On Growing Old Gracefully

The Golden Rules; 15 Freedoms

By John Torinus

An haiku from brother Tom on old age:

From here in the front row,
the view is infinite.

As friends regale me with their long lists of ailments, I sometimes say, “Congratulations! You accomplished your goal — you grew old. What did you think it would be like when you got here?”

Despite physical limitations, if you are in reasonably good health, it’s a blessing to grow old, as Kine and I were able to do together. It’s a blessing because you suddenly have the time, resources, hopefully wisdom and inclination to bless and contribute to the lives of those around you — your family several generations deep, your friends, your community, your state, and your country.

The First Golden Rule

To my way of thinking, the trick for healthy, happy chapters late in life is that sense of continuing contribution, which, in turn, means engagement with the world, with old friends and new acquaintances. It is the antidote to the dreaded disease of old age: loneliness.

When my snowbird friends would come back to Wisconsin from their winter hibernations in Florida or Arizona, I would sometimes jest, “Please don’t talk about a) the weather, b) your golf game, or c) your ailments.” The conversation would often go dead.

When most retired, they often disengaged from most of their previous activities, not just their jobs. Therefore, they had little else to talk about.

Jokingly, I would ask: “Did you hear the harp music down there in Florida, God’s little waiting room?” It wasn’t funny for them, so I stopped being a smart ass.

So, when you get out of bed in the morning and you say to yourself: “It’s not about me,” — the ailments fade from mind as you get on with engagements outside your own needs.

I prime myself every morning by saying my own haiku: “Ooh Rah” (Let’s make something good happen today); “Tak Tak” (thanks for another day of life and previous blessings); “Ha Ha” (Let’s have some fun today); and “Not about me.” I later added as I hit the age of grumpiness: “Be nice.”

I could never agree with the concept of “retirement.” The word implies withdrawal from many things that went before. Bad idea. The concept should be “redirection” from one set of efforts to another. Perhaps to civic or charitable work; perhaps to another career; perhaps to a serious hobby that helps others; perhaps to help with kids or grandkids.

But the notion of retiring to a life of self-indulgence makes neither philosophical, psychological, religious nor economic sense. All religions praise contribution. All thinkers extol an engaged life.

Further, our society cannot afford to subsidize adults from retirement at 55, 60 or 65 to the new life expectancy of about 80. We all are going to have to work and contribute for more years, especially with longer lives and a shrinking of the work force in the younger age groups.

The Tim Nixon Rule

The second golden rule for old age is my Tim Nixon Rule. My dear friend of five decades was afflicted by throat and lower tongue cancer, and survived it with chemo, radiation, and surgery to remove much of his tongue and adjacent muscles.. He lost his ability to swallow and to talk clearly. All nourishment came through a tube to his stomach.

It never stopped him from full participation in the life around him. He took his tube and food bags to the golf course, to duck and pheasant hunts, and to parties. He cooked dinner for his wife Alice and friends, even though he could not partake. I asked him how he endured. He said simply, “John, I don’t worry about what I can’t do; I do what I can do.”

And, of course, he finds plenty to do, including responding smartly to my weekly blog offerings, often with an interesting slant.

Tim occasionally imbibes a whiskey Manhattan at cocktail hour through his stomach tube. He joins the party.

Third Golden Rule

The third golden rule is to stay mentally and physically active. Everyone knows that to be true, but many friends self-impose age-ism in the both realms. They stop exercising, even walking, and, worse, stop learning.

Yes, you give up high-impact sports as you age. It is sad to give up the sports you love, one by one, football first, then basketball, volleyball, mogul skiing, aggressive tennis, and finally skiing altogether.

But Kine and I kept at the low-impact sports — cross-country skiing, cycling, hiking, canoeing, and snowshoeing — until late in life. No more marathons, but we could do events of two to three hours until our late 70s, and finally an hour or two hiking the Ice Age Trail in our 80s. Kine had to give up golf because of tendon issues; I took Ibuprofen and kept on playing, albeit from the white tees.

It helped that I was never an athlete of great distinction, so my expectations were never high. Unless you are a superstar, sports are just part of life, not the center of life. And participating is far more fun than spectating.

One of the best of times came at 71, when I joined an elder’s team of eight in the famous “Bicycle Race Across America (RAAM).” It was a relay sprint, one rider at a time for 20 minutes each, day and night. We made it from Oceanside, California, near my old Marine base, to Annapolis, Maryland in seven days and 13 hours. How good is that? That was my biggest physical challenge ever.

The human body and brain literally shrink from under-use. Kine and I prodded each other to stay active and delay that process as long as possible. The big payoff from a life of exercise comes in the golden years when you can still do some of the things you like to do. Your muscles still respond at some level.

One of the ironies of old age is that growing old is freeing in many ways. Think about all the challenges of life that no longer apply, about these latter-day freedoms, with tongue in cheek:

  • Freedom to say largely whatever you want to say in a straight-forward, respectful way without worrying much about what someone might think about what you utter or write.
  • The famous freedom to wear purple, to being who you are.
  • Freedom from ambition, having been there, done that.
  • If you were lucky and frugal, freedom from financial stress and the great pressure “to make it.”
  • Freedom to be generous for your causes. What are you saving your reserve funds for if your children are set in life?
  • Freedom from character development. You are already a character.
  • Freedom from existential questions. Right or wrong, most elders have pragmatically sorted out the big issues, including the God issue, for themselves.
  • Freedom from educational imperatives and costs. Just study what you want to know. Go deeper into what you love and are good at, in my case, journalism.
  • Freedom from the responsibilities of child-raising. I enjoyed every inch of being a father to my two “boys.” But you can play a delightful bit part in raising the grandkids. I enjoyed being “bad grandpa,” such as: “Rules are for other people.” You have a huge imprint on the youngsters, like my grandparents had on me.
  • Freedom from parental approval, though your spouse sometimes fills in for the departed parents.
  • Freedom from the most urgent of sexual drives, tensions, expectations. You can be another kind of lover.
  • Freedom from job descriptions, accountabilities, demands, except those you choose to take on.
  • Freedom from athletic competition. Who cares anymore? Just play. Just keep shooting, you might hit something. Don’t keep score in golf if you don’t want to. In hunting, my brothers coined the phrase: “Shoot and release.”
  • Freedom to take extended time off, not so much for indulgent pleasures, but for purposeful adventures—maybe a trip with a grandchild.
  • Freedom to mentor. Experience counts in many parts of life. Some younger people welcome help in avoiding the mistakes you made.

Long before retirement age, I came to the conclusion that I would never retire. I would stay engaged in real life as long as possible. That means writing new chapters in your book of life; call it reinventing yourself.

A 2016 study proved that the longer you work, the longer you live. I believe that.

If you stay physically, mentally, emotionally, and philosophically engaged, your golden years can be among your best.

Note: John Torinus writes a weekly blog on a variety of issues. They appear on his website: www.JohnTorinus.com or can be emailed to individuals at their request. John has always taken a studied view and has offered solutions in his columns. Content revolves around his personal involvement in major issues in Wisconsin and the Midwest.

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