What’s Wrong with Aging?
Our culture is obsessed with youth. Only youth is desirable. Once you get older, you’re out. Everywhere I
look, there are these books and articles: Beating back the clock, Ageless body, Stay young forever, Banish
wrinkles! and so on and so forth. Scientists say we could possibly live to be 200, 300 years old. Cosmetic
surgery is now so common that you seem out of it if you don’t have it done.
Give me a break! Have you ever tried beating back a clock? With what? And how can the body be ageless
if it so clearly shows the stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood? I don’t want to stay young
forever; I’d be completely mortified if my appearance remained, say, that of a twenty-year old, and all my
friends turned 40, 50, 60 - would it mean I also didn’t learn anything?
Years ago I read a children’s book called Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit. It is about a family who had
found the fountain of youth in a patch of woods near their home and they remained the age they were when
they had drunk from it for over 80 years, while people all around them aged and died. They could never
stay very long in any one place, because their neighbors, after a few years, became suspicious, then
stand-offish, then hostile. It was a miserable life and they wished most deeply to age just like anybody else.
It eventually was made into a movie, but the book was better by a mile.
I don’t want to live forever either. What would I do with all that time? Life is hard work. I can envision getting
really tired and fed up with it all after a couple of hundred years. There are stories of alchemists who
remain youthful for centuries, but they also have to keep traveling to avoid the envy, greed,
and hostility of their fellow humans who age normally.
Instead of living forever, let’s live well today. Instead of remaining youthful, let’s remain healthy and happy.
Why make an enemy of time? I’m pleased to be getting older. There are a lot of mistakes that I don’t have
to make again; of course, that means I have the opportunity of making new ones! Getting older is like
taking a slow balloon or helicopter up into the air: as you go up, you begin to see a broader and wider
panorama. You see relationships and connections between points you only saw as isolated close-ups.
Having lived through various ups and downs, you remember on the next down that soon enough that too
will pass, and some up is bound to happen soon - as well as the reverse. This keeps you from freaking out
about the down, and from exalting about the up. This too shall pass, becomes the password.
How to live well? It’s very easy these days. We are generally protected from the elements and from
predators; we have indoor plumbing, hot showers, potable drinking water, plenty of food, places to sleep
and rest without having to worry about the lions. More of us have the opportunity to live longer because of
such protections. Other than that, there are some things we can do to enjoy our longer lives and be useful.
Here are some ideas, most of which you already know if you’re old enough:
A) Making sure we are well nourished - not starved, not over-indulged, not strict, not careless, and not
fanatical about what we eat, just satisfied. The healthiest older people that I have known always ate frugally,
even in parties (they had eaten enough special treats over their lives), or special outings (ditto). “I’ve had
practically every food our society has to offer,” an old friend told me once, “Why eat too much when I
already know how it tastes?”
B) Making sure we move. Either by exercising formally, doing yard work, chopping wood, walking,
running, or carrying stuff (from children to groceries) the body needs to move. It needs to move every day,
to keep the muscles, blood vessels, heart and all other organs active. Use it or lose it, goes the saying.
Strength and aerobic fitness are important, but flexibility, balance and endurance are just as vital. A
combination of strength training (good for the bones) and yoga or tai chi is excellent for those over
C) Keep using our brains and memory. We need to keep our minds active by improving what we know,
learning new things, exploring new ideas, acquiring new skills. I am often struck by the fact that many
artists and musicians who practice daily live to a ripe old age - think of Toscanini, Rostropovich, Georgia
O’Keeffe, and many others.
D) Expanding our capacity for altruism. Older people have the need, as well as the obligation, to nurture
and teach the younger generations. Mentoring, advising, helping others in their lives and work is an
essential part of a successful and satisfying second half century.
I think we can drop the idea of staying young. Nothing is more embarrassing than an older person trying
desperately to look younger through excessive makeup, surgery, hair arrangements and other attempts.
More often than not, these attempts are transparent to any one who’s looking, and what really appears is a
picture of fear and insecurity. It’s time we accepted that maturing is a wonderful thing. We can let go of
many insecurities, knowing that we have survived great odds already. Let us begin by respecting ourselves
and others as we get older by welcoming the knowledge that aging brings. Once we respect ourselves, and
we respect those who are older than we are, then we can elicit the respect of others as well. This country
needs the wisdom of older people, and older people need to notice that they have it. Let’s rejoice in the
passing of years, and in our growing knowledge and usefulness