Aging Gracefully

As a Physical Therapist, I work with debilitated elderly.  Therefore, I have few examples of aging well.  The active 85 year old with the trifecta of an intact intellect, healthy physique, and winning personality does not often cross my path.  Which is why I was smitten with an adorable woman I saw on a talk show whose video review of the Olive Garden Restaurant went viral.  An active woman, Marilyn Hagerty seemed a model for geriatrics – poised, authentic, fun, optimistic.

In contrast, my forlorn elderly patients frequently impart this impractical advice: “Don’t get old.”  Really?  What’s the alternative – die young?  The more I hear this bit against aging, the harder it is to hold back my snarky comebacks.  I’d like to ask these Negative Nellies, ‘when should I kill myself then? 50? 60?’

The compassionate side of me knows that aging is not for sissies.  Often, the losses seem greater than the gains.  An elderly post-surgical patient said, “They (the surgeons) keep taking things out but they never put anything in.”  It’s a dilemma really.  The will to live a long life is strong.  The temptation to complain about the process is stronger.

We get all wrapped up in youth, digging our heels in while age drags us kicking and screaming from year to year.  Some fight bitterly.  Some scoff at age with reckless behaviors and silly decisions – aka mid-life crises.  Few age gracefully.  Carolyn Myss says, “You can’t avoid turning 50 if you were meant to turn 51.”  Logic wins. 

I distinctly recall the feeling I had about ‘aging’ in my twenties.  Every year got better – more freedom, more money, more respect, more stuff, more experiences, more wisdom, MORE.  After childbearing, the ‘more’ became more bills, more work, more worry.  Yes, there was also more joy, but it’s hard to see that when you’re submerged in the thick of it.  I imagine the elderly might observe that the senior years involve more sickness and more loss. 

So how to stay positive amidst the inevitable changes? If we take our clues from Marilyn, we’ll position ourselves to stay in the game – literally.  When Ms. Hagerty’s video review went viral, this was her reaction, “I didn’t care.  I had to get to Bridge Club.” 

Therein lies a benefit of aging.  The freedom from caring what people think and say and expect of you.  The freedom to cast off the word ‘should’ and replace it with ‘I want’ and ‘I will.’  When I tried to encourage a 90 year old patient to stay out of bed during the day so her systems would function better, she looked me square in the eye and said, “No one’s gonna tell me I can’t sleep when I want!”  Amen, sister!  Can I get you a blanket?

The elderly can lay claim to freedoms reserved just for them.  I look forward to that part of aging. For now, when my 42 year old self feels like mourning its losses, I’ll picture my 80 year old self –full of pep like Marilyn Hagerty – admonishing it.  ‘Shame on you,’ she’ll chide.  ‘I wish I was 43 again!’

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