God bless old age: If you can make it that far
Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of occasional columns by long-time Ann Arbor resident Robert Faber on what he describes as his most recently acquired area of expertise - growing old.
As a young boy I remember having family dinner while our guest, Jack Funk, talked about the tragedy of a mutual friend who had recently died at age 42 - and I remember being stunned by that disclosure. Oh, I could cope with the fact of his death, just not their classification of “tragedy.” After all, he was 42!
In one way or another, the specter of old age is with us throughout our lives. It’s the definition that can be so unsettling, running anywhere from the 20s in the eyes of youngsters, to the 50s for those in their 20s, to the 70s and 80s for most seniors.
For some, such a proclamation can be dismissed as a matter of semantics, but for still active members of the class of true seniors - antique athletes who run full-speed on the tennis court to return anything that bounces within bounds, or who twist their aging bodies into knots to extend the distance of their golf drives, or who flex their arthritic knees in order to take every mogul on each snow-covered slope at top speed - being challenged by such underage competitors can be unfair, unreasonable, and deeply damaging to their egos.
On the other hand - so what! Much of the conquest of the demons of the aging process is in the mind, after all, so if we’re able to participate in familiar athletic activities at this tail-end of our tenure, and do so at least reasonably well - even with losing - then we’re well prepared to attack still another day.
There should be limits, of course, to the drive to inflate our self-image - skydiving and ski-jumping are probably out - but even if competitive exercises do little to postpone the inevitable, they surely do make the moment a lot more palatable.
And part of the beauty of trying new things (or old things over again) at this age is the pain-free realization of failure: Nobody, including yourself, expects too much, so nobody, including yourself, will be too disappointed by failure. My golf game is the perfect example. Time was that everybody I knew played in the nineties (score, i.e., not age or date), struggling for the eighties, which is why my scores in the hundred-plus range won me no friends or game invitations.
Now at age 84, bringing my score down to a still embarrassing 100 and anticipating 98 tomorrow is thrilling and satisfying and makes me the hero of the day. All of which pretty much encapsulates the basic strategy of dealing with the problems of age - remembering yesterday is okay if you’ve nothing better to do, but tomorrow is the new frontier.
And while my wife’s admonition to “Act your age” is sensible and mature, if it means acquiescing to some of the ugly realities of deterioration, then “No thanks.”
Playing all those games to win - tennis, golf, poker, whatever - is stimulating and fun, but even the pain of losing is mitigated by having made the effort, done reasonably well, and are still breathing on our own ... albeit in short puffs. Such physical activity won’t keep us young - at age 80-plus, we’re long since past “young” - but it is satisfying and keeps us looking forward to the next day and the next challenge.
There is a tendency among some of us to look back in anguish, bemoaning the poor choices or lost opportunities of our developing years, and think of our futures as no more than bland and pointless extensions of the past. But concentrating on what lies ahead is the secret. The past is now long gone, but some of the new paths are not yet overgrown.
A friend of mine spent a half-century learning, practicing, then teaching medicine. He retired at 70, bought a violin, and began his Phase 2 of life. He was a great physician and will never be more than a barely adequate musician - but he’s thrilled with what he’s done and anxious to begin each day anew.
And that’s the point - if we cannot now effectively hone those skills that had eluded us during that critical period of our maturation, we can at least change direction at no additional cost - maybe fashion a new future out of the ashes of our past. We can learn new techniques, expand half-formed accomplishments of the past, and extend our search into areas previously unforeseen or even unknown to us. It is at least possible that for those of us willing to plan ahead - even when that “ahead” is now little more than a blink - there is still a future worth our time.
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.