Talk About Aging

Dear Friends,

In September, I will be gathering a group of about 8 to 10 people to discuss life-as-we-age.  Topics will range as widely as my blogs do, from retirement, adult children, courage, and health, to stories about our lives.  We will try to identify the themes that have helped to define and animate us, each in our very distinctive way, and imagine how they will carry us forward.  We will also seek common ground and hopefully find comfort in the sharing.

There will be a modest fee of $50/meeting.  We will meet ten times, from 7:30 to 9:30 on Wednesday evenings.  Location to be determined.

Since I will be facilitating the group, you may well ask what qualifications I bring other than the thoughts I have shared with you in my blog.  I have led groups of all kinds for almost all of my fifty-year professional life.  For thirty of those years, I was a psychotherapist, working with individuals, couples, families, and groups, and one of the founders of the Family Institute of Cambridge.  Some of you may even know of my books, including Couples.

I have two favors to ask of you:

  1. Let me know if you—or you and friends–are interested in joining our group.
  2. Please spread the word about Talking About Aging to friends.

I am eager to learn your response.

Barry

How do I know thee: relations with adult children

Last week, an acquaintance told me that none of his four children really knows who he is. The distance is partly or largely his fault.  He hadn’t shared very much of his inner, nor, for that matter, his professional life.  That had been natural when they were young but it had built into a habit.  By the time they were adults, just when he really wanted them to know him, the habit had hardened and outlived its original purpose—or what he thought was his purpose—protecting them.   When Sam was with them now, he felt trapped within himself, unable to touch or be touched by the people he loved most.

A month or two before Sam’s mournful confession, his wife, Sarah, had shared her own. Hers was a different story but in the end, added up to the same thing.  Sarah was Sam’s opposite.  She was an open book with just about anyone who would listen, and she readily shared her feelings with her children, especially as they grew into and past adolescence.  With each passing year, though, they seemed to distance themselves from her by keeping conversations short and practical.  Now she feels unknown, too.

There’s nothing strange, certainly nothing pathological about these experiences; they are shared by vast numbers of older adults and very hard to avoid.  But the distance, the yearning, the ache is palpable.

Even for those who “know” that this is a time of life when adult children are busy, occupied with their own lives, need to do what they are doing, need to pursue their own goals, it can be hard.  Even as loving parents root the “kids” on, applaud their successes, admire their capacity—the marriage, the work, the children, the friends—it can be hard.  Even as the grown children fulfill parental dreams, parents miss them.  Even as parents enjoy the freedom from the constraints that children imposed on their lives, even as they luxuriate in their (relatively) tension-free homes, they miss their children.

Much of what they miss is admittedly unrealistic: the cuddling, the play, the soothing of egos…especially being the most important people in the lives of their children.  And it’s not just unrealistic; it’s unhealthy.  After all, it is imperative that adult children act like adults.

By the way, I am not suggesting that parents are fully occupied or preoccupied by their children.  Many prefer some distance.  Many don’t wish to spend more actual time with their adult children.  Most people that I know love their empty nests.  And yet, and yet…there’s the remembered children and the remembered relationship.  That’s sometimes harder to relinquish.  This is the location of the ache.

But the cause of the ache is frequently hidden from view.  Parents sense it but can’t quite pin it down.  As a result, parents and adult children may play out the drama in indirect, even disguised ways.  Below the surface, for example, the theme of unrequited love plays out through addictions that both divide and join parents and children.  It plays out in fighting when children marry the “wrong” spouse, the husband or wife who keeps their child away or who comes with the wrong religious or political persuasion.  Add in the sustained financial dependency and renewed co-habitation that is common today, and often confused and confusing exchanges ensue. And, of course, there are the mixed feelings about how to raise the grandchildren, those potential substitutes for the grown children.

These struggles have probably intensified because we live in a time of cultural transition, during which the traditional, extended family has largely receded to into history for Americans of European origin—but new forms have not fully gelled.  There are few prescribed and universally accepted ways for children to grow up, leave home, and return as well-formed adults.  There are few prescribed cultural norms for how parents and adult children behave towards one another, no less feel about one another.  Are they equals?  How can that be when they spent so many years being unequal?  How do you make a change as fundamental as that?  Are they friends?  How can the intimacy of parent and child be transformed into something as relatively simple as friendship when so many deep currents run through their relationships?  Our culture gives us few guidelines for success in these profound and often fraught passages.

