There are many false promises, but there is also quite a bit of truth in the statement, “If we take good care of ourselves by eating well, exercising often and relaxing the mind, we can avoid many of the challenges of getting old.”
Is it possible to shift our perspective away from anti-aging to pro-aging? Maybe that’s asking too much, but we can decide to go with, rather than resist, the arrival of those milestone years like 70 or 80 or 90. We in the boomer generation never thought we would get old, but “here we are,” at least by the age indicated on our birth certificate. The oldest of our generation can now be called septuagenarians.
Can we just relax and accept that if we live so long, we will be old people? Can we accept the inevitable changes that come with this stage of life? The uncertainty of what may lie ahead can be scary when we experience new physical, mental and emotional changes. Beyond these may come, at some point, a loss of independence and self-confidence and relevance. Getting old can be tough, no doubt, and there may be a lot to complain about and a longing for those younger days. There may be sadness over the losses and an undercurrent of fear.
We fear the unknown, and we fear winding up like the generations before, sick and hospitalized. When it comes to an open discussion of death and dying, it is still largely a taboo topic. Most of us do not want to confront the fact that we will die. Out of sight, out of mind, is one way to deny our worrisome feelings for the great unknown up ahead.
Fortunately, there are now advocacy organizations like Death With Dignity and Compassion & Choices that have opened more conversations about improving quality at the end of life. And there are Death Cafes, which offer another way to move out of denial and fear. These are scheduled meetings, usually held once a month with a facilitator, but with no agenda. People come to talk or listen to each other as they explore, in a nonjudgmental atmosphere, what death and dying means to them.
Since our attitudes largely determine the success of our aging years, I turn to the words of Ram Dass, one of my longtime spiritual teachers. Twenty years ago, when he was 65, he published the book “Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying.” He was just beginning to deal with the fact he was now a senior citizen, and realizing, among his many new insights, just how much the media influences how we view ourselves as aging individuals. The anti-aging approach “leads us into battle, against time, pitting ourselves against the natural law and the cycle of life.”
Ram Dass was feeling old at sixty five, but now he tells us, at age eight -five, he had no idea of what was to come. Shorty after writing “Still Here,” he suffered a massive stroke that left him in a wheel chair and he us still recovering from aphasia or the ability to form words. But he is still here teaching about his new understandings of how to overcome suffering, especially in the elder years. His message focuses on the importance of being in the present moment, seeing each moment as precious. He advises us to stop comparing ourselves, unless we want to suffer, with the past and to identify with “our soul,” a place from which we can live where we are free from desires and attachments. The elder years offer a time, especially when we no longer have other responsibilities, to sit back and cultivate and connect to a larger space of awareness where we can feel more compassion, wisdom, peace, and wonderment.
This relaxed and alternative way of thinking about the last decades of our lives is a much more positive approach. Although we boomers may never claim to be enthusiastic about getting old, at least we may accept the Buddhist teachings that tell us all things are impermanent and living in the present now moment, as we go forward, is the best choice for our happiness.