One man’s view of aging well

The Secret to Aging Well? Contentment

Despite having many friends in their 70s, 80s and 90s, I’ve been far too slow to realize that how we respond to aging is a choice made in the mind, not in the gym.

By Robert W. Goldfarb
From the online New York Times
Oct. 2, 2018

At 88, I remain a competitive runner, always sprinting the last hundred yards of a race to cross the finish line with nothing left to give. The finish line of my life is drawing close, and I hope to reach it having given the best of myself along the way. I’ve been training my body to meet the demands of this final stretch. But, I wonder, should I have asked more of my mind?

I have no trouble taking my body to a gym or starting line. I’ve done a good job convincing myself that if I didn’t exercise, I would unleash the many predators that seek their elderly prey on couches, but not on treadmills. The more I sweated, the more likely it was my internist would continue to exclaim, “Keep doing what you’re doing, and I’ll see you next year.” It was my way of keeping at bay the dreaded: “Mr. Goldfarb, I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

My mind, on the other hand, seems less willing to yield to discipline, behaving as though it has a mind of its own. I have dabbled in internet “brain games,” solving algebraic problems flashing past and rerouting virtual trains to avoid crashes. I’ve audited classes at a university, and participated in a neurofeedback assessment of my brain’s electrical impulses. But these are only occasional diversions, never approaching my determination to remain physically fit as I move deeper into old age.

Despite having many friends in their 70s, 80s and 90s, I’ve been far too slow to realize that how we respond to aging is a choice made in the mind, not in the gym.

Some of my healthiest friends carry themselves as victims abused by time. They see life as a parade of disappointments: aches and ailments, confusing technology, children who don’t visit, hurried doctors.

Other friends, many whose aching knees and hips are the least of their physical problems, find comfort in their ability to accept old age as just another stage of life to deal with. I would use the word “heroic” to describe the way they cope with aging as it drains strength from their minds and bodies, though they would quickly dismiss such a term as overstatement.

One such friend recently called from a hospital to tell me a sudden brain seizure had rendered him legally blind. He interrupted me as I began telling him how terribly sorry I was: “Bob, it could have been worse. I could have become deaf instead of blind.”

Despite all the time I spend lifting weights and exercising, I realized I lack the strength to have said those words. It suddenly struck me I’ve paid a price for being a “gym rat.”

If there is one characteristic common to friends who are aging with a graceful acceptance of life’s assaults, it is contentment. Some with life-altering disabilities — my blind friend, another with two prosthetic legs — are more serene and complain less than those with minor ailments. They accept the uncertainties of old age without surrendering to them. A few have told me that the wisdom they’ve acquired over the years has made aging easier to navigate than the chaos of adolescence.

It was clear I lacked, and had to find, the contentment those friends had attained. The hours I spent exercising had given me confidence, but not contentment.

The 30-pound weight I no longer attempt to lift reminds me that not far off is the day when lifting anything, or running anywhere, will be asking too much of my body. My brain would have to become the muscle I counted on to carry me through these final years with the peace and purpose others had found. Aging had to be more than what I saw in a mirror.

But rather than overhauling my life completely in the hopes of undertaking a fundamental change in the way I confronted aging, I felt the place to begin would be to start small, adopting a new approach to situations I encountered every day. A recent lunch provided a perfect example.

I’ve always found it extremely difficult to concentrate when I’m in a noisy setting. At this lunch with a friend in an outdoor restaurant, a landscaper began blowing leaves from underneath the bushes surrounding our table.

Typically, after such a noisy interruption, I would have snapped, “Let’s wait until he’s finished!” then fallen silent. When the roar eventually subsided, my irritation would have drained the conversation of any warmth. The lunch would be remembered for my angry reaction to the clamor, and not for any pleasure it gave the two of us.

It troubled me that even a passing distraction could so easily take me from enjoying lunch with a good friend to a place that gave me no pleasure at all. I wanted this meal to be different and decided to follow the example of friends my age who know they are running out of joyous moments and will let nothing interfere with them. They simply speak louder, accepting the noise for what it is, a temporary irritant.

My years in gyms had taught me to shake off twinges and other distractions, never permitting them to stop my workout or run. I decided to treat the noise as though it were a cramp experienced while doing crunches. I would shake it off instead of allowing it to end our conversation.