There is one aspect of the relationship of parents and adult children has been particularly interesting to me of late.  When I think of what is most meaningful about parents to their adult children, often it isn’t the person they see in front of them.  It is the person who held them and helped to shape them—in good and in painful ways—when they were young.  It is the historical, not the present parent.  In other words, it is an image and often inchoate feelings that are strongest and that stand between “real” interchange and connection.

The same is often true in the reverse direction: Parents relate to their adult children based on who the children were when young.  Much of the friction comes from children wanting to break out of what they feel is the imprisoning imagery their parents have about them.  Often the break has to be extended enough for the adult child to feel that s/he is being seen as s/he is now, as an adult.  Even after the “return” of the adult child, s/he rarely feels well known, known from the inside, known for the thoughts, images,  and needs that course through her.

This is strange stuff.  Relationships built around imagery from days gone by, negotiations in the present bearing the weight and meaning of decades past.  It’s easy to see how parents and children talk by one another and, in the double sense, how they miss one another.

It is not a problem to fix. The form it takes is partly shaped by cultural forces but it is also universal.  Children grow into adults.  As they grow, parents gradually let them go, knowing and balancing their own extraordinary pleasure and sadness in their flight.  There is honesty in the knowing.  There is integrity and generosity in the commitment to the children at all stages.  Naturally, the balance and the integrity are best achieved when parents live fulfilling lives of their own.

New wine in new bottles: the freshness of old age

The biggest surprise of old age is how new, how fresh, things feel.  Far from the prescribed cultural narrative—continual, inevitable decline or frantic efforts to reverse the decline and the fall from youthful grace—my experience is better characterized by discovery, uncertainty, ambiguity, and mystery.   As Philip Roth said, when asked about his unexpected retirement, he asserted, without resignation or sadness, “I’m in a different stage of life.”

It is a difference that makes a difference.  Simone de Beauvoir once wrote that “Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species.”  I take that idea literally.  In old age, we are in unexplored territory.  Being an explorer in that territory is a privilege I never expected to have.

In a previous essay, I wrote young people seek independence.  For older people, freedom comes almost unbidden when the ties that bind us to activities, relationships, and communities take flight  Let me begin by counting some of the ways, small and large, that that freedom comes to our doorsteps.  There is the freshness of each, unscheduled day.  I can ask: What shall I do?  What do I want to do?  At last, the weather plays a role as it hasn’t since childhood.  If it’s sunny, I’ll take that walk.  If rainy, I may read more, or call a friend.  Or a friend might call me, and I can usually respond positively.  Spontaneity is my friend again.

There is the greater stillness in my body, so that I take more notice of the lilacs in bloom and the pine-scented paths on my walks, sights and smells that I had barely glanced in the rush of adult life.  The natural world is more alive to me at this stage of life.

There seems to be more uncertainty in old age.  It’s not just your schedule that’s flexible.  You can’t count on your health as much.  Friends, too.  They get ill, become infirmed, die, move away.  I mean this not so much in a sad or depressing way but as a fact of life, one that changes almost as much and as rapidly as during any time since early childhood.  It can make you anxious and unsure of yourself.  There’s a temptation to draw inward and to limit yourself in an effort to ward off bad things.  But, in the purest sense, there is change to challenge your adaptability and this can awaken you to a life painted in brighter colors.

I am surprised to be alive.  My father died at fifty and I was long filled with the kind of magical thinking common to children.  If you think a plane will crash, then it will.  I imagined that my genetic heritage would bring me down at 50.  It didn’t, and I’ve had all these extra years, years that I didn’t expect, no less deserve—years that seem a heavenly gift.  I don’t appreciate that gift each day, though I wish I would, but I do so often enough to feel the last 24 years as a bonus.

