As an octogenarian who is busy, every day, climbing the mountain of advanced age I often reflect on how this experience of getting older is a daily work in progress and what new learning’s I have accumulated along the way to help me on my trek. They are many and for the most part they sort of blend into each other as I shall endeavor to explain. I hope that my self awareness will continue to expand with each new waking moment.
By way of introduction let me share the following essentials of my person. I am 85 years OLD and I still work three or four days per week because I enjoy it. I am active with yard work, have been building a Zen garden for several years, play golf and study Tai Chi and most important, I am happily married, a second time, for over forty years. Health wise I had a heart attack over eight years ago from which my heart appears to have fully recovered, i.e., a normal EKG.. I am on a watch for a recurring bladder cancer which seems to be behaving. Outside of maintenance visits I never see a doctor any more.
I never used to think in terms of getting older versus aging as the norm was focused solely on aging. Every geriatric article, commentary, study or research findings that I ever read and I read a lot, all centered on the travails of aging and the eventual decline of physical and mental powers.
Scientific inquiries investigated the causes and perhaps posited possible solutions to delay or mitigate the experiences of illnesses and disease as the population aged. For some unknown reason they never looked at wellness in the older population. The truism, as relevant today as when it was created that without ones health one couldn’t expect to get much enjoyment of of life. Clearly as we aged and became sicker our quality of life suffered dramatically.
Once men retired from their jobs to enjoy the fruits of their labors it became normal to expect they would be outlived by their wives. I don’t want to get into the reasons why that was so remarkable except to suggest that women lived more powerful lives and were not generally as impacted by the sizable shift in consciousness as that brought on by a man losing his driving force, his reason to be, his job.
Sitting back and enjoying retirement sounded great but it was hard to fulfill for the great majority of men. Some years ago I lived and worked in the Washington DC area. One afternoon I was early for an appointment in Georgetown so I stopped at a bar to cool off. D.C. summers can be brutally hot and humid. A man came in and sat down beside me and proceeded to tell me that he was a retired military officer and he always believed that if lived to be 65 he would have lived a great life. A few days before his 65th birthday he had a massive heart attack. He continued to tell me that the doctors pulled him through it. I was stunned to realize that he was engaged in a self fulfilling prophecy as he chain smoked and was quickly on his second double. Some part of him wanted verify his early departure from this life. Ask yourself if this was a culturally motivated belief come to pass. I would strongly suggest that it was.Some how, some way cultural influences subconsciously programmed his life expectancy.
As a matter of opinion I submit that the growing informational field of medical awareness and responses to geriatric illnesses actually creates a stronger focus and expectation by older people to experience more illnesses than they might have otherwise. Fact is, pretty much everyone is suggestible to one degree or another. I remember some years ago a study from a reputable source came out predicting that 90% of men would suffer from some form of prostate dysfunction as they aged. Can you imagine how hard it would be for man reading that not to form an expectation of being one of that population? Something of the ” Jaws ” effect when shark sightings increased tremendously after the initial movie came out some years ago. I know I had to deliberately refuse to to accept that possibility talking place in my life. To date I am one of only a few older men I know who has yet to be afflicted by some form of prostate problem apart from a slight enlargement. Women are equally susceptible responding to the culture, often media driven, that their worst fear is breast cancer despite overwhelming statistics that heart attacks kill more women than all forms of cancer combined. Reported NEJM 2014.
Happiness in retirement has been a long held cultural expectation. It was an ingrained belief that was automatic in the minds of many that was never seriously questioned or discussed. It was expected. It was a milestone event. You worked hard for lo those many years doing all the things that working people were supposed to do like own a house and raise a family The reward was to retire after a job well done and begin to enjoy all the many things you never had time for before. That was the goal . Unfortunately for too many it was an early death sentence. I say this to begin a conversation about the subconscious role that cultural beliefs play in our lives and affairs. We respond to many of its dictates without a second thought because the cultural expectations are more or less
built into our hard wiring.
One’s way of looking at life, their frame of reference, is a composite of our physical, emotional, intellectual, perhaps spiritual, experiences, memories and personality behaviors responding to a continual stream of ethnic, social, religious influences that we unknowingly absorbed and are constantly reinforced by our place in society. It tells us how to,unthinkingly, react to the countless stimuli of ordinary living. It’s our reality.
Take for example the story of two brothers as reported by Dr. Hans Selye [ Stress Without Distress, Signet,NY ] who is recognized as the father of modern stress medicine. In his book ” Dr. Selye speaks of two sons and their involvement in a longitudinal study of children of alcoholic parents. Both sons had grown into adulthood. One was a fine upstanding, family man with a successful career. The other was a confirmed alcoholic living on Skid Row. It was a blind study so the interviewer did not know either brother. He asked them both the same question and they both gave him the same answer. The question was; ” What do you think contributed to your present status in life?” Their identical answers were; ” What else would you expect with alcoholic parents!” Somehow one son knew he had a choice. The other son saw himself as a victim. Both sons came from the same gene pool, the same culture, the same neighborhood environment and the same parenting. Each son chose to interpret their situations as a reflection of their cultural imprints. Why did it vary in such a limited exposure? Why did one son recognize that he had a choice while the other assumed the victim’s role? Selye goes on to define each son’s perception of their stresses as their reality as a general representative how we all react to stressors. It would seem that different personalities react in a singular manner to their stressors.
This story introduces us to the dynamic of choice. I submit that we need to recognize that we do indeed have a choice. We can be more proactive in our lives and choose to over come and change our cultural pressures. Dr. Mario Martinez in his book ” The Mind Body Code” states that ” getting older is inevitable, aging is optional.” With that we will close this first entry, invite reader responses and continue in the near future.
RDB, Hopedale, Mass.