COLUMN: Eight decades later: Finding something to look forward to in the last stage of life
Editor's note: Robert Faber writes occasional columns for AnnArbor.com about aging, politics and other issues.
It was Aesop, the ancient Teller of Tales, who first identified the Seven Stages of Man as childhood through old age, further noting that each stage is enlivened by anticipation of what comes next. That makes sense for the first Six Stages, but for the Seventh Stage — that of "old age" — a problem emerges: There is no "next."
Seniors, having moved beyond the growing pains and pleasures of their early and middle years, are increasingly in need of new challenges to keep their interest alive. Watching the children and grandchildren mature can be immensely satisfying, but participation in the process is limited.
For more advanced seniors, something more is needed, some new sources of challenge or stimulation to sustain an interest in life. Maybe even a few small personal victories of little consequence to help energize our fading egos. Without the tests and trials implied in Aesop’s "anticipation of what comes next," too many of us will be left with increasingly bland days, empty of suspense or surprise or success, so it is essential that alternative interests and activities be found.
Fortunately, the range of new fields of interest available for examination is broad and plentiful. The application of new routines for those of us occupying space between late middle-aged and old, between retired and superfluous, exempts us from many of the responsibilities of the workplace and of parenthood, leaving us free to experiment with new pursuits and to embrace them with some degree of anticipation and enthusiasm — or even to reject them without guilt or regret. The problem is that too often, somewhere between free and overwhelmed is "bored," and that is no way to deal with the Seventh Stage of life.
For many seniors, transitioning from occupied to disengaged, a challenge of almost any sort can be a very welcome source of renewed energy and satisfaction. It is the challenge, the simple fact of competition and not the win or loss, that brings to the surface the pleasure that had defined "success" in our earlier lives.
And there is no single classification of competition that serves better than others, simply whatever stimulates our drive or gratifies our ego — whatever turns us on. And that list can be as arbitrary, as it is extensive, including all the games in the inventory of our culture: poker or tennis or chess, even actively taking sides in the game of politics.
There is a satisfaction in filling all the squares in Sudoku and in completing all the words in the crossword puzzle, and unmatched is the pleasure in beating your opponent in golf — or perhaps by improving your own game since last you played. But even when losing in any of these contests, simply having tried hard and done reasonably well provides a certain sense of satisfaction.
And however difficult it might be to adjust our behavior to conform with the requirements of maturity — such as my giving in to the demands of my kids to wear a helmet when riding my bicycle — at least the veneer of responsibility can be worth the sacrifice.
None of us is without some dream or distant goal, however insignificant its substance or unlikely its achievement or illogical its pursuit. No matter how much we have or how little we need we all want for something. And no matter how trivial or unlikely its realization, it is the pursuit itself that keeps us on the trail of tomorrow.
It was the collapse of the economy, for example, not the limitations of age that moved 94-year-old billionaire Kirk Kerkorian to finally gave up trying to buy General Motors (presumably as protection for his old age).
And that’s the point. Even the most irrational goals of the dreamy-eyed ancients among us have a role to play — because without those goals we exist as little more than fillers of space. Whatever shape it takes, "tomorrow" remains the hope for us all, regardless of need or skill or size of the prize. Because the alternative to planning our future is simply to quit — and whatever your age or condition, such surrender is unacceptable and from it there is no return.
I suspect most of us had doubts while growing up — struggling against the competition to get a date for the movies or the prom, or later to make the team, or still later to find our place in the firm. For a while we were heroes to our kids who thought we were really smart, or were skilled athletes, or understood the deeper mysteries of the unknown, but that faded when the kids grew older and wiser and began to beat us at our own games. Now my routine is to seek out one of my grandchildren for help with my computer.
But all of that is all right, because it means I am still involved and at our age that is all that really counts. It may too late to make our place in the world, but to enjoy the place we had made earlier is a very pleasurable and satisfying conclusion.
Bob Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He and his wife, Eunice, owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.