I had imagined that old age meant playing out a relatively prescribed script.  The sad part of the script—of course not the whole of it—included physical decline, nostalgia for my lost youth and vitality, and a narrowing of my social circle.  Now that I’m almost 75 see that I was wrong in so many ways.  Like others, for instance, my ideas and images about old age have continued to shift.  As a young man, 60 seemed old.  By the time I was 45, it was 70.  At 60, it was 75.  Now, at 75, I feel so much more alive than I imagined I would. The ground of expectations keeps shifting and the shifting keeps me on my toes.

Of all the things that change in old age, history seems the most unlikely.  I mean your personal history, your life story, which by this point is extraordinarily well-rehearsed, as you have told it to others and mused about it inwardly for decades.  Instead, my narrative keeps changing.  My father, who felt like such a rock, now seems such a troubled man.  My mother, who felt more like a peer, a friend, now seems like an inspiration.  I’d like to tell you that, with the perspective of years, I see them more clearly ,but it may be truer to say I see them differently.  I see them now in light of my current life.  I see them now as younger people.  I see their lives more in terms of the choices and drives and changes they faced, and less in relation to me, their child.  In ways, that makes for a more interesting story.

As my image of them changes, so does my self-imagery.  For example, I was said to be my father’s child.  Supposedly, I looked and acted like him.  I was his heir, meant to carry on his dreams.  With each passing decade, though, I discover how much I have taken on my mother’s restless energy, her defiance, her wish to explore new territory.  One day last month, I looked into the mirror and saw, not a reflection of my aging father but a dead ringer of my mother and her side of the family.  I keep “discovering” things about my childhood, my family, my neighborhood—not because they have actually changed but because I keep seeing them anew.

You can say that these aren’t such major discoveries, but they are because they shake up everything.  If I’m really more like my mother—or even equally like her—then that “realization” changes how I view the rest of my family.  It changes how I feel about gender, about my purpose in life, my destiny.  I put the word realization into quotes because I can’t be sure if my new insight is, strictly speaking, true, or if it’s just another view of the same phenomena.  But it feels new.  And when you jostle your sense of reality, it stimulates a scramble to reorganize everything.  That’s what has happened to me.  I am scrambling.

Historian that I am, I have begun to re-imagine the flow of events and relationships in my life.  Since I’m pretty comfortable with myself at this point, the project is more a source of fascination than anxiety.  I have begun to give up on the idea of a coherent narrative, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Like others, I have a great desire to pin down the definitive story of my life.  But there is nothing of the sort.  Rather, it is a story that has been invented and reinvented many times throughout my life.

There is freedom in this realization.  A long time ago, Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan taught me about this kind of freedom.  The more others think they know about your past, he said, the more they think they can predict your behavior in the present and future.  These predictions become expectations, and expectations limit possibilities.

When we slip off the straight 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.

 

Who is that old guy in the mirror

The other day, as my grandson, Eli, and I crossed Mass. Ave in Cambridge, on the way to a shop where children select and paint pottery for firing, he took hold of my hand. We let go when we reached the other side. For reasons I can’t explain, I looked down at my hand, now gnarled and misshapen, and wondered what Eli’s thought of it. As a child, as I recall, I was put off by the wrinkles of elderly bodies. Eli didn’t seem to notice or care. But that got me thinking about aging and body imagery.

For the longest time, I liked the effects of aging on my body, especially my hands. They looked strong and weather beaten to me, signs of physical labor and a life well-lived. Recently, the weather has battered them even more. Not that I find them ugly. I still like the look but now I’m pretty sure others don’t.

That got me looking for clues about how common my experience was. I began reading in the psychological and sociological literature on body imagery, where I found pretty much what you’d expect. The aesthetics of bodily decline, for example, is profoundly influenced by culture. In a youth-oriented culture, smooth looks good and wrinkled looks bad. African Americans are more comfortable with large “body mass” than are Caucasians. Men bemoan growing guts and loss of muscles. Times are changing: Looking soft is unmanly even if you are slim. Women focus their displeasure on fat. As they age, their wrinkled, droopy, and heavy bodies damage their egos and they resent that comparable changes seem to make men look distinguished.

All of us—men and women, Black, White, Brown, and Tan—are encouraged to look young. We are taught to exercise, to make ourselves up, to cover unsightly parts of our bodies. The popular literature on staying young or looking “ageless”—and, by the way, looking ageless is supposed to make us feel ageless—has grown beyond the fondest corporate imaginations. Pop psychologists encourage the pursuit of agelessness, but more politically attuned psychologists tell us that agelessness is a pernicious form of “internalized agism.”

