The Pride and Passion of Aging

We`re not cheese. Or wine. As they age they just stay in one place and let time and bacteria do all the work. Maybe passively accepting decline or whatever else time brings was how our grandparents approached their aging, but we’ve learned too much about what it takes to age in a better way to be a bystander.

I agree with the MacArthur Foundation decade-long Study on Aging that showed us once and for all that how we age depends mostly on our lifestyle, our choices. That`s right, the choices we make every day: what we eat, how much we move, what we learn, who we spend time with, and why we do everything we do. These are active choices, and they make all the difference.  My buddy George, who just had his 98th birthday, tells me it1s all about attitude. You know what? He`s right. If we are to age successfully, to be vibrant and flourish no matter what our age, we need to take charge, to age actively.

What does active aging mean? The International Council on Active Aging defines the principle of active aging as the conviction that people can significantly improve the quality of their later years by staying active and fully engaged in life. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas said it differently, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

If we believe that we have nothing to say about how we age, we¹re not only wrong, we¹re programming ourselves to passively accept whatever life throws at us. And life will definitely throw curve balls at us, continually chipping away at our independence. But if we believe that a lifestyle that embraces aging as continued opportunities to grow, that belief will help us accommodate and navigate through challenges and allow us to flourish, now that we`re actively aging.

Five Ways to Rage Against Decline

1. Keep moving. We are becoming a society of sitters and as we age even more so. Walk, bike, swim, garden, or exercise, whatever gets you out of bed or a chair. Decline can¹t catch you when you¹re on the move.

2. Learn new things. We keep our mental lights on and stay on the playing field of life when we¹re open to new skills, ideas, or philosophies of life. Did you really think learning stopped at a certain age?  Nola Ochs decided received her undergraduate degree at age 95. Then her master`s degree at 98.  So much to do!

3. Extend your hand. Reach out to others.  Smile, trade greetings,  make sure you allow room for new people in your life. Social connection builds resilience also.  People who are connected to others (can call them at 3 AM if necessary) are two to five times less likely to get heart disease, cancer, and dementia.

4. Scare yourself. Get out of your comfort zone.  It¹s out there that you grow and do things you¹ll be very proud of. You¹re not in junior high school anymore. What do you have to lose? You do have much to gain.

5. Never act your age. Refuse to conform to the stereotype of older adults as broken people:  grumpy, inflexible, and outside of mainstream life.  Shake it up.  Surprise others.  Surprise yourself.  Bill¹s mother celebrated her 90th birthday by parachuting into the back yard party. Don¹t allow a number like your age to determine your aging experience.

Actively embrace your aging. It`s not everyone who gets to be older. Be proud you made it.  And shouldn`t we make it all that it can be? Shouldn`t we approach it with gusto, a purpose, with passion?  If you do, you will indeed all you can be at any age.

Dr. Roger Landry, MD, MPH is a former chief flight surgeon at the Air Force Surgeon General¹s Office in Washington, and a preventive medicine physician who has spent over a decade smashing stereotypes of aging, and redefining the possibilities of older adulthood.  His first book Live Long, Die Short: A Guide to Authentic Health and Successful Aging, will be released January 2014.