This is the adage that I cross-stitched for my stepdad to commemorate his eightieth birthday. The framed handcraft was displayed on Dad and Mom’s wall for seventeen years. It was returned to me, after their deaths, and has graced a wall in our guest room for fourteen years. Most days I hardly notice it, but recently it captured my attention, fueled my meditation, and raised many “third stage of life” questions. What does it mean to “age well”? What causes some people to die long before their last breath? How does health effect the aging process? On a very personal level, how can I make my life a true “work of art?”
Of course, there are many people who attempt to run away from the process. That is one of the reasons plastic surgery in the U.S. is a booming business, cosmetics are a billion dollar industry, and pharmaceutical companies advertise so abundantly. However, most people don’t mind growing older, we just don’t want to “get old.” There is a big difference!
Growing older means having more experience, endurance, and empathy. Aging well means that as our visual acuity decreases, our spiritual vision broadens. As our heart of flesh weakens, our empathetic core is strengthened. As we weather the storms of life, our psychological levee is fortified. As our physical ability wanes, our capacity for patience grows.
Getting old conjures up visions of canes, walkers, prescription bottles, doctors’ appointments, hospital stays, pain, and suffering, but getting old is really a state of mind. It happens when we emotionally stiffen our necks, refuse to explore or learn, lose a positive focus, and allow the natural physical challenges to overshadow every waking moment.
One of the negative factors that promotes “getting old” is a loss of purpose. Retirement is a critical time for those who have drawn all meaning from a job. Many retirees have related that “free time is nice,” but having hobbies, interests, and social connections is key to aging well. Every person I know who is happily retired says they are actually busier in post-retirement and “have no idea how I worked forty-plus hours a week.” They participate in activities that allow them to deepen their sense of inner contentment. They garden, bake, woodwork, exercise, bowl, golf, volunteer, maintain their homes, cook, bake, rebuild old cars, pray, take classes, visit the sick, care for grandchildren, go to the movies, meditate, travel, dance, do yoga, or build puzzles, play games and write blogs! Anything that helps connect us to our inner value and energy keeps the mind and body nimble, and boosts growth of the soul.
The blessing (and curse) of the gift of a long life, is that we experience the death of friends and loved ones. Oft times the weight of grief, brought on by the losses of a spouse, dear friends, and family members, becomes too much to bear, causing a person to lose their joie de vivre. That depression influences all the components involved in health maintenance. The person becomes sedentary and isolated, eats poorly, suffers the effects of dehydration, and avoids routine health care. Sadly some die before they draw their final breath, by succumbing to mental negativity, loneliness, apathy, and dread, which kill the spirit long before disease destroys the body. It is important to recall that some of the greatest works of art can be very dark.
When we experience grief, we need to be kinder and gentler with ourselves and others. We need to carefully tend to the needs of body, mind, and spirit with special focus on the present moment. We need to be willing to ask for help. If we are companioning someone who is grieving, we need to be patient, attentive, and quiet. Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing! We can not remove someone else’s grief, but we can lovingly accompany them as they journey through it.
Certainly, health is a significant player in this drama of life and death. I have heard elders say, “Health is everything!” Yet, for decades, we take our health for granted. As young people, we take many physical risks erroneously thinking we are immortal. We are blissfully unaware that all the energy and impulsiveness of youth, in future years, will impact our naturally deteriorating mechanical systems. Some physician will diagnose conditions like “arthritis,” “heart disease,” “diabetes,” “gastric reflux,” “diverticulosis,” or “emphysema.” However, there is no reason for regret, because those early days of impetuousness and daring contribute to the light and shadow–the deeper beauty of the completed artwork. The voice of Wisdom reminds us, “to everything, there is a time and a season.”
As the body ages, maintaining good health requires greater attention, time, and effort. What we eat and drink, how we exercise, how often we have physical, dental and vision check-ups, must change. These basic activities demand more planning, sacrifice, discipline, determination, and perseverance. The challenge is to accept those new requirements with a positive attitude. It is important to embark upon each new day with a sense of gratitude and adventure. The key is to balance the demands of an aging body with the care for a growing soul. I often have to remind myself, “Yes, I am older than I have ever been, but also younger than I will ever be.”
When it comes to the aging process, I have no universal directions to ensure that each person will discover his/her own inner artist. After all, there was only one DaVinci, one Renoir, one Van Gogh, one Picasso and one YOU! All I can say is that I am preparing the canvas for my masterpiece by incorporating the techniques of those who have been my teachers. My mother taught me the value of laughter. My stepdad, John, taught me humility. My Aunt Lil exemplified gratitude and acceptance. Aunt Alice is my example of joy and wonder. My adopted “Mom,” Charlotte, gave me a love of nature. I believe I am on the road to aging well, because my education is ongoing and there is still much work to do!