Most of us already know what the experts are saying: that our self-image is heavily influenced by cultural preferences, or, if you like, by cultural bigotry. But this knowledge does not help us to shed the cultural stigma. They are deeply ingrained. My hands are my hands. And the loose skin on Nora Ephron’s neck is hard to affirm. I could go on about my knees, after two surgeries and thousands of miles of hiking, tennis, and basketball. My legs just don’t look so good.

I have written numbers of essays whose core strategy is turning lemons to lemonade, finding new and affirming ways to understand experiences that have troubled us. But I don’t think that approach applies here. I know that some people try. For instance, there is a lovely article in the Huffington Post: 8 Artists Who Explore the Beauty of the Aging Body. And I see the beauty in Joan Semmel’s nude self portraits. I do. But they feel like exceptions to me.

Aside from culture, there is a second influence on body image that may point a way out of my dilemma: functionality. As long as our bodies do what we want, as long as we can trust them, they remain more temple than burden, and they are easier to affirm. “It may not look great,” we can say, but, through long practice, “it still works just fine.” There is research to show that sexual interest and activity continues for many of us well into old age. So it seems that we may look good and feel good to someone. Maybe there’s a kind of visceral imagery that can supersede the visual.

That’s an inspiring idea but let’s admit it, mostly our physical capacity declines over time and, at some point in old age, the decline is precipitous. That’s when it becomes harder to convince ourselves of our body’s beauty.
If I can’t find some smart or quirky way of affirming this old body, what’s left? Acceptance. That’s what I’ve always invoked when I couldn’t seem to change some aspect of my personality or social interaction. I try to relax deeply into whatever difficult reality I’m confronted with. I look at it straight on. No denial. No effort to make it any different than it is. And eventually, I grow less critical and more at ease with what I see.

Sometimes I feel skeptical about acceptance, wondering if it is any more than numbness. And numbness seems like an illegitimate solution. Aren’t we supposed to experience our feelings in all their intensity? Not necessarily. Why shouldn’t we permit ourselves the protective embrace of feelings like resignation and acceptance.

There is one further destination to this journey, though. The older I get, the more I seem to replace what I look like with who I am. I don’t think this is merely convenient, though the timing is clever. very good. I find that I am more reflective these days, that I spend more time think about the meaning of life and other such themes. In other words, I haven’t stopped looking in the mirror—heaven forbid—but the mirror that holds my attention has changed. If I am self-conscious, it is mostly about the state of my mind or the legacy I might leave. My vanity is more focused on the wisdom I have and have not achieved. In that light, this wrinkling body of mine seems like the right one to have.

Through the dark and into the light

“In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.” Albert Camus

Since I began my blog, friends and colleagues have expressed their concern about what they perceive to be a depressive strain in my writing.  I have mixed feelings about my dark side.  It can be painful but it has lent depth and insight to my life.  So I wrote an essay about the Blues, trying to explain how the very act of acknowledging and not avoiding dark feelings helped people move through them.  The essay proved interesting but not persuasive to my friends, which leads me to a different tack—putting what Winston Churchill called his “dark dog” into a cultural context.

In America, we are encouraged to be happy and urged to avoid or hide unhappiness.  There is a stigma attached to depression, a largely unstated belief that vulnerability is weak and unacceptable, particularly for men, who are taught from early childhood to mask their fears and anxieties.  More than one survey has determined that Americans believe depression is the result of a weak will or a character deficit.

Sometimes when people “worry” about me it sounds like they are also scolding.  Their concern sounds a little bit like an accusation.

When people point to my sadness, melancholy, or depression, my first feeling is shame.  My second feeling is denial.  Not me.  Then I want to distance myself from these prying eyes. This is what men do.

We’re not alone.  In many other cultures—Japan, for example—vulnerability must be avoided, and shows up regularly in stomach and digestive problems, which are acceptable.  The more martial and macho a culture, the more men transform vulnerability in to physical symptoms.  In American culture, women are said to “act in,” while men “act out,” often to the detriment of marital relationships and to a society that badly needs to look inward before leaping to military actions and diplomatic bullying.

