Approaching my 80th birthday is a psychological marker for me. It signifies that I have reached old age. This is completely personal. Not everyone views 80 as a marker. Actually, I read recently about an 86-year-old man who is still capable of running a marathon in less than four hours and about a 102-year-old man who completed a bicycle time trial averaging 17 miles an hour. That is truly remarkable, and there will be more people achieving results like that as life expectancy extends. But for me. 80 signifies old.
I will reach 80 in a few months. I never expected to reach 80. The males on my father’s side of t he family all died in their 40s and 50s of heart disease, and I had coronary bypass surgery at 56, so I expected to be long gone. My experience will not be the same as others, although at some age, I think most will experience many of these feelings. People age at different speeds, and some defy the norms. But for most of us, some point about 80, or slightly above, is a time of change in perspectives.
So, what does reaching 80 look like to me?
Well, it feels different from other birthdays. It is a point where it is difficult to deny that I am old and that I have some limited number of years left on this planet. Who knows how many, but it is probably a number less than ten. That’s okay. I doubt that it would be fun to live longer than that, but I feel exposed not having a decade between me and the hereafter. Nevertheless, I am starting to embrace my age; there is a certain pride in living this long. We live in such a youth-oriented culture that signs of aging are viewed as somewhat unseemly and something to be slightly ashamed of. Why else do we try so hard to maintain our youthful appearance and behavior? I am finally realizing that age, for all of its disadvantages, is something to be proud of.
As I’ve disconnected from my busy life of achieving and collecting, what I call the “noise of life”, and I have space to enjoy the perspectives and hopefully wisdom that comes with living a long time. I’m trying to get rid of “the shoulds” and spend my time doing the things I like or that challenge me in new and different ways. There is a constant temptation to fill all my time with tasks and activities that are familiar and that I know how to do. It is easy to fill a day or a week with chores, which I can do on automatic pilot and are not particularly satisfying. It has been necessary to release some of the things that have driven me and to tolerate the silence in order to find and create what comes next.
My time is sufficiently precious that I don’t have the inclination to carry grudges or to get angry at the things that I can’t control. It has always seemed good to me to accept people for who they are, even though I may not be attracted to some. (So far, our recently elected president is challenging that acceptance.) With people who are important to me, it seems much more sensible to respectfully say what may be troubling in the relationship and to avoid living in silent resentment. This can be difficult to do, and I’m not always successful, but at this point in life, I have only so much time to clear up misunderstandings and to express gratitude for the good things that have come.
I am confronted with the things that I just can’t do any more. Virtually everyone at 80 has some physical limitations. I love to be out of doors, to travel and see new things, to hike in the forest, and even to chop wood. Chopping wood would undoubtedly lead to days or weeks of back pain, and it just isn’t worth it. Hiking in the forest has to be calibrated with my Parkinson’s Disease to be confident that I can get back before I get exhausted. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a lifetime of travel to exotic places, India, Africa, most of SE Asia, Bhutan, Nepal, South America. When my wife and I were traveling in the mountainous tribal areas of North Vietnam a couple of years ago, I became physically ill, and there was no doctor. It was not a serious illness, but it made me realize that I was at the end of my adventure travel. I need to be in places where there is reasonable medical care.
Whether we are extreme athletes or take more pedestrian risks, there are times when things don’t go smoothly or the unexpected happens. When that happens, one needs to fall back on reserve energy, strength and flexibility. People who climb mountains have told me there is no way to predict what will be encountered on a trip. They depend on the skills they have learned and physical fitness to find a way past their obstacle. To a lesser extent, unless one lives a very constrained life, our reserves of strength and experience allow us to explore the world with some confidence. For me at 80 those reserves are diminished. There are things I would have taken on without thinking just a few years ago that I now need to carefully plan or forego for in order to avoid problems. In many ways, I am starting to understand the old person’s preference for predictability and routine.
Caution leads many seniors to live a severely constrained existence. One needs to find a balance between comfort and the thrill of adventures, no matter how small. I realize it is important to keep as active as possible and retain challenges even if modified to fit capabilities so that I don’t give up everything I enjoy. At 80, once you give something up, it is unlikely to come back. I’m lucky to have a supportive partner who encourages me and provides a safety net for trying new things.
At 80, I am no longer able to deny the presence of death. We spend a lifetime grappling with death in some way. When we are young, we ignore it. At other points, we are afraid of it. When we accept that it will occur to us, we wish that it will occur in a way that doesn’t involve too much suffering (not dementia, please).
Denial seems like a useful strategy for fending it off, but it doesn’t encourage coming to peace with one’s life, one’s accomplishments, one’s disappointments or with the people who really count in life. Preparing to accept death when it comes is a task of the elderly.
I recently saw the movie, “Fences,” in which the main character, Troy, sees death as an external force coming to get him. He challenges Death in his black robe with his sickle to come get him, and he is prepared to fight. I see death as more internal, as result of the inevitable struggle of a weakening body to deal with the challenges of living. If we are lucky enough to live until 80, death is a natural process of the wearing out of a machine. Plus, death is what makes life so precious. I think of the efforts of millennia to find the path to immortality. Major current research is devoted to extending life indefinitely. I think that it would be a bit boring after 100 years or so to keep hanging onto life. Knowing that it is all going to end motivates me to try to squeeze as much juice as possible out of the present and gives me the courage to try things that I might not do if I had infinite time.
“When signs of age begin to mark my body
(and still more when they may touch my mind),
when the ill that is to diminish me or carry
me off strikes from without, or is born within me,
when the painful moments come,
when I suddenly waken to the fact that I am ill or growing old,
and above all at the last moment when I feel that I am losing hold of myself
and am absolutely passive in the hands
of the great unknown forces that have formed me.
In all those dark moments, O God,
grant that I should understand that it is you
(provided only my faith is strong enough)
who are painfully parting the fibers of my being
in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance
and bear me away within yourself.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin