If you estimate you will inhabit the Earth until you reach into your ninetieth year, you can use an obvious baseball metaphor to represent your aging life. At 60 you are in the sixth inning of a nine-inning game, and you are – congratulations – manager of the home team. With 60 being the first decade of the final third of the game, reaching that milestone, in my opinion, means you can officially be called “old.”
Now don’t start screaming, “what do you mean old? I refuse to be called old; I refuse to be called a senior citizen. Never felt better. I can keep up with life just as vibrantly as the next person.” Lots of healthy people in their 60s, in particular, refuse to say they are old. There must be some wording that can appease these naysayers, these optimists, these strong minded and strong willed. Some say “elder” suggests an aura of wisdom and respect. Elder, however, feels more like 75ish and older.
Since I’m 64 as I write this, I have no problem calling myself “old,” primarily because my physiology is not even close to what it used to be when I was, let’s say, 40. Nonetheless, I can still walk, albeit relatively slowly, but not at a snail’s pace, depending on the day. My mental acuity is still quite strong, and I still have the spirited energy I have always possessed, although I do take more mental naps and perhaps do not study as hard and determined as I have in the past. Old age brings a certain kickbackness – did I just invent a new word?
All this brings up the question of should I or should I not slow down? Or, since my time left is obviously more limited than before and keeps getting closer to the inevitable end, shouldn’t I be extraordinarily more focused on precisely how I spend my time? Does the thought of having more free time bring more anxiety because deep down I know I am not spending my time as wisely and productively as I could?
Contemplation, Disillusionment, Loneliness
How about taking this free time to spend contemplating and reading and studying more in the humanities and social sciences, everything from history, literature, art, psychology, philosophy, sociology, and spirituality – just learning for learning’s sake?
In “The Coming of Age” (published in 1970), controversial French existentialist philosopher and prolific writer Simone de Beauvoir explains how further development of one’s intellectual plane in old age brings clarity of mind and liberation “accompanied by an often bitter disillusionment.” Suddenly we conclude we are not going anywhere other than to our total demise and everything we worked hard at throughout our entire lives has ultimately amounted to a whole lot of meaninglessness. We realize, unless you are famous, that you will eventually be forgotten, all your work buried in the sands of time never to resurface again.
Yet, she adds, this does not mean we are incapable of pursuing things “that are useful to mankind.” She continues on this theme, writing that “freedom and clarity of mind are not of much use if no goal beckons us anymore, but they are of great value if one is still full of projects.” For me, personally, that’s spending more time studying and writing. With that comes a certain amount of solitude that I find challenging to balance with my old-age desire for more meaningful and selective social interactions.
Certainly, loneliness can be a dangerous side-effect of aging, as many of us become less socially active and even gerotranscendent. Many elderly suddenly find themselves with very few, if any, close friends. Plenty of scientific studies point to loneliness in old age catalyzing poor health and even an early demise. So, if you are lonely, it is vitally important that you work at increasing your social interactions, at least at a minimal level. Maybe check into a meet-up. Maybe go to a friendly watering hole or cafe, or take a walk around your local college campus if there is one nearby. If you are the volunteer type, there are plenty of options to look into. Or, maybe get a part-time job somewhere, which is something I’m dead set against as long as I can survive financially as a freelancer writer/editor/researcher.
Director of the Work/Life Integration Project at The Wharton School, the University of Pennsylvania, Stewart Friedman, in an article headlined “The Retirement Problem: What to Do With All That Time?” says “the most successful people in retirement look to use their talents and passions to make a contribution.” The article also points to studies claiming that elders who volunteer have a larger sense of purpose, more self-esteem, “and are both happier and healthier than those who do not.”
I feel almost embarrassed to say this, but I’m not the volunteering type. I’d much rather sit around and philosophize and debate with people I respect and can learn from by just listening to them speak.
Thomas Moore wrote an excellent chapter on loneliness in his recent book “Ageless Soul: Living a Full Life with Joy and Purpose.” Here he paraphrases one of his good friends Patricia Berry, a Jungian analyst and archetypal psychologist. Moore starts by describing loneliness as a discomforting feeling with a purpose that could be pointing you to what you really need. “Loneliness may take us into the space needed to reflect on the things that matter instead of being occupied all the time,” he writes. “Loneliness may be a hint at a cure for the incessant activity people engage in that is often empty and pointless.”
In short, Moore offers lots of great insights about loneliness in just this one chapter that in my opinion is worth the price of the entire book alone. Here’s a simple quote from near the end of the chapter that I felt like pinning on the wall by my desk: “Old age doesn’t have to mean a diminishing of self but an increasing, multiplying sense of who you are or could be. Another tonic for loneliness.”
Still, loneliness can be, and often is, debilitating, which is why for many people there needs to be some semblance of meaningful work that entails some measure (great or tiny) of social interaction in their lives when they have entered their retirement years. Research on the nature and time spent working during our elder years have brought insights into these kinds of questions. A good number of articles and studies boldly assert that we should work at least into our seventh and even eighth decades/innings.
I’m okay with that but only if you wholeheartedly love your work. Joan Chittister put it best I think in “The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully”:
“But we are here to depart from this world as finished as we can possibly become. Old age is not when we stop growing. It is exactly the time to grow in new ways. It is the period in which we set out to make sense out of all the growing we have already done. It is the softening season when everything in us is meant to achieve its sweetest, richest, most unique self.”
Chittister, a Benedictine nun, has an uncanny way of making you think extraordinarily positive about growing old. “As long as we breathe we have a responsibility for the cocreation of the world, for the good of the human race,” she proclaims.
I concur wholeheartedly.
Thanks for stopping by,