Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Old Before Their Time

At my 50th reunion, I was struck by the fact that some of my old classmates had changed a lot physically while others looked pretty much the same as they did in back in high school. That, I understood, was just the luck of the draw, parental genes passed down and perhaps a chosen lifestyle that focused on healthy living.

After an absence of fifty years that room was filled with strangers with whom I had little to nothing in common except the same graduation date. Of course, over the evening hours, we shared our life’s war stories, pictures of our grandkids, and fragmented and sometimes fractured memories of time spent in the classroom or on the drill field.

Aside from changes in their physical looks many of my classmates remained the same in their personality, outlook, and mindset. Their political views were probably a lot more defined. Fifty years had spelled out a lifetime of career choices, kids, grandkids, love found and lost and our new shared reality of growing old.

What I wasn’t able to access in that brief well-orchestrated evening was how mentally old some of my classmates had grown. We were all roughly 68 or 69 years old…chronologically. But I was curious how old they had grown in their outlook on life. Over the evening and numerous conversations, I began to ask myself ‘what happened to some of those mindsets that they had calcified so rapidly?’

At some point all of us face that long slow slide toward the end. Aches and pains, memory loss, lack of interest in…and lower levels of tolerance are all part of the game of life. But from my observation, some of those folks seemed to be aging much faster than others.

For some older folks, it’s the fear of dying and what lies beyond the funeral hymns. For others it might be unhappiness in their past career or their goals and aspirations not being met. Growing old before one’s time has nothing to do with income levels, life experiences, upbring or a myriad of other cultural, religious or family events. So what is it that causes some folks to shut down on life and only focus on the negative and mundane?

“Men especially seem to be susceptible to this mindset. For grumpy old men, there is no such thing as the golden years. While older women enjoy strong social ties with friends, family and their local communities, some men tend to turn inwards.

Masculinity continues to cloud these men’s experiences and activities in later life. Most men regard women as the keepers of friendships and contacts. Left alone to their own devices, many of those same men fall into the routine trap of seeking solace among like-minded souls.1

I’ve waxed philosophically before (perhaps too often) about the ‘old men in the coffee shop.’ You can find them every morning someplace in town, gathered around the table and rehashing world events. It’s Monday morning quarterbacking, complaining about politics, the government, the weather, social services, youth, money, rich people and anyone not white or speaking English.

 ‘Aging successfully must include good mental health which is very much interconnected with physical health. The aging process itself does not normally cause sudden intellectual or emotional changes. ‘Coping with all the changes of aging can be difficult, but it can be done in a healthy way. The keys to coping include your long-term lifestyle, your ability to expect and plan for change, the strength of your relationships with family and friends, and your willingness to stay interested in and involved with life.”2

So how does one keep an upbeat and yet realistic outlook on life? Certainly I’m no expert. I’m still muddling my way through daily writing, exercise, friendships, travels and new avenues to explore. But I think I’ve gleamed a bit of wisdom from my own experiences and observing those of others.

First, I think you have to accept reality. You’re not as strong, youthful or resilient as you once were. That doesn’t mean you can’t be as alive as the next person. Mindset is everything. Sometimes life sucks…plain and simple. It isn’t always fair or equitable or works out right. Bad things happen to good people and sometimes those others get away from any discomfort in their lives. ‘So be it.’ Move on with your life.

Moving your bones on a daily basis and jump-starting your mind at the same time can only help. Stay current on local and national affairs and don’t compare it to ‘the good old days.’ Be open to change. Plant your feet firmly in today but still let your mind return to those days of yesteryear when all women were beautiful, men were strong and children looked up to their heroes.

As Leonard Cohen said: “There are heroes in the seaweed.”

We just have to find them there.

Points taken from an article entitled: 
1. “Men Growing Old Grumpily” by Steve Dought, Daily Mail.
2.  HealthGuide.org

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