I continued talking with my friend, challenging myself to hear the noise, but to hold it at a distance. The discipline so familiar to me in the gym — this time applied to my mind — proved equally effective in the restaurant. It was as though I had taken my brain to a mental fitness center.

Learning to ignore a leaf blower’s roar hardly equips me to find contentment during my passage into ever-deeper old age. But I left the lunch feeling I had at least taken a small first step in changing behavior that stood in the way of that contentment.

Could I employ that same discipline to accept with dignity the inevitable decline awaiting me: frailty, memory lapses, dimming sound and sight, the passing of friends and the looming finish line? Churning legs and a pounding heart had taken me part of the way. But now the challenge was to find that contentment within me. Hoping that contentment will guide me as I make my way along the path yet to be traveled.

This article was printed in the New York Times, p.D4 on October 8, 2018 and titled “To Age Well, Train for Comtentmemt.”

Any uesful lessons to learn from this male perspective?
Let us know what you think.
Jane and Ellen

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6 Responses to One man’s view of aging well

  1. K Gardner says:

    I am a 78 year old PhD who has always valued the life of the intellect and spirit. I have a very good life with sufficient money and other than two bad knees, in excellent health. And yet I am not content. I miss my ability to hike long distances, I miss the energy I once had. While I am slowly but surely coming to grips with the inevitable physical decline of old age, I have no intention of accepting mental decline, and I will not put my friends and family through such a painful process, should it occur. I admire people who can accept anything, but I am not among them.

    • gail says:

      May you live many more healthy, fulfilled years. I can relate to your feelings of discontent regarding doing what we “used to do.” That endless energy, hiking with ease, etc. I recall going out with friends to dinner, a movie, then a drink afterwards, followed by breakfast at 2 AM. Or attending a demanding 4 x per wk exercise class at 7:30 PM, followed by a trip to the office to work on a project. Dinner at 10, some reading, bed by 1 or so and work in the morning. Effortlessly.
      I don’t believe the statistics that say the happiest people are in their 70’s and older. Please.
      I feel as you do, my mother and many others on both sides of my family had Alz. I will not succumb to that or any other burdensome disease, and hope I have the nerve to end my life when I want to, in the manner that I choose.
      The physical, mental and social losses I’m feeling are much like mini-deaths of parts of my being. I’m trying to see things in a more Zen-like fashion and still stay as busy and involved as possible, but it’s difficult when you look forward these days.
      I hope you can find some peace within yourself no matter what that takes.

  2. Mary Lou says:

    Thank you, Robert, for this humble and encouraging reflection. Right now I’m doing a challenge online called ‘Inktober’ which is doing a sketch with ink based on prompts each day in October. I decided to do this because at the moment I’m waiting to have a catheter ablation for AVNRT and I find art to be a peaceful, content way to wait this period out. I feel as you do that I’ll go with the flow as each age-related limitation comes my way. At the same time, I will strive to get back into my normal routine of exercise and activity once this current procedure is behind me. ~ Mary Lou

  3. Pata says:

    I find it striking that someone who doesn’t feel the same as his former self “gym rat” continually brings up the past regarding athletic ability . Almost each paragraph references some type of nod to those accomplishments. If I wanted to change I would look forward to anything in a new respect rather than remembering “30 lb weights” I guess I just don’t get it. To go ahead one must move ahead.

  4. Star says:

    Being a gym and athletic rat myself, I can relate and will heed his advice. I am a retired physical therapist and have exercised all my life. So at 75 I have had to start accepting my physical limitations. Luckily I am still in good health, can hike 7 miles and ride 12 miles on my bike. But I need to pay more attention to exercising my brain through reading, learning a new craft or language, doing puzzles, meditating, socializing etc. Thanks for this male perspective!

    • gail says:

      Star, as you probably know, your consistent physical exercise *is* a positive experience for your brain. Keeps the blood and endorphins flowing. But I don’t have to tell you that. Your well-exercised mind is at the ready, so yes, go ahead and invigorate it with the things you love to do that directly involve the brain!
      I’m kind of in the same boat. I’ve been very physically active for over 40 years, almost every day, and it is the one thing in life that I have never questioned.
      Best to you at using the stimulated brain that you’ve been nurturing and enhancing so well for years!!

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