Old age is not for sissies: Birthday reflections on my 85th year

On April 18th I celebrate another year added to my life. Although birthdays hold significance for everyone, for me at 85, birthdays also serve as a poignant reminder of the gifts I’ve accumulated in the passage of time.

In our youth-centric culture, “conventional wisdom” suggests that old age is a period of decline, loss, and diminishing vitality. However, I am increasingly discovering that age brings both losses and wins. Let me explain:

It’s true that, no matter how healthy our lifestyle, or how robust our DNA, our bodies will eventually tire and fail. Death comes for us all in the end.

By that measure, every year that we can postpone death counts as a win. Being able to do so without debilitating loss of physical strength, beauty, cognitive sharpness, or societal relevance are bonus points. Yet, even this accounting overlooks additional benefits that can accompany a long life, purposefully lived.

I have a saying, “We are each born with a unique commodity called life. It is stressed by the environment, and it is up to us to make the best of it.”

Old age is perhaps the quintessential demonstration of this Insight. How we age is the ultimate test of how we make the best of the accumulated stressors of aging. And, like any self-improvement challenge accepted consciously, aging makes us stronger in several ways we seldom hear about, conferring knowledge, resilience, appreciation, gratitude, and a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

At 85, my body no longer functions as effortlessly as it once did. A treadmill accident several years ago has hampered my ability to walk. Since then I have worked diligently to get back the ability I lost. I work out every day and see a physical therapist and trainer several times a week. I use a cane to steady me on my feet when I’m walking any distance. And I’m happy to say that, with work, I’m getting stronger and better. Eventually, I should be able to resume even walking a mile or more without a cane. The whole experience has made me more appreciative of something I used to take for granted: the ability to walk effortlessly. And, I have grown more grateful for my body’s ability to adapt, repair itself, and get stronger even in my 80s.

Aging also can deepen our ability to accept losses of all kinds. This helps us to be wiser, more adaptable, and less fragile. For instance, one day, I may no longer be able to walk at all, just like I can no longer run at this point in my life. I’ve learned to accept other losses, as well. I recently said goodbye to my brother Henry, who died last month at the age of 100. My sister and I are now the last of the six children born to my parents—neither of whom are still with us, though my father also lived to 100. Each of these losses has worked to develop my empathy for others experiencing grief and loss and taught me to savor each moment I am given with the people I love—particularly the children and grandchildren who have come to replenish my store of cherished relationships.

Age also gives us the invaluable gift of perspective. With each passing year, I’ve gained a broader understanding of what truly matters in life. Perspective teaches us how to prioritize meaningful connections, experiences, and contributions over superficial measures of success. We aren’t as rattled by life’s inevitable mishaps or upsets. Someone cuts you off in traffic? So what? Forgot your birthday? No big deal. Has a different political viewpoint than you? It probably won’t be fatal. This shift enables us to sail more steadily through the remaining days of our lives, savor the present moment, and appreciate the beauty of life in all its manifestations.

A friend once gave me the book: Growing Old is Not for Sissies: Portraits of Senior Athletes which shows men and women my age and even older who still have the “can do” attitude and remain physically active well beyond retirement age. I love looking through this book as a reminder of what’s possible. There is a second edition of the book, as well (Growing Old Is Not for Sissies II: Portraits of Senior Athletes), with photos and personal statements from 100 athletes who are still surfing, running, weight-training, and more, no matter how old they get.

These persistent individuals reinforce my belief that aging isn’t just about the accumulation of years; it’s about how we choose to navigate the journey. It’s about cultivating a mindset of positivity, resilience, and self-love. It’s about embracing each day as an opportunity to live fully and authentically, regardless of the number of candles on your cake.

I invite you to join me in embracing the wisdom that comes with each passing year. Old age may not be for sissies, but it certainly has rewards for those brave enough to live fully, love deeply, and embrace the beauty of the journey.

Here’s to another year of growth, laughter, and living life to the fullest.

That’s #ModernWellness.


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