Archive for May, 2019

How Old Am I?

May 5, 2019

Age is a funny thing. Yes, there is the chronological fact of the number of years a body has existed since its birth – but even that is not counted the same way in all cultures. For some a child is one at birth, for others (most?) one is only achieved after a year of existence. My reflections have little to do with chronological age, except as a baseline against which perceived age, experienced age, sensed age might be compared.

I remember a friend many years ago, a woman at that time in her early seventies, saying she got a shock each time she looked in the mirror and saw the old woman there looking back at her. She felt herself to be still young and energetic, looking forward to new experiences, as though she were still in her thirties – “or maybe early forties, certainly before my hair turned grey.”

In my own seventies now, I relate to her comments, not so much the mirror experience, but the definite discrepancy between the count of years lived and the way I feel from the inside looking out, at least most days. Yes there are some – yesterday was one – when a combination of fatigue, barometric instability, old injuries and some new pains cause me to feel my years. Fortunately so far they remain relatively rare. Or I can keep them relatively rare by getting enough sleep, eating right, using my herbal and topical pain treatments and not letting the time demands of my work overly dictate how I pass my days.

That last is the hard one. I still am not good at taking rest/activity breaks during the long and busy work days, though I know I am actually more productive if I do get out and walk a bit, or step away from the computer and the phone and give a few minutes of mindful attention to me. When the urgent deadlines pile up, work runs from 7:30 AM to 8:30 PM. That I can meet that schedule informs me that I am still young enough, with enough energy, to seem only in my fifties, if that. Stepping away from the work, when I do get an actual entire weekend off, I still feel young when I have energy to do fun things, like participate last weekend in Word Tai Chi Day, attend a Gay Pride event, the first ever in my community, and then an amazing concert by a visiting string quartet.

Yesterday, however, with all of my body aching with fatigue and hurtful reminders of every accident and injury experienced in my life, I felt every one of my years. Again, I am grateful those days are few and relatively far between.

The greatest discrepancies I perceive between “real” age and how I see myself are undoubtedly connected to my current life, married to a much younger man who is at quite a different stage of career and focus than my age mates, most of whom are busy with volunteer activities and the desirable pursuits common to engaged and energetic retirees. I do have in common with then an engagement with the raising of young children – in their case mostly grandchildren and some great grands, while in mine it is my husband’s youngsters, now mine by shared responsibility. Never having borne children myself, I still am getting adjusted to being Mama Niki to a seven year old!

From early childhood I have carried within me an awareness that, barring some accident, I would have a very long life. That expectation prepared me for working into later life, as I never had the kind of income to enable much in the way of retirement savings. When I read statistics about national saving rates, I feel rather proud of what I was able to put together, although when I look at articles dictating the amounts usually needed as retirement savings, I fall far short. In the former frame of mind, seeing what I have achieved and that I am still working and adding to that fund, I feel young. Comparing myself to the latter standard, I could lapse into a fearful awareness of being too old to get to the posited standard.

Fortunately, I don’t have to do so. I have begun to relax into the appreciation that financing my later years is no longer my sole responsibility. Indeed, I am very close to the point of being able to choose to work or to retire, an option I had not previously considered.

Enter an article I read this morning, about one aspect of a study being conducted in Cilento, Italy, and published in International Psychogeriatrics. The community has a very high proportion of very long-lived older citizens. Genetics and diet and lifestyle are all being reviewed, along with an analysis of psychological qualities which the article summarized into a list of values shared by all the residents aged over 80 who were being studied. Regardless of the state of their physical health, certain psychological traits were predominant among them.

Resilience was on the list, interpreted as a belief that one can withstand and overcome what living throws at one. Also optimism, and social engagement, and attachment to the land (the community is rural). What the researchers did not expect was the value that came up as number one – the expectation and intention to work throughout one’s entire life. This long lived populace (one in ten have reached 100 or more) have no concept of retirement. Types of work shift with physical changes of aging; fact of working does not.

It would seem that if I want to be present for the marriage of my young sons, and the birth of their children, I need to ignore the chronological years and instead keep a strong hold on my sense of youth and energy, as well as a continued engagement with my own career. My own experiences working with Hospice coincide with the research findings from Cilento. Over and over I have seen that the single most important component in determining length of life, especially near its end, is attitude.

There is a culture, I do not recall which one, where age is counted backwards. At birth a child is given the expected life span, and each year lived is one subtracted from that total. I don’t recall how the culture handles those who live more than the expected number of years. By the standards of that culture, I would place myself at about 35 years of age. Younger than my husband, appropriate to having young and early teen children, and definitely looking ahead to remaining years of employment and new challenges.

Resilience, optimism, engagement with the land (I have run away from city living for my entire life) – those are in place. I probably need to build in a bit more social interaction, although my work has me very engaged with people on a daily basis. So much so that, so far, I prefer quiet and solitary pursuits for relaxation. If my work changes from the current health care to what I project as a future of full time writing, I am alerted now to also add new social activities to my schedule. That will give me everything in place to join the residents of Cilento in an active older old age.

 


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