Until death: Finding fulfillment through the aging years
The borders of life are clear enough — birth and death, the beginning and the end. Not so easily defined, however, are the markers of old age. It generally begins with retirement, perhaps highlighted by membership in a few new social groups or taking up middle-aged golf, but the conclusion is a bit less clear, frequently including the loss of the competitive spirit and the end of trying or caring — too often creating a vacuum as dispiriting as it may be deadly.
The most common complaint of my contemporaries — aside from arthritis and failing memory and income anxiety and similar such examples of age-related deterioration — is boredom. In the past, as youngsters working through our maturation, we were constantly challenged — to earn a living or impress our kids or please our boss or whatever.
Now we no longer have a job, our kids are trying to impress their kids, our boss has retired and moved to Florida, and we're stuck in yesterday's malaise. We are no longer challenged — and that could be the most dangerous and damaging part of the entire process.
The skills honed during our struggle on the way up may have served us well and been a tribute to our work and determination during that period, but those days are gone and no longer have major roles to play in our lives as seniors. Our task now is to find a satisfying replacement, a way to fill the newly emptied spaces with new goals, new aspirations, perhaps in entirely new fields.
Contemplation of new beginnings at age 70 and above may strike many as a highly improbable task, but the reality is that the thrill and excitement of a new beginning in a new field generates as much pleasure and satisfaction for the very old as it did for the young.
My first realization of how infectious the age-plague might be was recalling a news article I had read while still in the early days of my youth. It turns out that Mr. J.C. Penney had gone broke, then managed to get his act together and go back into business (his business being “JC Penney’s”) — at the ripe age of 56!
I remember how astonished I was that a man of that age could have both the stamina and the skills to start something new (or old, in that case) and make it work. That incident came back to me decades later when, after closing my fabric stores (women had stopped sewing), I tried my hand at a new venture — opening a travel agency in 1982 — at age 56!
The point is that “old age” abides by no set definition, but varies according to the performer and the performance. Properly nurtured, for example, age can lift a wine from palatable to exotic, can transform casual passion into eternal love, can convert a sap-soaked bug into a fossilized treasure. On the other hand, that same time lapse can turn a good wine into vinegar, which is the essence of the dangers facing an old age without challenges to fight or victories to celebrate.
Age has its problems, of course, many of which are familiar and agonized over by those of us on its doorstep, but we need not be defined by our new limitations. With a little fight, we can avoid some of the limitations of inconvenient traditions and still have the time and interest to try new things — to find new challenges and learn new skills. Spreading our wings in our 80s can be as exhilarating and fulfilling as similar experiments and successes had been decades earlier.
But we shouldn’t put it off for too long.
Robert Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He previously owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. His wife of more than 60 years, Eunice, died March 20. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.