments or prepare for 80-and-older tournaments where I’d surely win a prize.

These fantasies are so real that they aren’t just fantasies.  They are a regular, almost tangible, part of my life.  I love to lie down on the coach and let them ripple over me like slow moving stream.  I go to sleep with them.  They are among my closest companions.  And I’ve felt no need to rid myself of them.  They don’t seem to impede my judgment.  They are my friends and I can leave them and go home to reality whenever I want.

Then my musings were interrupted by the radio commentator.  He began to list the dangers that old and disabled people needed to guard against.  In preparation for the Irma, old people needed to make sure they had a good supply of their medications, food, and contacts.  They could be stranded, unable to fend for themselves, brought to shelters without clothing and reassuring objects.  He actually said that we should bring the equivalents of our baby blankets and stuffed animals.  He talked about living for days and weeks at a shelter, feeling dirty and disheveled all the time, sharing showers and toilets with hundreds, maybe thousands of others.  My bravado began to wane.

I grew more and more aware of how much I depended on my safe home, safe income, relative health, loving family, community and friends.  I became aware of what I’ve got in ways that felt less abstract than they usually do.  I might feel strong now but how will I feel in five years.

I listened more carefully to the announcer’s advice.  Make sure your house is secure, he said.  Check.  Make sure we are “storm-ready.”  What are my frailties and medical conditions?  Do I have supplies to wait out the storm alone or with my wife?  Can I live without electricity and senior care services?  Check for now but maybe not for long.  What about my ability to communicate with others who might help or whose safety worries me as much as my own?  What about the emotional toll of losing my home, my friends, my family?  I could not prepare for that.

In our age of hurricanes and floods, these fears are not unfounded but, for most of us, they are extreme.  They represent worst case scenarios.  Yet, as I drove along, they reminded me of the many vulnerabilities that, most of the time I keep at arm’s length.  Normally I hold these fears at a subconscious level, which means they can and do surface from time to time.  This was one of those times.

Unbidden, I thought of a friend who had recently died and another who has a recently diagnosed cancer.  These days I read the obituaries with greater regularity and intensity.  I watch with mixed feelings as my children grow more solicitous of my health—or when they refuse to do so.  Serious and trivial anxieties float through consciousness and my dream life.

The other day, for example, I went to a bicycle store to look into a new bike with straight handle bars that won’t stress my neck and back the way my old racing bars do.  I was excited and asked if I could come back the next day for a test run.  “Sure,” he said; and almost immediately, I felt a little deflated.  I wondered if this was a good thing to do.  There would be no problem riding the bike but I could fall.  I know a couple of older people who had crippled themselves by falling from bicycles.  I don’t know what I will do but I was taken aback by how quickly and vividly the awareness of vulnerability had invaded my mind.

It’s not that the vulnerabilities are lurking like some terrible snake in the grass, ready to pounce.  Not most of the time.  But they are there and they probably should be there.  We need to be safe.

That brings me back to hurricane season.  Sometimes I feel intensely for all people, young and old, caught in these disasters.  I am also inclined to deflect these feelings and to protect myself from my own feelings by turning matters into politics—“What the hell will wake these climate deniers up?”  But the catastrophes, continental and personal, are here and imminent.  I need to face them.

For the most part, I do so with a simultaneous sense of vulnerability and gratitude.  I try not to make more of the vulnerabilities than they deserve, and I give myself permission to savor the  health and strength that remain to me.

Mentoring

As retirement drew near, strange images came to mind.  In one, I pictured all the knowledge I had accumulated in a long life drifting skyward, growing indistinct and formless, then disappearing.  In another, all that I knew seemed to be dissipating and returning to the earth—some uninvited play on life as dust to dust.  The biblical allusion didn’t calm me. I shared the imagery with Franny and wondered: “I’ve learned so much over my lifetime.  Will it simply die with me?  Isn’t there a way to pass it on?  Will anyone want it?”

The problem is that the market for wisdom has been declining for centuries.  Once the world seemed stable.  It didn’t change every few years with each new technological advance.  In traditional societies, if you were alert and thoughtful, the longer you lived, the more you knew and, more importantly, the more you understood.  The currency in old age rose instead of falling. For younger generations to succeed, old men and women had to share their accumulated wisdom.  Young and old benefited.

