Age is a state of mind!
"Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter."
I recently went out to California to celebrate my mother's 93rd Birthday party and as I set out to plan the event, I quickly realized that I was in for some important life lessons.
First up? Don't book the main room for a 93rd…the potential attendees are scarce at best! I was struck by how short a list I could muster up even though my mother had cut a rather wide path through the social scene of our hometown Sacramento in her heyday. She had so many friends throughout her life, however many simply weren't alive anymore.
So as I started to make my way through the short list, I called old family friends and colleagues of my moms. I quickly began to notice a marked difference in their approach to everyday life, and their attitude about getting older. As octogenarians, they had all retired long ago, and were now in their "golden years," but I found out that there are very different ways to live out these years. . .
Some of the old family acquaintances I spoke with sounded old and sickly. They measured their days by their doctor’s appointments. They told me about all of their aches and pains and how old age stinks and how life had become dull and boring. Their voices were not only halting but fearful of their future and pessimistic about life in general. When I told them that my mom still read the newspaper every day, they said “Oh God, who would want to know about all the bad news going on these days.”
Well… the next couple I called to invite gave me a completely different perspective! They were thrilled to hear that my mom was reading the paper and that she was still opinionated at 93. Now I will say that this couple had always lived a very healthy life style – they were Seventh Day Adventists who don’t smoke, drink, or eat a diet filled with high fat meats. Their diet is generally fruits, vegetables and whole grains, a lifestyle choice that protected them from disease and gave them the vigor to keep active and continue travelling. Their lifelong approach to life was to “be of service,” which meant that they were still involved in the teaching staff of a local University and involved in their community. This lifestyle meant that they still spent time around young people and that they were even able to contribute their knowledge and experience to those young people. This gave them a sense of purpose, a life challenge, and therefore, a fulfilling life. When they arrived at the party, they may have looked a lot older than the last time I saw them, but there was still a sparkle in their eyes and they enthusiastically shared the events of their life with me which included daily walks, big family gatherings where they still cooked and entertained, and trips they still looked forward to taking. They were knowledgeable about everything going on in the world and had a wonderful attitude about making the most of their golden years. Scientists who study aging point to this kind of optimism and these effective coping styles at this stage of life as the most important factors in successful aging. I certainly found that out with this group… happiness in old age may have much more to do with your attitude about life than your actual health.
These kinds of findings may prove important for the medical community, since the commonly used criteria for successful aging suggest that a person is aging well if they have a low level of disease and disability. But we now understand that self-perception about aging can be far more important than the traditional success markers. Giving up on our health and our happiness can be almost as dangerous as a chronic illness. We now know that people who stay positive and spend time each day socializing, reading, or participating in other hobbies rate their aging satisfaction higher. This is all very encouraging because it shows that the best predictors of successful aging are well within an individual's control.
Now I must admit, the older I get, the more interested I am in how to insure that my own "golden years" will hold some intrigue and enjoyment, and I know I'm not alone out here seeking the answer to this modern quandary, in fact there are 78 million baby boomers all starting to ponder this question! As more of us are living longer, many of us will need to change our game plan. Retiring at 65 could now mean three decades or more of "golden year activities." So we have to think… what are those activities? If we're going to live into our 90's and perhaps beyond, what are we going to be doing all that time? Maybe we should rethink what age we stop working? I know I have! Don’t we need to save more money? What is most important to making the most of that final chapter?
My mom has always been known to her friends as Glitzy Glady and she has always been the eternal optimist. She always told us as children to “put on our rose colored glasses” and see life as great and full of potential. She encouraged us to “shoot for the stars” to use her words. I expected to do something great in my life, because my mom had always told me to expect that of myself. Even though at only 40 years old my mom tragically lost my dad when he was killed in a plane crash, these days she repeatedly tells everyone that she has the most wonderful memories of the most amazing life. She says she feels very lucky to be as healthy as she is and to live in a place where they are so nice to her and take good care of her. The people who take care of her daily are constantly telling me how appreciative she is of their care and of her life in general. My mom’s optimism has always been contagious, but to see that happy sparkle in her eyes these days is especially wonderful and I’m sure it has contributed to her good health.
People who describe themselves as highly optimistic and have lived their life as such are found to have lower rates of death from cardiovascular disease and lower overall death rates than pessimists. I sure found that to be the case with the octogenarians that came to my mom’s party. Believe me, I could have predicted which ones would walk out saying “let’s all look forward to meeting back here again next year for Glady’s 94th!”
Old age is kind of like a bank account... you get to withdraw from all the wonderful memories you've put in. The lesson I learned is that our happiness later in life will come from how we lived our lives, how we invited loving relationships into our lives, and on our ability to appreciate the wonderful moments. It’s up to us to deposit a lot of happiness in the bank account of memories so that in old age we can focus each day on all the happy memories we've stored away just for this time in our life. So let’s all get going….our happy ending is in our own hands!