I recently dove into two books on aging. It wasn’t because I felt old, aged, infirmed, or any of those descriptors we often use when talking about the elderly. However, I can read a calendar, and I recognize that I can’t claim to be middle age when no one lives to be 130 years old.*
My study began just as the global pandemic struck, with the coronavirus focusing so much of its potency on the vulnerable and those 60 years of age and older. I finished the second book as the nation roiled from both the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression and the injustice that was highlighted in the grotesque and brutal deaths of black men, women, and children at the hands of the police. Whether I liked it or not, I was forced to think about aging in a time of turmoil.
Talk about your inauspicious timing.
In light of current events, I quipped to some friends that these book choices could be interpreted as:
- a sign of naiveté,
- a sign of optimism, and/or
- a sign of resistance to those suggesting that the elderly should be willing to die to boost the stock market.
Whatever your interpretation, I made it through both books with my optimism intact and, frankly, without having given serious thought to silly notions spoken by politicians who, as one satirist noted, have hit the Wizard of Oz trifecta — if they only had a heart, and a brain, and courage.
Let’s be clear: no one signed up for this tumult. Among the incalculable impacts of these times people are going without sufficient food, graduations have been upended, job searches have been dropped, careers have been stalled, babies have been born only to be isolated from their grandparents, relationships have flourished, and relationships have floundered. Most grievously, many have died and more have lost friends and loved ones. Needlessly. We are all trying to navigate the phase of life where we find ourselves at the moment.
These times of turmoil can give us the chance to “change the status quo” about how we see the roles older people play in daily life, even as we consider ways to support new generations and new perspectives. Encouraging younger generations is part of my core beliefs. From climate change to social injustice, from historical scholarship to politics — in just about any field one cares to consider, much of the forward-looking energy and leadership comes from the young and from those who have too long been marginalized when it comes to power. But that doesn’t give those of us who have decided to step down from full-time careers the license to slink away and decline as circumstances change.
It has been my experience that the elders in our lives can be critical to guiding us through both calm and tumult. “Elders are so comforting and healing,” author Krista Tippet notes, but “not everybody becomes an elder; some people just get old.”
She made that observation while speaking with Resmaa Menakem, a therapist and trauma specialist who “activates the wisdom of elders and a very new science, about how all of us carry the history and traumas behind everything we collapse into the word ‘race’ in our bodies.” In his latest book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, Menakem says,
“All adults need to learn how to soothe and anchor themselves rather than expect or demand that others soothe them. And all adults need to heal and grow up.”
How, exactly, do we heal and grow up, moving closer to being an elder and resisting the path of becoming grumpy as we just get old? That’s among the questions that brought me to study these two books.
The line “changing the status quo” comes from the introduction to 2020’s Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives by Daniel J. Levitin. In this, his most recent book, Dr. Levitin examines what happens in the brain as we age and what are the keys to aging well. In 400 pages packed full of the latest science, Levitin makes the strong case that aging is not inevitably a period of decline and loss and irrelevance.
A major piece of the research about the changing nature of aging is understanding neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change itself. Some form of neuroplasticity is with us throughout our life spans, so Levitin makes the case that older adults’ brains “are plastic, capable of great feats of rewiring and adaptation.” He uses the science to show that neuroplasticity does not seem to slow down “nearly as much for older adults who have been making demands on their brains to think differently and rewire for many years.” In a recent PBS interview, Levitin noted, “You can change yourself at any age. That’s the good news. You can look at your life when you’re 75 and say I’m going to do something different and do it.“
Levitin’s work assures us we don’t have to wait to learn how to heal and grow up. All of us can begin right where we are.
The other book in my rite of passage reading was 2002’s Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life by George E. Vaillant, M.D., based on the oldest, most thorough study of aging ever undertaken. Dr. Vaillant’s description of the key findings to emerge from the study include several thoughts that relate to the idea of successful aging in a time of turmoil “It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us,” he notes, “it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age.” “Healing relationships” — as in Menakem’s admonition to heal and grow up — “are facilitated by a capacity for gratitude, for forgiveness, and for taking people inside.”
What did I learn from those who have successfully navigated the next third? To find the power and potential of our lives, we should:
- Maintain a future orientation that provides the ability to anticipate, plan, and hope. Learn something new every day.
- Stay engaged with meaningful work.
- Exercise, but don’t worry about getting a gym membership.
- Spend time with younger people.
- Build the capacity for gratitude and forgiveness and focus your perspective around empathy for how others see the world.
- Get enough sleep.
- Do things with people, as opposed to doing things to people.
Oh, and as Levitin reminds us at the end of his book, don’t forget to laugh. “Whatever’s going on around you, remember to laugh.”
That list, I would suggest, is not a bad prescription for successful aging in the midst of turmoil.
More to come…
*I subscribe to the division of a life into thirds, roughly divisible by 30 years. Both my grandmothers lived to be close to 90 or beyond, and my father was just a month or two short of 91 when he passed away. I realize nothing is given, but I’m trying to be intentional about my possibilities.