That aging can make us better than ever may be the biggest dirty little secret of all time. Some good news ...
By Bob Brody for The New York Times
Eight out of every 10 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic reported in the United States have happened to adults 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So you could be forgiven for concluding this is a lousy time to be over 65.
But at age 68, much to my surprise, I find it to be decidedly wonderful.
How, you ask, could this possibly be true? Old means you’re history. Old means you’re falling apart. Old means your days are numbered. Taking such a sunny attitude flies in the face of the facts, especially now.
Granted, old age is often associated with negatives — growing frailty, declining independence, the loss of loved ones and the approach of our own death. Covid-19 has rendered life especially hellish for almost everyone old. We’ve quarantined ourselves with singular rigor, largely marooned from others. We’ve skipped routine checkups and screenings with our family physicians, potentially aggravating our chronic illnesses. We’ve gone months without coming face-to-face with our families, much less hugging our children and playing with our grandchildren. We’ve lost friends and colleagues, suffering not only grief but also despair about when it will all end. I, too, am running scared, afraid of losing everything I hold dear.
Still, and perhaps against all odds, I’m having the time of my life. That aging can in so many respects make us better than ever may be the biggest dirty little secret of all time. Research shows that older individuals are less prone to experience unpleasant emotions and to retain negative memories. “Older people are better positioned to cope with stresses, including this pandemic,” says Patty David, director of personal fulfillment at AARP.
In response to the pandemic, I’ve upped my game when it comes to my health. More often than ever now, I walk through parks, pause to admire flowers and listen to birds singing, and eat fresh fruits and vegetables to boost my immune system. I rewatch videos of my toddler granddaughter, Lucia, and try, though seldom successfully, to limit my daily intake of hard news.
I’m reaching out more to family, friends and colleagues, too, by phone and online, to ask how they’re doing and generally to stay connected. I do the same in chance encounters around the neighborhood with bank tellers, supermarket cashiers, doormen and fellow tenants, if only because everything once ordinary now suddenly feels momentous. Saying and doing something kind carries extra weight.
I’m also now old enough to know that our lives, like all of nature itself, go in cycles. If I’m having a bad day, I now understand a secret I never recognized as a young man, namely that tomorrow is all the more likely to be fine. Never have I felt so alive, nor more grateful to be.
Numerous studies in recent years jibe with my own experiences. “General happiness usually rises with age,” according to a 2015 report on psychological well-being at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago that began in 1972. In 23 of 30 years, people 65-plus were more likely to report being “very happy” than any other age category. Among people 65-plus in 2014, for example, 38.5 percent were “very happy,” compared to 35.3 percent of those 50 to 60, 32.7 percent of those 35 to 49 and 30.2 percent of those 18 to 34.
Older people report feeling higher satisfaction, happiness and well-being — and less anxiety, depression and stress — according to a 2016 study from the Center on Healthy Aging at the University of California, San Diego, and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. The oldest participants registered mental health scores significantly higher than the youngest.
The older I get, the more comfortable I feel in my own skin, too — it’s at once thinner and thicker now. I’ve come to accept myself as I am, limitations and all. The umpteen uncertainties that afflict us while young — about our identities, our role in the community, our philosophy of life — have largely evaporated. By now I know with absolute certainty what I like (quiet, solitude, reading, movies, basketball) and what I dislike (noise, crowds, ice hockey).
What else dare I call a plus about being older? I let all those irritations that once lingered roll off my back. I’m just starting to get the hang of it all, only now finally catching on. All the suspense I felt growing up about how I might turn out is now over. I’ve more or less become the person I was evidently always going to be.
I’ve hit my stride and can finally distinguish between a groove and a rut. I’ve cultivated a reliable intuition about what I should hang onto as most dear (my health, my family, my friends) and what I should let go (anxiety over losing my hair, teeth, flexibility and jump shot). It’s as if, having jettisoned so much baggage, I travel lighter now. I finally understand more, too, but at the same time I understand how little I understand — and how much I never will.
Also surprising, I’m now more ambitious than ever, too. The older I get, the more I want — more hugs from my wife, more conversations with friends, more challenges as a writer, more lunches under a summer sun with a glass of Chianti. Working hard has never felt easier.
Close relationships figure more in keeping people happy throughout life more than I.Q., genes, social class or any other single factor, the Harvard Study of Adult Development concluded. “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,” said Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. In keeping with that insight, Erik Erikson, the pioneering psychiatrist who devoted his career to studying the stages of life, once said, “‘We need each other — and the sooner we learn that the better for us all.’”
So why, given these discoveries, would I mind getting older? And how can I ever justify complaining about being older when it means I’m therefore still alive?
It helps, of course, that I’m lucky to have my health, enough money (more or less) and a loving immediate family. It also helps that I’ve never felt my age as an adult in the first place — nor, for that matter, particularly acted it. A report from AARP found that 57 percent of those 60 or older actually reported feeling younger than they are, compared to only 42 percent of respondents 40 to 59 and 27 percent of those 18 to 39.
Let me acknowledge, too, by the way, that by no means am I in any sense “old old.” That term belongs largely to those 80-plus, the world’s fastest growing age demographic. The number of Americans 100 or older leapt 44 percent from 2000 to 2014, according to the C.D.C. So please feel free to call me extremely middle-aged or — better still — oldish. I’m young old, still years away from flirting with antiquity. My age is still more a whispered warning than a screaming alarm bell.
Crazy as it sounds, nothing in my life so far has made me happier about having already logged so much life than the coronavirus pandemic. To me, being older means celebrating hard-earned longevity. It means embracing new opportunities as a pioneer on the frontiers of aging. It means refusing to play the score and tell myself, well, 68 is just too old for me to learn Italian and too late to write another book.
No, I plan to go out strong. But that will come later. Right now I’m busy getting a second wind for my third act.
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