Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Is being older just a state of mind, or is it something deeper and more complex?
The other day a friendly person at the store said, “Hello there, young man.” He was just being friendly, but I thanked him and said what I believe to be true: I am getting old. Online, all the time, I see comments and memes about how we are only as old as we think we are or that old age is just a state of mind. But I don’t think so. I think we all really do get old, if we are lucky. But I see it as part of a natural process that should not be denied. In fact, a lot of my happiness comes from embracing my age. I love my age!
We do grow old. Our bodies change. We begin to ache in places that didn’t bother us before. And when we get hurt, it takes us much longer to heal. Children often “bounce back” from injuries quickly, but at my age, I no longer “bounce.” Our ability to think changes too. The joke about older people walking into a room and forgetting why they went there is funny, but it also contains an element of truth.
Yes, aging is real. But we can manage aging. We can make choices and live a life that reduces the most common problems associated with aging. We can’t live forever (and I wouldn’t want to), but we can live longer with a better quality of life. And as I have grown older, I find that life is more precious than I had ever thought it was before. Every moment whispers to me, telling me to cling to it, to treasure it. I went through a very difficult time when my first wife passed away. Now that I am married again and have found new happiness, I want every moment to matter, and I want as much time as I can possibly have with her.
Aging beautifully doesn’t happen by itself.
We can’t just hope that everything will be okay. It requires our sustained attention. We need to care about ourselves, be proactive. And we can’t do it just now and then. We need to plan, act, and follow through every day. If we just give in to the effects of aging, we let it control us, rather than us controlling it. Aging well is not just about having a positive attitude, although being positive is extremely important and can help. It is about making the effort that is needed to keep our bodies, spirits, and minds, healthy and active. It’s like everything else that is truly important: it requires effort.
I understand that I can’t do everything I did when I was younger. I have been a martial artist since high school. When I look back, I can hardly believe the things I was able to do. Recently, I came across a picture of myself doing a flying side kick over two other students and breaking boards while in the air. I will be turning 72 soon, and I know that flying kicks are a thing of the past.
But rather than feel depressed about losing a capacity that I once had, I have decided to focus on what I can do well and become better at that than I was when I was young. If I can’t do flying kicks anymore, I can focus on other kinds of kicks. As some doors have closed, I have opened others. I am still an active martial artist, and I feel the benefits every day.
I have to admit that when I was young, I didn’t really listen to friends or family who talked about getting older. I should have paid more attention. So now that I am one of those older people, I thought I would offer some insights I have gained with my life experience.
Everyone is different, and there is no set formula for aging well. But I can tell you what I have discovered for myself. Perhaps it will resonate with you. You have probably heard some of these things before, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Sometimes the simple truths are the ones to cherish.
Here are my five keys to living well and living longer.
1. Be yourself, not your career
Don’t define your younger years in terms of your job. Love your career. Work hard. But remember that you are not your career. Then, as you age and move on from your career, you won’t have an identity crisis. I have friends who feel lost and depressed when they retire. They don’t feel useful anymore. They feel that their lives are over now that their careers are behind them. But retirement can be the best time of your life. We never lose the capacity to make a difference in our own lives, the lives of our family and friends, or to make a difference in our communities.
2. Nourish your body
Treat your body with respect. We all seem to know in one way or another that our bodies require the proper nourishment to flourish. But many of us go day after day, eating the wrong things. Fast food. Ultra-processed food. Too much sugar, salt. We shouldn’t wait until we have started to develop health problems to “go healthy.” On the other hand, it is never too late to turn over a new leaf, even if we are already older. The moment we begin to eat a healthy diet, our bodies begin to celebrate. And with better health comes the promise of not just a longer life, but a better quality of the life.
3. Get enough rest
Too many of us push ourselves to perform in our jobs, and we starve our bodies of the rest that we need. If we want to age well, we need to take care of ourselves and get the rest that we need. If we fail to let our bodies rest, we weaken our immune systems and put ourselves at risk for any number of ailments which are hard enough for us to handle when we are young. They are even harder for us to take when we get older. But with the proper rest, we can keep ourselves strong. That’s a good thing for us all.
4. Be physically active
This is harder than it seems. We all know that exercise is a good thing, but then we get busy. We tell ourselves that we will just put things off for a day or a week. But life happens and suddenly we discover that it has been a while since we have exercised. It is important to stay consistent. It helps our bodies, and it helps how we feel about life. And we don’t need to go to a dojo or a gym. We can get our exercise in our gardens, walking around our neighborhood, or just doing housework. The most important thing is just to do it! And do it regularly.
5. Be mentally active
Never stop learning. Find things that interest you and then learn more about them, whatever those things might be. My wife and I love to read and to share what we are learning with one another. It is exciting to realize that even when we are older there is so much more to learn — new books to read, new plants to grow, new perspectives on life to explore and to to experience. Talk with friends about what you think is important. Disagree with them! Have fun with learning every day. When we keep learning, we keep looking to the future. Our minds stay alert, and that adds substance, depth, and pleasure to our lives every day.
We are happier and feel more joy every day if we look at ourselves honestly and don’t try to deny the changes taking place in us. Embrace change. Life is defined by change. But most importantly, don’t be passive in the face of change. We can’t stop aging, but we can always manage it better. I am older now, and that’s just fine with me. I enjoyed my younger days, but I don’t want to be my younger self again. I am happy here and now, and I think we all can be.
You may also enjoy reading The Gifts of Aging Mindfully and Consciously, by Gordon Wallace.