For a long time now I have wanted to write about how aging affects our appetite for life, how it constricts our activities and shrinks our comfort zone and our energy level. I have been thinking about it now and again, when I get around to it. Thinking about it seems like enough work even without the writing. The writing can happen, of course, between naps.
There is an age zone that occurs like a whisper; you are not young anymore but not old either. But one thing is true; you know for sure that time is conspiring to eliminate you. It is no longer hypothetical as it was previously.
Over years, watching friends age, sometimes with ten or twenty years between meetings, I observe a contraction of life, both physically and intellectually. The safe zone gets smaller, more precious, and the ability to accept and embrace new experience declines.
A friend and veteran of wilderness adventure, a man in his seventies, is part of a breakfast group that meets once a week to “shoot the breeze” to keep each other company, especially through the long northern winters. “I can’t get them to do anything,” he says. “I suggest a relaxing canoe trip down the Allagash river, (about as easy as it gets), and they looked at me like I am crazy.”
The whisper in the ear, “Don’t take any chances. Just be quiet and stick to your routine. Maybe death won’t find you for a while.” The routines of our lives become ruts. Even a visit to a new restaurant or a drive through unknown territory, taking a new route, can produce discomfort, a mild fear.
It is tempting to take a mocking, sardonic tone about this. One wants to separate oneself from the afflicted. But I decided to research a bit about it and very quickly read about how age coincides with almost every aspect of our physical system basically falling apart. It is a law of physics, entropy; all systems fall apart. It is a law.
For the human body, the result is that you don’t have the energy you used to have. That is an understatement. And why? Well, your heart is not pumping as well, your arteries are not so clean, your kidneys don’t work great, and, by the way, neither do your lungs, your eyes, your ears, basically everything.
My friend George is one hundred and five years old. When I was growing up we rarely heard about anybody reaching ninety and now more and more people live beyond that. I spoke to him on his one-hundredth birthday and he was cogent, sharp as usual. We talked about the fly fishing we used to do on the Catskill Rivers. He said, “I get on my treadmill every day and I have a keyboard to play some music but I don’t have much energy.” At one hundred and five I didn’t talk to him but got the report that he is the “darling of the home” where they take care of him. They all love him and when they greet him in the morning he says, “Could I please have bacon and eggs for breakfast?”
Mockery was not the appropriate tone for a consideration of aging but compassion is, since mostly this is beyond our control, mostly. “You can’t unscramble the egg.” my friend stated. And yet inevitable deterioration, in process from about age thirty, can be resisted to some degree.
It gets harder to push oneself. That is true. A younger teaching colleague of mine is a body builder. He keeps encouraging me since I already have a good base after a lifetime of sports and gym. He tells about and provides written material and videos of older guys who still “look great”. Because of him, I am a bit inspired to push my gym routine beyond the lazy normal. I took some comfort in his telling me that Arnold Schwarzenegger, about my age, says, “I work twice as hard for half the benefit,” which seems accurate. It does take twice the effort with half the energy, no small task. But he does it anyway. That seems to be the key.
I would not even have heard about Schwarzenegger’s senior workout thoughts if I had not said yes to teaching teenagers a couple of days a week. I am seventy-one. It is not easy to muster the energy to face twenty-five kids twice a day. but I do it. My teenagers help keep me fresh and I feel it is worthwhile because I consider that my experience is a benefit to them whether they know it now or not.
There are a lot of clichés, adages, and homilies about old age. I suppose they are supposed to provide some comfort as we sink deeper into the couch and give ourselves up to the inevitable. “Old age is not for sissies,” they say, as if saying it is enough to prove “they” are not sissies but well up to the challenge. Mostly they/we are not up to the challenge but we do the best we can.
Recently I heard the term “mild depression” from a friend and I think that is more prevalent than generally known. A sense of defeat can pervade everyday life without being apparent except to our closest people. Even within the person it can go unacknowledged. And yet it can cripple us softly.
Throwing down the gauntlet for yourself and picking it up is the hero’s path through the “dark wood” of age. More and more there are things I don’t actually feel like doing but I push myself through that barrier of resistance and am glad of it every time.
So much for the negative aspect of aging. There are positives and they seem to be agreed upon by people researching and writing about this topic. We know ourselves better, are less neurotic, more confident, and more liberated, care less about what other people think, and have a great store of experience and knowledge to share. If we can succeed in maintaining our deteriorating bodies so they don’t bother us too much, we can enjoy what’s left of our life in a much deeper way than we could before.
October 14, 2016