I belong to another strain of manhood.  I was always plagued and blessed with a desire to understand myself as deeply as possible. I want to be happy but not at the cost of  the depth and wisdom I find in introspection.  I need to go below the surface to discover what moves me, what upsets me, what brings joy and relaxation, what made me effective.  These introspective journeys have been as natural to me as the running and jumping, the basketball, tennis, hiking—and the exuberant pursuit of ideas—that have also filled my life. They formed the foundation of my life as a psychotherapist and coach.

But let’s return to what I take to be my strain of manhood.  Many of the people we admire most have been subject to dark moods.  Here are just a few:  Mark Twain, Hans Christian Andersen, Edward Degas, Leonard Cohen, William Faulkner, Michelangelo, John Steward Mill, Sir Isaac Newton, John Keats, Kurt Vonnegut, and, of course, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.  I feel tremendously enhanced by the company of these great depressives, whose capacity to brave the darkness, then combine it with the light to form complex and beautiful thoughts, I so admire.

I believe that it is impossible to reach towards insight and creativity without fully acknowledging fear, anxiety, and confusion.  According to the neuroscientist, Nancy C. Andreasen, our openness to new experiences, tolerance for ambiguity, and the way we approach life enables us to perceive things in a fresh and novel way. Less creative types “quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority”, while “creatives live in a more fluid and nebulous (read: incredibly stressful) world.”

Writing for Scientific American, the psychologist, Scott Barry Kaufman, summed up his research this way:  “It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible,” he writes. “Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas.”

The need to tolerate the dark is embedded in all of our religious traditions.  Buddha tells us that first reality of life is suffering.  All our efforts to avoid or deny this reality make us more superficial and rigid, unable to face and adapt to life’s great challenges.  Moses asks us to face—not accept—our enslavement to other people and their way of thinking.  With that insight, he begins to lead us towards freedom.  Jesus sees our suffering and takes it onto himself.  He doesn’t ignore it.

My first intentional effort to move through the darkness and into the light was as a young man.  I wanted to triumph over my fears, which meant I needed to see them clearly, understand them, know that I would survive the encounter with myself.  For me, this meant mustering all my courage because I was afraid of what I might find—my weaknesses, my limitations, my uncertainty, the many demons for which I did not yet have a name.  I did survive and feel very much richer for the effort: more comfortable with myself; and much more able to summon my courage when needed.

As I age, as the realization that the years ahead are not infinite, the search for wisdom has grown more urgent.  By that I mean the search for perspective, calm, joy, and freedom from fear become ever more alluring, ever more intense.  Each search begins with a feeling or thought that I need to come to terms with—as we all do—and attempts to move through the darkness and into the light.  That’s the road I’ve chosen.

Living Between Worlds

I grew up idealizing the intellectual life, probably wanting to realize my father’s barely articulated and utterly unrealized dream for himself.  Without the faintest idea of its origins, I yearned to be a learned man, a respected man, a secular version of an ancient Jewish tradition. By the time I entered college, I anticipated passionate, late night conversations about every topic under the sun, and hoped to form a community of like-minded friends.

Over the years, I have constructed my study as an homage to that vision, probably modeled on photographs of the studies of my intellectual heroes, William James and Sigmund Freud.   Even now, my study–with its shelves and shelves of books, ‘hi fi’ equipment, art and knick knacks–speaks to that ideal.  Each day, it surrounds and comforts me.

Recently, I’ve discovered what I have most liked about that imagery.  It’s the sense of belonging that I see in the photographs.  James and Freud seem so much at home in  their cultures, confident that they were the right men in the right place.

In some small way I have realized my dream.  I am a cultured man and belong to a small tribe of like-minded men and women.  I’d love my children and the many young people I’ve worked with to understand what this small achievement has meant to me, and what it would have meant to my father and my grandfather, how it signifies the upward passage of generations, from immigrant laborer to businessman to professional to intellectual. But I don’t think young people see it that way.  I might have won a prize and joined a club but the prize and the club appear to be outdated, unappealing, even invisible to them.

