08 July 2012


When I was a young boy starting school, everyone seemed old.  And any adult over 30 seemed ancient.  In my innocence, I speculated whether I would live to see the momentous year 2000.  To do so, I would have to survive to age 53.  Wow, that sounded really old, but maybe luck would be with me (not stopping to recall that all my grandparents were already well past the august age of 53).

In the angst of my 20s, having lived through the Vietnam War and surrounded by the social upheaval of the 1970s, I felt prematurely old.  Looking back, I can only smile.  I married (the first time) at age 24, but I think it wasn't until my son was born on my 30th birthday that I internally crossed the threshold into committed adulthood.  Some of us are late bloomers ~ or perhaps slow learners.

During my 30s I returned to college to earn my bachelor's degree in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.  During those years I was a full-time student, a full-time single parent, and held a part-time job as a genetics lab tech.  Successfully navigating that passage is one of my proudest accomplishments ~ right up there with helping my son to become the fine man he is today.  Other accomplishments followed, as did two other marriages and a diverse series of lovers (the number of whom is none of your business), accompanied by a colorful and varied work life.

While in my 40s and 50s I determinedly thought of myself as young-to-middle-aged.  The year 2000 came and went without the appearance of the Grim Reaper.  Just this year I turned 65, and while I mentally still feel young, certain physical changes force me to accept that I'm aging.  And that's a good thing.  

Some dream of having their 20- or 30-year-old body back, while retaining the experience and wisdom they've accumulated during their lifetimes.  That might be fun, but such wishful thinking is useful only as a thought experiment, nothing to dwell upon.  Because it turns out that we seniors have not only earned our wings, we've achieved abilities that young people can barely conceive of.  Being older rocks!

Don't believe me?  Check out Helen Fields' thoughts in her Smithsonian piece, What Is So Good About Growing Old.  Notice the lack of a question mark ~ Fields isn't asking, she's telling.  Specifically, research shows that even as certain skills may decline with age, others become sharper to compensate.  For instance ~
  • Older people in complex jobs are expert at juggling multiple, often conflicting tasks.
  • Older people deal with social conflicts more effectively, excelling at imagining different points of view, thinking of multiple resolutions, and suggesting compromises.
  • Older people manage their emotions better, with less extreme highs and lows, and less gratuitous risk-taking.  As a result, older people report that they feel less stress, less anger, and more happiness with age, compared with the drama of youth.
We have the life experience and perspective to know a con job when we see it, and to appreciate the arts, science, and the cultural and natural worlds in all their richness.  And while it is true that our bodies may become less physically resilient and more prone to certain illnesses or infirmities (often the direct result of the excesses of our youth), it is also true that physical decline is not inevitable.  As do many people my age, I exercise daily, eat healthy foods, and pay attention to the relationships in my life.  "60 is the new 40" has become a cliche, but there is truth to it.  The stereotype of a decaying elder in a rocking chair no longer applies.

I have the benefit of self-awareness, good genes (my grandparents lived into their 80s, and my parents are still going strong in their 80s), and being a baby boomer.  Mock all you want, but we BB-ers have improved the world (and ourselves) in ways too numerous to count ~ including learning how to help each other through the stages of life.  Rather than glumly accepting the ravages of aging, we remain mentally and physically active, and celebrate life.  Like fine wine, we improve with age.  That can only be a good thing.


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