LIVES WELL LIVED, HOW DO WE MEASURE IT?

At California Polytechnic State University, students can take a class in the Psychology of Aging. Since I’m qualified if only by my increasing age to know something on the topic, I recently joined a set of older adults from Colorado affiliated with a nonprofit called Senior Planet, matched with a group of students in the class. We met online via Zoom, as so many activities are conducted now, and got to know one another over a series of three meetings, asking each other questions about lives, beliefs, and lessons we’ve learned.

My contact, Alexandra, a senior, is primarily interested in animal science, an area I know nothing about, with the exception of admiring researcher-writer-professor Temple Grandin. Her minor is psychology, which was my major in college. So we were thrown together and asked to determine what we could gain from one another. The details are probably less important than the overall findings although we discovered we have two things in common. We both are INTJ on the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, a psychological approach to categorizing human personalities. And we both periodically suffer from what we call “rocks in our heads,” or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), which makes us extremely dizzy.

The other participants were as different as we two. So how do you measure if a life has been well-lived? As Einstein said, “Just because a thing can be counted doesn’t mean it should be counted.” You have to rely on personal opinions.

Interesting to me were the final reports. Nearly all of the older participants advised that success in life does not lie in status, money, titles, or material possessions, but in self-satisfaction, being with loved ones, and feeling a passion about something, whether that’s a cause, a hobby, an activity. Remaining curious was mentioned frequently as a good quality.

As for the students, most surprising were their previous attitudes toward older adults. I think we were running into many stereotypes and ageism: older people are boring and bored, older people are ”fragile,” a term I particularly despise, both physically and mentally; older adults have nothing to share with students. But by the end, and due to the continuing interactions, the students had reversed their opinions. Both younger and older groups felt the project had personally benefitted them.

The basis for the project was Lives Well Lived, a feature documentary film by Sky Bergman, that celebrates the incredible wit and wisdom of adults 75 to 100 years old who are living their lives to the fullest. Encompassing over 3000 years of experience, forty people shared their secrets and insights to living a meaningful life. I found the subjects of the film to be inspiring myself. During these times of mass quarantines, I’ll take as many positive outlets as I can get.

SOME GOOD THINGS ABOUT AGING

The idea of getting old isn’t a happy one in our culture. Maybe in the centuries gone by the Chinese revered their elders; perhaps aging folk in other societies earned respect, a cozy place by a fire, and the finest tidbits of food. Certainly not true in our times. Even discussion about being old is abhorred by many of my friends.

In fact at a recent gathering of a small group, the others reacted like irate cats when I said we all are now old. “Don’t call me that,” one snapped. “I get around just as well as I did twenty-five years ago,” said another. “Old is a matter of attitude,” chimed in a third.

I admit that the term old has such a negative spin that I cringe every time I hear it, particularly since it’s usually associated with negative qualities. Why? At its heart, old is just a description, along the lines of tall or blond or thin. A state of being or existence, not necessarily to be associated with any value judgment.

I’m not naïve enough to believe my own statement. Descriptions most often carry an appraisal, a worth. So in an attempt to qualify old with some positives, I started thinking about what I’m finding is good about my increasing age.

I don’t have to pretend I care about nonessentials. I don’t like dogs, wasn’t raised with ‘em, am scared of them. My neighborhood runs rampant with the creatures, and some of them are aggressive, others bark or bound all over the walkway, most of them are irritating (shoving their noses up my privates). And, know what?, I’ll say something if they’re bothersome. Your babble about “he’s nice,” “he’s friendly” mean nothing to me. I never let my kids chew on people’s shoes or legs or lick them, and you shouldn’t allow your pet. Nowadays, I’ll tell you so.

My appearance isn’t the be-all and end-all of my personal concerns. Men don’t eyeball me whenever I’m out, and I’m relieved. So what if I failed to apply makeup or tint and curl my hair? The public doesn’t even register the attractiveness of aging women, and a little lipstick isn’t going to change this. Ditto about clothing. As long as I avoid flaunting nudity or dirt, that’s all that matters. I may have come by this attitude through genetics. My mother traded wearing bras for comfort at about 65. My dad, always eccentric, once wore rope for a belt. He opted for flannel and Hawaiian shirts as his uniform when he became eligible for Social Security.

Good nutrition often can be ignored. Within reason, my eating habits built over the years, including attempts at maintaining my weight, are so reflexive, they affect me automatically. I’ve stopped reading labels, juggling calories, wondering if an additive or preservative is going to negatively impact me. Thrown away my calorie and carb counters. Freedom!

In terms of the medical community, health care professionals tend to be laid back about tests, medications, and advice. Pap smears, breast exams, my Type 2 diabetes pills, the quantity and quality of my bowel habits, the push for dental implants, all have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps doctors realize, like a wise parent does, that I’m not making major changes at this stage of my life.

Also related to physical condition, some positives actually occur in the body. Oldies tend to get fewer colds. Not infrequently allergies lessen their impact on you. Mental capabilities for a number of areas can even improve–vocabulary, spatial orientation, verbal memory, and problem solving abilities. Age can provide a helpful perspective about what’s important and accumulation of certain types of knowledge.

Another good thing: age becomes a card I can play when I’m in a tough or delicate situation. When pulled over by a police officer years ago, I used to bat my eyelashes and flirt like crazy. Nowadays I do my best to emphasize my grandmotherly qualities. Who wants to envision a harmless little old lady being dragged to jail. Ditto on clumsiness, acting grouchy, forgetting an appointment or a fact. People have a great capacity for overlooking these errors once they realize I’m getting along in years. “Aaaah,” people breath in sympathy.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to me personally: I no longer feel a responsibility to resolve the world’s evils. Guilt no longer dogs my every thought. Used to be an incident of child abuse, domestic violence, international armed conflicts, starvation and failure of crops, the impacts of hurricanes and natural disasters, children isolated alone in armed encampments resulted in a round of obsessive thoughts. What can I do? What should I do? Why can’t our so-called leaders see what’s right the way I can? Evil has a finite limit. At the least it will come to an end for me when I die. And if I’m activated to do something, I can contact officials and call them assholes with impunity because I don’t worry if they think I’m impolite or stupid.

This comes down to just not giving a damn any longer. I know I can’t do much, so I give myself permission to stop worrying. Aging brings me a blessed relief and release. When I’m tempted to resume my burden, I recall a cartoon I saw years ago. An aging man sat at a table, his face wrinkled with apprehension. He said to his wife, “Don’t tell me I’m as old as I feel. I feel like I’m a hundred and seventy-eight.”