The best chance I had to join the intellectual tribe of my early dreams seemed to be academia but I didn’t find companionship during graduate school.  It felt staid and lacking in passion—not my tribe.  So I set out to test the hurly burly of life outside its gates, hoping to find a new community to work and identify with.  My work soon focused on helping others, as a psychotherapist, social activist, and nonprofit  entrepreneur. During the last two decades, I have been especially drawn to young people, with an emphasis on young people of color in nonprofit organizations dedicated to social welfare and social justice.  It turns out that they feel more compelling to me than university scholars .

Their identity as outsiders and their experience as immigrants or children of immigrants feels like the people I grew up with.  Until I went off to college at Harvard, for instance, I had never met a WASP, a Brahmin, a person whose cultural identity wasn’t hyphenated.  Every one of my acquaintances knew, first hand, how unacceptable they or their parents had been in America.  Everyone was fierce in insisting that they belonged.  Every one of them also felt like they were the real America. I feel more connected to them than to the intellectuals.  This tribe was closer to my heart.

In essence, it is their marginality that is deeply resonant to me.  Like me they are neither outsiders nor insiders in American society, which is how I have felt throughout my life.  I have never fully belonged to any group.  Like them, I have lived in between, on the margins.  This position, this identity, disturbed me for many years.  I felt strange and lonely—until I realized that virtually all of my close friends were also marginal.  We all had one foot in the establishment, with good jobs, professional status, and homes of our own,  and one foot in- left wing politics, eastern spiritual practice, or we were shaped by some deep personal “anomaly.”  They have been my community.

My professional life has consisted of one challenge after another to establishment institutions and theories.  In the seventies, we built the family therapy movement, challenging the old men of psychoanalysis, with their inward focus and refusal to look at the great wide world.  In the eighties, we tilted at the windmills of the American medical system, with its emphasis on cells and organs instead of people.  By the nineties we tried to take on corporate America’s indifference and, even, hostility, to the particular strengths and weaknesses of older workers.  It was hard work but great fun, and however much we felt like outsiders, we were deeply connected within our little cadres of rebels. It wasn’t the mainstream tribe but it provided a sustaining sense of belonging.

The young people with whom I’ve connected over the decades love hearing stories of those rebellious days.  They especially love stories of my being a provocative outsider, a position that makes them proud. In one, I am lecturing psychiatrists and psychologists at Massachusetts General Hospital in the Ether Dome, the hallowed hall of the first surgeries in America.  You have to be an insider to be invited to lecture there. The seats in the Ether Dome slant steeply upward.  The lectern is at the bottom and, as you crane your neck, it feels you’re talking up to the gods, which is how those men in white suits thought of themselves.  I tried to explain how important it was to look beyond the internal world of unresolved childhood conflicts and more towards the influence that families exerted on their immediate members.  Focus on people, not ghosts, I insisted.  Within ten minutes of the lecture’s start, the gods began to boo–literally, MDs booing.  Some began to leave.  Then I left, too, which, for some strange reason, shocked them.

I’m pretty sure that my mother would have enjoyed my provocations; and as the years have gone by, my father’s voice has yielded to hers and to her love of adventure.  Her favorite book was Kon Tiki, the story of Thor Heyerdal’s wild journey on a reed raft across the Pacific.  My mother was a good suburban wife, I suppose, but not in her dreams, and not by mid-life, when her radical politics and budding feminism grew stronger—and with it, a sense of belonging with her compatriots.

I see now that I could never fully belong to one world when there were two powerful voices living within me.  I would always position myself between worlds—and grow comfortable in that place.

I am retired now and the temptation is, once again to retreat to my study, to the comfort of books, Beethoven, and paintings.  I could seclude myself in my condo development, mostly populated by older people.  Like everyone else, old people tend to gather among their own ‘kind.’ We see this all the time in retirement communities and in independent and assisted living facilities. There is such comfort in familiarity.

But I remind myself that I am a marginal man, most comfortable with membership in many tribes.  Then I increase the number of young people I take on to mentor and the number of nonprofit boards I serve on.  I very much need the freedom to move between worlds.  I very much need to end my life as I have lived it, on the margins, happily joined with my marginal communities.

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.