Aging, like illness and death, reveals the most fundamental conflict of the human condition, the tension between infinite ambitions, dreams, and desires on the one hand, and vulnerable, decaying, physical existence on the other—between self and body,” says Ronald Blythe. “This paradox cannot be eradicated by the wonders of modern medicine or by a positive attitude towards growing old.”
But he wrote this in 1979.
In the meantime, there has been a medical revolution. I am living testament to the fact that it is now possible to age successfully with the help of preventive modern medicine and, yes, a positive attitude towards aging itself.
I find that modern medicine has worked wonders in my case. I have undergone nine surgeries so far. I am able to walk 10,000 steps a day. I am able to maintain a very upbeat attitude.
By trial and error I have been able to live a healthy life till now. I am just over 91 years old; a time when each day is significant and means so much. Suffice it to say that every “little more” is precious.
Many books have been written on the art of successful aging, but none of them as lucid as one by Ruth Garrett titled Embracing Aging: Discovering Fulfillment Through Coping With Life’s Changes.
In the nine decades of my life, I have read much. A lot has been on aging itself, as I have been working amongst elders in the community for the past 25 years. But this book was so close to my own experiences that I read it six times. I feel fortunate to have got hold of a copy at the local library that I visit almost daily, now that my young 80-year-old friend who drives me around is away visiting his family in India.
I even wrote to the author, who has given me her permission to have it translated in Asian Indian languages,
At one point, in a cry that is surely echoed by millions of seniors, Garrett writes, “My hearing loss, my rotator cuff pains, my arthritic knee, and my dental problems cause me to question my sometimes cock-eyed optimism about the future. If there is a meaning to life how can one really know the meaning and how can one remain positive when facing the changes of late life, physical, mental, social, and financial?”
Later in the book, she addresses her own question, citing two examples of successful aging. The first one is of her Bavarian music teacher and the other, of her own father. Although suffering from chronic diseases, both exhibited healthy attitudes and showed that it was possible to integrate the often problematic aging-specific problems with the continuous slowing down of emotional, social, and physical processes.
It is correctly said that old age is not for the faint-hearted. One has to be tough.
I can vouch from my experience that Garrett is right when she says, “Unfortunately, the image of the older persons is often determined by just one characteristic, whether mental or physical. One trait may define or determine the entire ability of a person. Unfortunately, forgetfulness, or weak eyesight, or a hearing defect, leads many young people to think of older persons as frail, demented, lonely, or needy.”
In a chapter on midlife she adds, “Common sense tells us that aging is universal, inevitable, and is associated with gradual physical decline. Scientists now challenge this common sense. Some animal species do not appear to age at all. In the last decades biologists have found that the rate of aging is remarkably easy to alter in certain lab animals. We know that it may not be possible to extend life but it is definitely possible to extend youth. Getting old is not synonymous with becoming ill or disabled.”
Our fears about aging make us go to absurd lengths to reject and deny it. As Garrett puts it, “Some people take the easy way of denial of aging, the frequent use of anti-aging medicine, life extension surgical intervention, chemicals, dyes, cosmetics braces, padding costumes and endless list of masking the aging process.”
To them she asks, “Does looking younger have anything to do with being biologically younger? Does it add meaning to life? Does it strengthen the heart or prevent cancer? If not, then what’s the point of spending money, time, and energy over it? While we cannot change the fact that we are aging we can, of course, change the way we think about it.
Another suggestion from the book is that overwhelming disturbances caused by little ongoing daily hassles can be more damaging to seniors than major catastrophic events. Some years ago I found that my efforts to help others were not effective due to niggling annoyances that sapped my energy. Eventually I decided that speaking the truth, while sometimes incovenient, was the most efficient way of avoiding confusion and ambiguity. As for anger, years of practice have helped me control it to a great extent. Finally, I deal with the challenges of aging and the small and big losses I face by asking the following question: Is it going to kill me? If the answer is no, I just suffer them with patience.
I may be nine decades old, but every day I feel I have something to contribute. The greatest challenges for the creative thinkers of the 21st century is to develop a program using the abilities and wisdom of older people that will release their full potential, and harness the energies of millions of aging individuals.n
EMBRACING AGING. By Dr. Ruth Garrett. Providence House Publishers. Paperback. 256 pages. $16.95.
Harikrishna Majmundar is the recipient of the Tony Sykes Memorial Award for outstanding work in the area of human rights and human relations for his distinguished service to senior immigrants of Indian American origin.