Living Well in the 2nd Half

Do you sometimes feel that your time is past? It happened as I read Scott Adams’ new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.  It’s funny and informative, but some of his advice is geared toward younger people; for example, how to persuade more effectively, overcoming shyness, and the importance of good grammar. (Before you question the value of the entire book, he also talks about the impact of social biases; tracking your personal energy level as the most important metric in your pursuit of a successful life; and his belief that the mind is a “moist computer you can program.”)

But back to my original problem. We, the People of the Second Half, have harder questions that I rarely see addressed, certainly not in popular best-sellers. Here are a few:

  • How do you cultivate a happy, productive life when half of it (or more) is over? How much work do you put into this effort? Should you speed up or slow down?
  • How do you feel confident in your maturity when you’re denigrated for it?
  • Where do you go to find answers in this youth-obsessed society?

Luckily, I have answers for you, because I found a teacher.

Dorys Forray, writer and wise woman

Dorys, writer and wise woman

Last Friday, at a writing retreat, I sat with a wise friend, Dorys, and asked about her life at eighty-five. She admitted that sometimes it strikes her hard that “I’m fifteen years away from being one hundred!” And yet, her eyes danced with humor and kindness as she answered the pathetic questions of this 59-year-old.

One was about being alone long-term. In response, she told me about a day she spent recently in which the phone did not ring, no one knocked on her door, and she had no reason to get in her car and drive anywhere. Instead of feeling lonely, Dorys reveled in the solitude. How lucky I am, she thought, to have one entire day all to myself, where I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything, no obligations, a whole landscape to explore without interruption, free to do whatever I want. With just her kitty for company, she had a day of golden solitude.

A therapist once told me that to live happily alone, we must first become ALL ONE. Whole. Dorys says that is a major prescription for life. Here are the highlights of her advice to me:

  • Stop overthinking the aloneness question. We expand what we focus on, and thus might give too much power to the fear. With maturity, this and other issues won’t seem insurmountable.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of distraction when the blues or loneliness hit you. She might escape into a movie or two. Usually, by the time the movie ends, her attitude has shifted.
  • “Give of yourself to someone, or fill a need,” Dorys says. “I volunteer in a hospital one day a week; I also volunteer at the community theater, and I’m a political advocate working with our local politicians to make improve our community. I participate in an annual variety show. I am learning Spanish.”
  • “My philosophy is to choose where you want to spend your time and with whom. The minutes we are given are precious.”
  • And along those lines: “Wasting (time) worrying about what might be is like preparing yourself for it to happen.”
  • “Find your authentic self or seek out your passion, embrace it and learn to fill the void you are consumed with.”
  • “Keep your life in perspective. You may be having a blue afternoon, but there’s someone out there who’d kill for your blessings.”

I appreciate Dorys. She’s an inspiration and a source of comfort. Life is complicated, but if you find a good teacher you might feel happier and more at peace with the unknowable. Manage what you can and develop the confidence to leave the rest alone.

Do you have any suggestions for living well in the second half?

Old Age Better Than I Ever Expected

Ronni Bennett

Ronni Bennett

I never expected to feel as alive and vibrant and spirited and vital as I do at this time of my life.

These are the words with which my friend, elder blogger Ronni Bennett of Time Goes By, began a recent post. It seemed so powerful I asked if I could reproduce it for Any Shiny Thing. The following words are Ronni’s. Enjoy.

“There is little if anything in our culture that would lead me to believe I would feel this good about being an old woman. The media relate to old age almost entirely via health, poor health – and mostly about dementia.

“There are more news and feature stories about Alzheimer’s, for which no prevention or treatment exists, than reports on all other elder health issues combined.

“The New York Times publishes what is now a long-standing, daily blog about and for elders titled The New Old Age. Day in and day out over several years now, it is exclusively about being sick or frail or demented or all three at once as though there are no other states of health in “the new old age.”

“Someone ought to tell The Times that 80 percent of old people live independently until they die.

“Then there are the politicians. Elders are a big topic for them because we are more frequent voters than younger people and our numbers are ballooning.

“But the pols see us exclusively in economic terms, wringing their hands over how expensive we are, a bunch of greedy geezers who they would rather starve than allow a Social Security cost-of-living increase.