Erik Erikson extended the idea of human development beyond childhood.  For each developmental stage, he claimed that there was a challenge that we needed to meet in order to be strong and healthy.  The penultimate stage he called “generativity vs. stagnation” (40-60).  To move firmly through that stage—let’s call it the launching pad for old age—adults need to turn from self-concern and self-indulgence towards the concern, care, and nurturance of the next generation.

The primary challenge Erikson identified for life’s last stage (65-death) is “ego integrity vs. despair”.  To succeed at the end of life, he claimed, we need to accept life more or less as it is, to review our accomplishments and failures, and to come to the conclusion that we have lived our life reasonably well.

I think that Erikson sold these last years short, as something of a lengthy dénouement in which productivity stopped and reflection was all that remained.  That doesn’t reflect the people I know.  It’s true that most of us have done an accounting.  It’s also true that, for most of us, the urgency to produce income, ideas, and concrete products has waned.  But our energy persists, as does our desire to contribute towards the lives of others.  Erikson’s challenge for the stage preceding old age—turning our attention to the next generation—works as well, if not better, for old people.

For many this takes the form of taking care of grandchildren and volunteer work in nonprofit organizations, participating on boards of directors, assisting with administrative tasks, and mentoring the children served by the nonprofits.  All very valuable contributions.  For most of us, though, I think that mentoring represents our greatest and often untapped opportunity.

While youth do not automatically revere age in our society, my own experience tells me that they do value what we have learned when applied appropriately and well.  Most of us can’t advise on computer and iphone issues, for instance, as our children and grandchildren can attest.  We would also be unwise to lay claims to universal wisdom—not if we want any but cult-seeking groupies to listen to us.  Nor can we impose our cultural premises onto the next generation as those in traditional societies could.  If we try, young people won’t and shouldn’t listen to us.

What we can draw on is a great deal of lived experience which, if we are reflective, provides the possibility of wisdom comparable to the elders in traditional societies.  We have formed and nurtured families, organizations, and communities and we have learned a great deal along the way.  We have learned by our successes and by our failures.  We have learned from our fears and from our boldness.  We have learned by falling on our faces and getting up again.  We have learned by our reluctance and by our impetuousness.   Every one of us has lived a life in which we had to solve problems, endure hardships, and learn to affirm life as it is.

We have learned, that is, if we have consistently reflected on our experience—and if we continue to reflect on what is true and what still seems relevant.

Since many, if not most of us, have not had the opportunity to be well mentored or to observe mentors in action, there will be skills to learn.  Describing those skills is beyond the scope of this essay, but let me offer just a little advice.

Mentoring is generally best as part of a relationship.  There has to be a good fit between mentor and mentee, a mentor’s desire to help and teach and a mentee’s wish to benefit.  Much of what we offer begins and ends with respectful listening, which is the best way to get to know one another and to build trust.

Most of what we say is best shared through stories.  Unless they are requested—teach me how to write a budget, a plan, how to get along with my fellow workers—didactic lessons tend to feel like impositions.  They create distance, not intimacy.  By teaching through stories, we encourage and affirm our mentees’ capacity to draw their own conclusions, to extrapolate in their own creative ways.  The key is this: to allow our own wisdom to release and not constrain our mentees’ wisdom.

There is one more key: we have to be in proximity with young people.

Mostly we are not.  We live in separate communities.  We talk different languages.  We don’t share stories.  The generations have become balkanized.  While older people resent the warehousing that separates us from family and community, we also contribute mightily by separating ourselves.  We need to buck this tide.

I have had the privilege of mentoring many young people  For years, I joined with young marital and family therapists.  For many more, I have worked with organizational leaders.  And throughout, there are moments when even my grown children have allowed me to offer a telling story or a bit of advice.

Mentoring is an activity I love.  It provides me with the opportunity to know the younger generations, just a bit, and for them to know me.  At some point in of every session, I feel that I have contributed something, that I have passed on a little bit of what I have learned.  I have not let my life’s learning just dribble away.  Mentoring is a way forward with dignity.  For me, it has become a little piece of paradise, the closest I come to an afterlife.