When the poet May Sarton turned 70, she asked: “Why is it good to be old?" Her answer: "Because I am more myself than I have ever been."
Inspired, when my husband Art hits that milestone, and when I am six months away from it, we convert our usual New Year’s resolutions — i.e., maintain good relationships with our kids and grandkids, remain financially solvent and physically healthy, consider buying a new car — into something deeper, something different: How do we want life in our 70s to be?
I start my wish list with the desire for more adventure, more fun while we are still able. We brainstorm ideas. Some are practical: Lose those stubborn last 10 pounds. Others stretch the imagination: Climb the steps to the top of the Potala Palace in Tibet.
'Why is it good to be old? Because I am more myself than I have ever been.'May Sarton
Energized, we begin what we call The Age Project. Art suggests we research what experts in the field have to say about healthy aging. As business professionals, it had been routine to search out best practices for everything from leadership development to strategic planning. I don't think there is a secret formula for aging, but I agree it is a good idea.
With Google and Amazon as guides, we order eight books, the authors of which range from a nun and a rabbi to a humorist, a sociologist and two medical doctors. One book is an anthology, "70 Things To Do When You Turn 70." We hunker down during the long winter of 2014 and read, handing the books off to each other until we each finish them all.
Our conversations in front of the fire become livelier. “Did you know that only 4.5 percent of people over the age of 65 are in nursing homes?” Art asks, refilling my Chardonnay. “That is just so reassuring, don’t you think?” I nod.
We pool our insights. One comes from Sherwin Nuland, author of "The Art of Aging." "Aging parts work better when heed is paid to their maintenance; they require more attention than they did when they were new; they must be not only well cared for, but kept in active, albeit judicious use.” We take careful notes and plan our exercise.
Another insight comes from "The Gift of Years," in which Sister Joan Chittister writes, “Older people tend to come in two flavors – the sour ones and the serene ones." Right she is. We decide to shoot for serenity. "Fun keeps us laughing and laughter keeps us happy in the here and now.”
After weeks of study, Art and I distill what we've learned. Our budding framework for thinking about getting old coalesces around three priorities: physical vitality, emotional well-being and a creative mind.
With our first goal in mind, we adopt Michael Pollan’s simple suggestions in "Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual." “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants,” and we count our calories. We also eliminate alcohol from our diet for three months. The strategy works.
We save our travel budget for a trip to China. I am more than a little terrified of altitude sickness and the thought of climbing the Palace stairs in Tibet to reach 13,000 feet above sea level. But I claim the urgency of the moment: If not now, when? There will be no second chances. The prospect of looking out over all of Lhasa is thrilling.
“What would you say to swimming lessons?” Art asks during lunch one day. We're both beginners, but I am more than he is. I’ve always wished I could do more than the dog paddle and dead man’s float. I’ve conditioned myself not to wince when watching our grandchildren leap into swimming pools, but my deceased father’s voice still haunts me: "See that water, Janet? It’s deep. Fall in there, and you’ll drown."
Our budding framework for thinking about getting old coalesces around three priorities: physical vitality, emotional well-being and a creative mind.
It’s time to put that voice to rest. Before the end of our first 45-minute lesson, we have crossed the pool many times, faces in the water, kicking like mad. “That was so much fun,” I say, exhausted.
Life is never perfect or predictable. We cancel a trip to Peru when Art gets sick. It takes vigilance to maintain our weight; those extra 10 pounds are eager to return. Most days are filled with lots of activities, but other days are too quiet. I often reread my project notes for inspiration or a kick in the pants: Get outdoors for fresh air and sunshine… Look to the arts to stimulate creativity... Take responsibility for keeping life interesting… Try something you’ve never done before.
We develop a mantra: Always be learning -- or ABL for short.
When the time comes, I hope that all this planning for our 70s helps us pass gracefully into our 80s, too.
The Age Project: Resources
The Art of Aging: A Doctor’s Prescription for Well-Being, by Sherwin Nuland
The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, by Joan Chittister
How to Age: The School of Life Series, by Anne Karpf
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande
From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older, by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller
Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, by Michael Pollan
70 Things To Do When You Turn 70, edited by Ronnie Sellers
Rules for Aging: A Wry and Witty Guide to Life, by Roger Rosenblatt
Conscious Living, Conscious Aging, by Ron Pevny
I’m Too Young to Be Seventy, by Judith Viorst