“Is it any wonder nobody likes old people?

“The only positive words about us involve freaks who jump out of airplanes at age 85, reported by the media either as a joke or as an object lesson to all other old folks to get off our duffs and climb Mt. Everest.

“As regular readers know, I think about these things a lot and frequently rail against them…

But that doesn’t stop me from being amazed at how good old age feels. This is the most interesting time of life I have known.

“It seems to happen when I’m not paying attention that a lot of former imperatives fall away, making life easier and far less fraught with shoulds.

I am done improving myself. Self-help be damned. I am what I am and so I shall remain.

“My ambitions these days are about how I might be able to contribute to my community and not the next better, higher-paying job. I’m not competing for work or recognition or awards anymore and that takes off a load.

“My concern about myself has shrunk to little more than a daily mental checklist on well-being rather than how I compare with others. I have less to prove to them and to myself.

“I’ve almost learned that there are good days and bad days, good and bad moods, and that’s all right. Each is as much a part of living as the other.

“And, as I’ve mentioned here before, I have lost my younger sense of urgency, the need to do, do, do. I still find it odd that as my days dwindle down, I more frequently say, “I’ll get to it tomorrow.”

“I still don’t understand that but it sure feels good and for a bonus, I suspect it helps keep my blood pressure in check.

“There is time now, finally, to be. Time to follow my interests and instincts, to investigate those avenues – internal and external – I was too busy for in the past. Or not. I get to choose and the freedom I’ve arrived at to do so thrills me.

“Whatever the rest of the world thinks about being old, from my vantage point of 72, it is unexpectedly better and more exciting than I ever guessed it could be.”

Lynne again: Are you surprised to find yourself happy at an age when we expected to be bummed out?

Elder Wisdom Needed

I humiliated myself, but it wasn’t my fault. It was the fault of my elders, who play things so close to the vest.

One day when I was in my mid-fifties, I was having lunch with friends who are twenty years older. We were discussing a very elderly couple in our writing group. The husband was 90, the wife 85. They still wrote and published, and were incredibly vibrant. “They probably still have sex!” I said.

My friends were appalled. “Well, why wouldn’t they?” one asked.

But how was I to know? Who talks about the intimate details of life in the oldest years?

Okay, now I get the sex thing, but here’s what I really want to know: how do very senior peeps deal with mortality? I apologize for sounding stupid; yes, I DO in fact realize that I, at 58, could go any minute. I’ve almost “gone” three times already (1 car accident at 17, and 2 surgeries later in life). But I want to know how to deal, when I get to be eighty-plus. Getting very old must be existentially challenging. One loss after another, one medical scare after another. How do you manage it emotionally?

We just learned that my uncle, who is 85 and has Parkinsons’, has to go live in an elder care facility. To quote the renowned geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas, my uncle has been given a life sentence for the crime of frailty. Later today I’ll ask Mom how she’s handling it, because if it were my brother I’d be flattened by grief. But Mom’s been through so much, I suspect she’s stronger than me. Is that the answer? That we grow stronger in old age? (October 2014 update: my uncle LOVES the place. It is a beautiful facility which Mom and I visited, and the people there are caring and kind.)

I see all these vibrant eighty-plussers living happy lives. They must have a strategy. I’d like to know what it is.

Recently, my husband, who is 65, said he figured he had about ten more “good” years. A few years ago, I would have bitched at him about that comment, but now I accept the logic of it. Maybe he’ll be wrong but we don’t want to take a chance. So I say, HELL YEAH, LET’S PARTAY. Let’s go on cruises, let’s go on road trips. Let’s golf, make love, go out to lunch and a movie. Let’s drink too much and eat two desserts.

Alice Walker, in her poem “Until I Was Nearly Fifty,” said of this inter-generational wisdom-sharing:

Those who sit
With hooded
If there really
A path ahead
& Whether
There really
Upon it.

Yes. We are there
Just ahead
Of you

Looking back
Concerned for you…”

So in that vein, ladies and gentleman of the forward wave, do you have any advice for coping with the upcoming blows to body and heart? Any words of wisdom or strategies to share? I for one would be so grateful, and I doubt I’m alone in my desire to learn.