Aging

“Old age comes on suddenly, and not gradually as is thought.”

– Emily Dickinson

Where did the time go?  It seems only yesterday I was a young lad, fishing for crawdads, playing with our family dogs, Snappy and Mandy, scuffling with my brother Jim, incessantly pestering my little sister Connie, eating as much candy as I could get my hands on, and living the good life.  My only responsibilities were taking a daily bath, brushing my teeth, performing my chores, going to school, and keeping in my parents’ good graces.  These were happy times, the proverbial days of wine and roses, and the farthest thing from my mind was growing old.

Then came junior high and high school, with their associated adolescent difficulties, college at Oklahoma State University, medical school, marriage, working in the emergency department, raising three lovely daughters, divorce, and eventually marriage to Sheridan, the love of my life.  At that point, the writing bug bit me, and I feverishly authored five books, three published, with two more waiting in the wings.

One recent, frosty winter morning, though, as I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, I saw the beginning of jowls, a bald, shiny head, a sprinkling of white hairs in various, odd locations, and more wrinkles than I remembered – lots more. To my dismay, I suddenly realized:  That’s me – I’m sixty-five years old.

In disbelief, I first looked away, then I glanced again at the aged man staring at me from the mirror. Seemingly overnight, I had morphed from a sprightly, pink-cheeked, innocent youth into a moldering senior citizen.

As much as I hate to admit it, the sad truth is that now I am on Medicare and a lifetime, no-way-out member of the Geritol Generation. How could anyone in their right mind describe these times of inexorable decline as the “Golden Years?”  If I had to take a guess, I might suppose that some out-of-work psychologist thought up this crazy notion while in a drug-induced stupor, just to make us feel better about our situation when we age.

So, now that I’m approaching the sunset of my life, what am I to do?  How do I stay away from eventually living at the Withering Heights nursing home and becoming miserable as I get old and decrepit?  Should I accept my fate as immutable?

As I asked these questions of myself, I thought back to my colleague and friend, Doctor Andrew Weil, who once said that the overall goal of aging was not to stop or reverse the aging process, aspirations simply not attainable, but rather, to achieve what some have called “compression of morbidity.”  In other words, by following a healthy lifestyle, the elderly can have a long and vigorous life, yet when death approaches, a rapid decline occurs, which is far better than lingering in misery.  So, in expectation of achieving “compression of morbidity,” as an integrative physician, here are my recommendations to those ensconced in their senior years:

1. Stay active. Those who become sedentary have a tendency to stay that way.

2. Watch television in moderation.  I used to drive for Mobile Meals and delivered food to the aged and infirm.  I was astounded at how many were watching TV when I knocked on their front door. Too much television is mind-numbing and not conducive to a healthy brain.

3. Eat well.  Diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables are important, and should be combined with a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, such as wild-caught salmon. Enjoy whole grain products, avoid fried foods, and limit the intake of refined sugar, red meat and white flour.  By all means, though, at least occasionally live on the wild side and enjoy a rich, totally unhealthy meal. More importantly, don’t feel bad about it.

4. Maintain social connections.  To love and be loved is meaningful at any age, but this is especially true in the older population.

5.  Always have something to look forward to, such as travel, trying a new restaurant, or even attending the weekly bingo game.

6.  Keep your mind active.  Crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and any hobby you enjoy are avenues to keep the mind sharp. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

7.  Avoid polypharmacy.  You’d be amazed at the cornucopia of medications that elderly patients are prescribed by well-intended physicians.  Remember, every medication has side effects and drug interactions of some kind.  Multiply that by an increasing number of different prescriptions, and you’ve got a potential disaster on your hands.

8.  Consider volunteer work.  It’s important to believe that one still has a purpose in life.

As I have pondered the aging process, the more I have come to realize that with a little time, effort and persistence, the “Golden Years” can be just that.  Granted, aging has it’s issues, but what about the positives?  One usually has more free time to do what one wants, rather than being constrained by parenting children, a busy work schedule or limited vacation time.  More moments are available to spend with loved ones, and retirement can be a time of mellowness and reflection, a chance to learn, grow, and heal from the wounds of earlier years. Besides all that, growing old is an opportunity to deepen one’s relationship with God, whether through spiritual texts, meditation, service to others – wherever your soul leads you.

Someday, as much as I’d like to believe otherwise, I will die.  Granted, at least part of what takes place before that point is beyond my control, but I plan to follow my own advice and do all that I can to have a lifestyle that limits my eventual suffering and disability. After all, I’ve got a number of destinations yet to explore and many more books to write.

Something to look forward to?

Always.

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