The view from eighty

by Lon Emerick, Foster Creek Homestead

It happened so fast. I woke up one morning and discovered an octogenarian in my house. Me.

Well, I should have known—after all, several of my former students were retired or approaching retirement. Sunrise, sunset, swiftly go the years. I don’t remember growing older… when did they?
So this is what my parents were dealing with many decades ago. Like so many young persons, I never thought about ever being a senior citizen or realized the challenges older people face in our youth-oriented culture.

It is clear that, unlike some cultures, ours does not particularly venerate old age. Many years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote this about the elderly: “Nature abhors the old, and old age is a disease and all others run into it.” That is not very empathic, Ralph.

Now, after compassing my way through the peaks and valleys of the aging process, I would like to share some lessons I have learned (or am learning). In the interest of clarity, I have gathered some guidelines into a Triple-A format—growing older features three interrelated points: Adjustment, Activity and Attitude.

A caveat: Beware of authoritative pronouncements from anyone, including this author—my understanding of successful aging is tentative and incomplete. Perhaps you can add to or alter the Triple-A program to better fit your own situation.

Some of my age cohorts refer to the aging process as a journey, an odyssey of discovery, which involves negotiating the challenges of many changes. Two special people in our lives, my wife’s aunt, Kina McGlothlin Odell, and our friend Dorothy Maywood Bird each shared their thoughts in almost the same words: “It’s all about adjusting to change.”

Growing old is not a static experience, but rather a dynamic pathway whereby one can learn more about oneself and others. Every age has its own style, challenges and its own ways. But most agree aging is not for sissies. Here are some of the challenges we face:

• Physical. Probably the most salient issues impacting older people are decline in energy, stamina and strength. For some, loss of hearing and visual acuity, orthopedic impairments and problems with balance. The list can go on. And those limitations can be very real.

But here’s the thing: If we let a loss or impairment define us, we also are in danger of becoming psychological invalids. One thing is certain: No one wants to hear an “organ recital.” Don’t inflict a review of your ailments upon others. When a conversation is opened with the typical inquiry, “How are you?” (which is not a clinical question), I just use a quip: “A bit of insomnia, but I’m trying not to lose sleep over it.” They usually get the point.

It is much better, by the way, to ask “What have you been doing?” than “How are you feeling?” This allows your friend to concentrate on what he or she is accomplishing — “I carved a duck decoy,” “I finished a quilt block,” “I read that book I’ve been putting off,” “I walked a mile along the bike path,” “I called three friends,” “I wrote a poem,” “I volunteered for ____,” rather than dwelling on aches and pains.

• Mental. The specter of mental decline is even more dismaying than physical weakness or impairment. A common source of worry and frustration is the inability to remember names or the location of familiar objects. Another perplexing event is starting out to do some important errand in the house and finding yourself in the laundry room looking about and asking: “What am I here for?” One older friend, who lives in a small Alger County town, had the perfect answer when the visiting pastor asked her whether she had considered the hereafter. “Oh, yes, pastor,” she said, “Several times a day, I find myself in the bedroom or kitchen saying, “What am I here after?”

There is no panacea to avoid these occurrences, but try to prevent yourself from succumbing to panic and woe. There is no need to pole vault over mouse droppings—you are entitled to a senior moment. Go on to other activities, or retrace your steps, and often the missing word or task will pop into your consciousness.

Be on the watch for too much nostalgia as well. Oh, sure, it is satisfying to remember departed friends and how things were in the “old days.” But nostalgia has a way of sliding into melancholy, and then the Big D, depression, lurks in wait.

1411_lop_emerick_mclainThere are at least three dimensions of activity to consider: Physical, Mental and Social.

• Physical. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: If you don’t use it, you lose it. Move. Whatever part of your body you can, whether it is vigorous action or armchair exercises. Don’t retreat to your couch. There is this silly fascination in the media to report stories about a ninety-one-year-old man running a marathon or a woman of eighty-six swimming the English Channel. These reports often are held up as models of action for the elderly. Well, good for them… and balderdash. Sauntering, strolling or meandering on Presque Isle, the ancient streets of Central Mine or simply walking about your neighborhood is more like it. If inability to walk is the limitation, try leg lifts, arm exercises, yoga stretches—any activity that gets you moving in some way.
Sure, there is discomfort, especially in the morning, and some folks can no longer walk for their activity, but a few minutes of activity of some kind and your muscles will warm up and Arthur (one of the Itis brothers, the other is Cole) will retreat.

