Hallowed Ground

Stories of Successful Aging

The Twelve Secrets to Successful Aging

Based on my observations, I have concluded that there are twelve secrets of successful aging embodied in people like Roy. The stories that follow illustrate these twelve secrets in subsequent chapters. There is some research scattered throughout the professional literature to support these secrets. Perhaps the best summary of that research is in the book Successful Aging by the eminent Dr. John Rowe. I recommend it to you.

1. Choose Your Ancestors Wisely—And Get to Know Them

Beyond genetics, understand your family history and dynamics. Crazy Aunt Lucy who no one talks about may have had an untreated bipolar disorder that runs in your family. My own family had alcoholics, gamblers, and abusers. That fact has informed what I have told my children about addiction. Understanding your genes and your family history can help future generations keep out of serious
trouble, as well as help you understand your own body and mind.

2. Manage Your Lifestyle

This is hard for me because I have always struggled with my weight, though usually not hard enough. My mother used to reassure me I just had big bones, but I know I have a big appetite, one often triggered by stress. Successful aging is associated with choices about
food, habits, activities, the management of anger, healthy relationships, and the management of the health challenges that inevitably arise because of genetic flaws and accidents.

3. Cultivate An Attitude of Perseverance

Successful aging reflects successful living. Aging begins at conception and ends at death. It includes predictable cycles, each with its own opportunities and challenges, losses and gains, successes and failures. Even the challenges can produce wisdom. Don’t ask, “Why me?” Ask, “What can I learn from this? What can I teach?” Resist the stereotypical view of aging as peaking at forty, then  declining until death, augmented by Botox, implants, chemicals, and trophy partners.

There is no fountain of youth, but there are successful strategies for fulfillment as we age. There are three basic old-age personas from which to choose: Victim, as characterized by disease, decline, and dependence; Denier, as characterized by artificial trappings and avoidance; and Perseverance, characterized by acceptance of aging and the adaptations needed to make the most of it. Yes, there are genuine victims among us: truly helpless people. We have a moral duty to them. But deniers create difficulty for us because they choose to succumb to their pride and stubbornness. Perseverance is the third choice, based on attitude. Roy persevered.

4. Avoid Giving Organ Recitals

Don’t talk about your innards and whether or not they are working properly. People do not enjoy your “organ recitals,” as my dear  friend Harold called them. They create self-fulfilling prophesies, decreased self-confidence, and social isolation. You are not an accumulation of your diseases. Yes, it is important to keep your loved ones informed about your health. Just don’t talk about it all the time! Don’t become your diseases. You are not an arthritic or a bipolar. You are a person who happens to have been dealt that hand.

5. Cultivate Intimacy

Intimate encounters occur in the confession booth, around the dinner table, traveling to and from school with the grandkids, and in  the bedroom. It happens through massage, hugs, sharing secrets, bedside visitation in the nursing home, Bible study groups, and orgasm. Don’t let growing older confine you inside a dismal bubble. If your spouse has died, use bereavement as an opportunity to learn from your previous marriage to make the next one better or to just be grateful for the life you led together. But don’t isolate  yourself. My wife, Kathleen, has often said that if she predeceases me, she is confident that I will have one eye open, scanning the assembled crowd, looking for rich widows to replace her at the final graveside prayer. She’s said she hopes I’d remarry.

6. Laugh and Play

I believe that inside every eighty-five-year-old is the remnant of a delightfully immature youngster. Find the humor in life—especially in the most difficult situations. Belly laughs create cathartic body chemistry. The creative arts, naughty stories, parlor games, trips, and lifelong learning are mediums for play and laughter. Laughter and play remind us that we are still alive, not merely waiting to die. As
Camus said, “In the midst of winter, I found that there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

7. Avoid Poisonous People

Some people are turds in life’s punchbowl. Some are even evil. Some are just downers. Some make you a lightning rod for their  hostility. Others are leeches. Some are carriers of stress, and stress is as contagious as the flu virus. Some are abusers. You may be tempted to change them, but that’s nearly impossible. The most difficult to avoid are “high voltage” people: you can’t hold on and you
can’t let go. Break the current and move on. A cartoon sent from my late mother said: “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and it annoys the pig.” Stay away from poisonous people. You are not responsible for them. Some family members are poisonous, so especially avoid them.

8. Renew and Reengage Instead of Retire

There comes a time for most of us when our job becomes tiresome or when we are less competent to do it. Get out at the top of your game. There is nothing more pathetic in the workplace than someone who stays too long. So get out. Then, take time to recover from the grind of it. When you have, renew your commitment to something worthwhile, a new career or a cause or public service, an avocation, more time with the grandkids, reflection and meditation, reading the great books, developing a vibrant prayer life,  rekindling an important relationship. Ask yourself, In fifteen years, what will I not be able to do? Make your bucket list, and then start
crossing off those items. Remember that you will likely spend an extended time as a caregiver or care receiver. That may be a full-time job. So, prepare yourself for that eventuality and know where you can find help. Before then, share your life wholly with the ones you love, ones who have often had to settle for a fraction of your time and attention.

9. Plan for One Hundred Years and Live Like There's No Tomorrow

Howard Busby, a friend and Wesley Woods board member, is a financial-planning guru who introduced us to the magic of compound interest! Contrary to popular mythology, the government doesn’t assure your lifestyle in retirement. Significant amounts of personal expense will likely be incurred for short- and long-term healthcare needs. Start saving money early and regularly. Get your legal house in order. It should be clear in writing who is authorized to make health decisions and manage your money in the event that you cannot. Discuss these decisions with family, a doctor, a lawyer, and a close friend or two. And get rid of as much stuff as you can  except family history. As I heard a man say once, “You ain’t never seen a U-Haul behind a hearse.” Live like there’s no tomorrow because one day there won’t be. And don’t leave your family with uncertainty or mess.

10. Keep The Faith

People who maintain a religious life age more successfully than those who don’t. Like our physical, emotional, and social dimensions of life, the spiritual dimension changes as well. Learn to pray differently, more deeply, and more often. Prayer is the most and the least we can do for ourselves and anyone else. Meditation and reflective techniques can add deeper meaning to life. Worship, sharing life’s struggles with kindred spirits, study, and service to others enhances health and engagement. Confession and reflection
help with that ultimate conclusion as to whether or not life has been worthwhile.

11. Grieve Without Regret

Many family members have told me one way or another, “When Mother dies, I want to look myself in the mirror and know I’ve done the best I could by her in the last years.” Or, simply put, “No regrets.” Grief without regret is cleansing. Regret carries the sicknesses that
produces guilt and blame for many years and multiple generations. Woulda, coulda, shoulda can be deadly, while grieving the loss of someone we love can be freeing.

12. Say Good-Bye

There comes a time for all of us to die. The issue for many is whether we say good-bye or avoid it, whether we ask forgiveness from those we have wronged or die with them resenting us for the rest of their own lives while there is still time to repair relationships. A disease like cancer gives us an immediate excuse to review our life, tell folks how much we love and appreciate them, get our affairs
in order. A fatal heart attack doesn’t. Dementia often doesn’t because of the loss of memory and judgment. So, make every encounter a good-bye of sorts, and you will help yourself, your family, and your friends rest in peace. And at every gathering, share stories!

So, welcome to my Hallowed Ground stories. If you read this and at some future place, time, or situation you think of one of these stories, then this book has left its mark. Just as your story shared will do so for others. And remember, embedded in them are the  secrets of successful aging.