Lessons for aging gracefully
Posted April 21, 2016
Last week, I sat with a friend as we discussed the complicated task of staying alive.
This friend is on dialysis, which means that three days a week, she straps into a chair while a machine takes over the work of her failing kidneys and filters her blood.
It is exhausting and both emotionally and physically draining, “like getting the life sucked out of you,” she said. It is so taxing, in fact, that a fellow dialysis patient who rides her bus simply gave up one day and stopped coming.
“He just couldn’t do it anymore,” she said.
Without treatment, and without any support system, he lived just a week.
Americans are good at many things, but we’re dismal at the aging process. We valorize our smooth-cheeked youth and marginalize the elderly. We discriminate against seniors in the business world and in popular culture.
What’s more, most of us don’t plan our lives with aging in mind. Like Michael Jackson famously said in his 2003 interview with Martin Bashir, we think we’re going to live forever.
With all due respect to Jackson, that plan didn’t turn out so well for him. It won’t work for us either. While we don’t need to be macabre about the whole thing, the fact is that no one gets out of this world alive, so it’s best for us to plan, right now, exactly what graceful aging looks like.
In his book “New Aging,” architect Matthias Hollwich touches upon the key aspects of aging and how to make it work best in our modern day.
Those who live the longest while maintaining a high quality of life have many things in common — among them, a vibrant social network, an active lifestyle and a healthy diet.
None of this is new information. Whether you’re 5 or 50, these are simply rules for a good life.
However, Hollwich’s book, which is light on text and heavy on visual graphics, goes further. For instance, he writes that we need to love aging and look at the aging process as a gift. If life is a toolbox, every year allows us to fill that toolbox with something new and then pass along our tools to friends and family.
To embrace aging also means to prize our elderly and make them a part of our lives. This is easier in cultures that encourage multigenerational living, and it seems to be gaining traction as those cultures become more prominent in the U.S.
Another Hollwich creed is to never retire. As he notes, retiring is one of the worst ideas of Western modernity. To retire is to die. It cuts us off socially, strips us of purpose and takes away the structure and meaning of every day.
Sure, we might not want to push papers or subject ourselves to a daily grind in our twilight years. That’s understandable. But what we can do is adapt. We can consult. We can transition to part-time work or become a full-time volunteer. We can turn a hobby into a business.
Some of the people I admire most had a renaissance in their later years. My grandmother picked up a paintbrush and created a gallery’s worth of vibrant oil paintings. I know a friend whose mother, a retired teacher, wrote and published a historical novel in her 80s.
Community and church involvement can be a key link for the retired demographic. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which encourages senior couples to serve missions all over the world or right out their back door, is a great example of keeping retired people engaged and active.
One of the more poignant parts of Hollwich’s book addresses the need to live by family. He writes, “Though we might move to a different city or country as we find our own relationships, we have to keep in mind that proximity is the key to allowing family members to watch out for one another. When we consider a move later in life, we should plan on moving closer — calibrating the distance so that everyone is spread out enough to enjoy independence, but close enough to be able to look out for one another regularly.”
My brother, an ER nurse, said of all the trauma he sees, what hit him hardest are the people who come in with nobody — no family, no friends, no support system. “They’re the ones who die,” he said. “They have nothing to live for.”
No one should age alone.
Minnesotans are some of the best I know at aging. In my community, there is a retirement home that is attached by an enclosed walkway to both the public library and the YMCA.
The residents there are integrated into a vibrant community that is both physically active and socially robust. It seems to me a veritable retirement utopia.
That type of setup should not be just for the well-heeled and well-connected in upscale suburbia. It should be a moral imperative — the norm, not the exception.
Tiffany Gee Lewis runs the website Raise the Boys at raisetheboys.com, dedicated to rearing creative, kind, courageous and competent boys. Follow it on Instagram and Twitter at raisetheboys. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org