• Mental. The same recommendation is valid: Keep your brain active. There are an infinite number of things to learn about, which can pull your mind on and on to discover. I set up an array of intellectual projects for myself each year, especially during the dark days of winter when SAD lurks about my office door. Here are just a few in recent years: 1) The life and songs of Stephen Foster. (When my wife went to the music section of a local discount store to search for a tape of Stephen Foster songs, the clerk asked, “What band does he play in?”) 2) Who painted American Gothic? and 3) The life of Rachel Carson. Some books I have found useful to get the thinking going are: 1) Daily Dose of Knowledge, 2) The Book of Questions, 3) The Art of Thinking Clearly, 4) Graced by the Seasons (two volumes) and 5) Answer Book (National Geographic).

Check out the Northern Center for Lifelong Learning (office at the University)—an organization devoted to both physical and mental activities and open to all.

• Social. We are social beings, and we need close relationships with each other, as this Irish saying underscores:

“Life is an ocean
Love is a boat.
In troubled waters
It keeps us afloat.”

1411_lop_emerick_hiltonAging may bring losses in this realm, also—family members, friends, a work role, the home in the familiar neighborhood. In order to have friends, one must be a friend. It isn’t always easy to reach out and build new links, but invite someone to take a walk in the woods, visit a museum, be a phone friend with you or have breakfast.

One year, in the depths of the U.P. winter, we reestablished time with friends through a pie party at our township hall. Later, the local chapter of the Sierra Club held another at the Presque Isle pavilion. People were asked to bring a pie for every two persons; there was lots of conversation and some really good pie to sample. It reinforced the poster on my wall that promises, “Pie Fixes Everything.”

Not everyone is comfortable with it, but I try to make a family wherever I go. Our daughters live and work across the country, so I adopt people. I have more than a dozen daughters and sons and more than thirty grandchildren. They are servers in area restaurants, dental assistants, nurses at the medical center, students at the university. I admit this tendency has, at times, gotten me into a spot of trouble. We were sharing breakfast at a small café with a young couple we had met in our neighborhood, and I introduced them to the server with the information: “This is my granddaughter and this is my grandson, and they are married.” There was a long pause and she said, “I don’t judge.”

Adjustment, Activity and now Attitude, and the greatest of these is Attitude, because it influences everything. As we age, our core beliefs, developed over the years by our heritage and life experiences, determine the type of lens we employ to interpret and deal with events. A wise teacher once advised me if you can’t change the facts, try adjusting your attitude. Don’t waste energy doing battle with conditions you cannot alter. Instead of obsessing over the barrier, focus on what you can change. Here are some activities which have been shown to mitigate negative impacts.

1411_lop_emerick_woodhenge• Nature is the best therapist. Watching birds at the backyard feeder, sitting beside a lake or river or a walk in the forest all work wonders. (See the new book Blue Mind by Wallace Nichols for discussion of the effect of moving water on mood.) Television documentaries and rental movies also are available on an amazing variety of natural subjects.

• Music. Listening to music has an amazingly positive impact on moods. Probably not hip-hop or heavy metal, but Strauss waltzes, Celtic tunes (anything by Celtic Woman), easy listening music or folk tunes. I certainly date myself by mentioning Patti Page and Burl Ives.

• Humor is a very effective antidote to discomfort and angst. Norman Cousins, editor and essayist, explored humor therapy when he contracted a debilitating illness. The results, and a subsequent book summarizing his experiences, so impressed the medical world that Stanford Medical School hired him to teach doctors in training about the efficacy of humor as an adjunct form of treatment.

Cue again our friend Dorothy Maywood Bird, facing a number of limitations which she shared with us in a note not long before she moved from her childhood town of Marquette. She was no longer able to make her famous fudge for visitors or climb the ladder to the loft of her beloved Laughing Water, the family camp on Lake Superior. She was sad about these changes which had come as she reached her late eighties, but ended her note to us with a stirring quote from Tennyson:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides, and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days   
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”

— Lon Emerick
Foster Creek Homestead

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