Whenever my friend John and I get together, we spend a good chunk of time discussing the national news, complaining about the state of the culture, and laughing, sometimes incredulously, at political developments. John is 60, and I am soon to be 69, and I suppose we have officially joined the ranks of the Grumpy Old Men brigade. On the other hand, we are rarely grumpy about life itself; we find delight in the day at hand, and laughter punctuates our discussions much more than despair.
In the last several years—it was John who first noticed this addition to our conversation—we also spend a bit of time grousing about growing old: stiffening joints, various bumps and barnacles, as my doctor calls them, wrinkled flesh, sagging muscles, some need for medications and special vitamins, and other infirmities associated with climbing the ladder of years.
“Old age ain’t for sissies”: that adage has a long shelf life, but the truth is, sissies or not, we who enter old age have no choice but to endure its travails.
Some Good News
But old age means more than an increase in aches and pains. It brings an abundance of pleasures as well, for those of us in reasonable health who can appreciate them.
Let’s take a look at some of the gifts you who are young may anticipate in those years Robert Browning described as “the best is yet to be, the last of life.”
A Different Pair of Glasses
As we age, many troubles that once seemed important now seem mundane or trivial.
In our 30s and 40s, we chased after money, promotions, and status. When disaster struck—or what we perceived as disaster—we raged at the back of the hand the universe had offered us as we pondered that ancient question, “Why me, O Lord?”
Growing older brings to the eyes a different pair of binoculars. Love and death still sit enthroned in the heart—the loss of a spouse, the adoration of children and grandchildren—but many trials we once considered calamitous are reduced to small arms fire on the battlefield of life.
Here’s a personal example: A year ago, while I was driving at 74 miles per hour on I-81 North in Virginia, a deer ran into the passenger side of my car and totaled it. My 30-year-old self might have stepped from his vehicle cursing his bad luck. My 67-year-old self left his car thanking the heavens he had survived the accident. Had the doe arrived a split second earlier, she would have come through the windshield and probably killed me.
Some things that once seemed trivial are now treasures.
Let’s start with a cup of coffee. At age 40, I gulped down my morning java while preparing breakfast for guests at our bed-and-breakfast, and I sipped it throughout the day from a Styrofoam cup teaching Latin, history, and English literature to students.
Coffee was fuel at that point in my life. Not today. No—today coffee is nectar from the gods. After the first sip in the morning, I often let out a big “Ahhhhh” of pleasure. The bird calls I hear in the morning from the back deck of the house, the laughter and talk found in the coffee house I visit, the beauty of the stars on a clear winter night, an encounter with a good book: These are just some of the many delights delivered daily by the universe in my old age.
In “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans,” researcher Karl Pillemer and others interviewed more than 1,200 older people. Of those subjects, Pillemer remarks, “Many people said something along these lines: ‘I wish I’d learned to enjoy life on a daily basis and enjoy the moment when I was in my 30s instead of my 60s.’” He and his colleagues found that many of those interviewed “describe the last five or ten years as the happiest years of their lives.”
Passing the Torch
Responsibility for certain tasks passes to others.
Age has taken me back to the self I knew in my 20s, that time before marriage, before raising children, before struggling to earn money to put food on the table. My children are all grown with families of their own, and though I worry about the difficulties they face and try as best I can to help them, I also recognize that at this point they must stand on their own two feet and face the battles of life.
This change in responsibility can bring an increased independence. An example: Many grandparents love watching their grandchildren, playing with them, reading or telling them stories, and taking them out for a treat at an ice cream parlor or restaurant. They also relish that moment when they return the kids to the parents and go back to their own lives.
It’s All in the Mind
Perhaps because of the above circumstances, many older people feel increasingly young at heart. They look in the mirror and see the wrinkles and age spots, and they wake with stiffened joints, but inside the mind and soul stands a gatekeeper who preserves a sense of youth.
Ask that 70-year-old not how old she is, but how old she feels, and you may find a 17-year-old girl still eager to embrace the world.
When I look at my five siblings, all of whom are now in their 60s, some of them retired or about to retire, others working without hope of retirement any time soon, I see this gatekeeper.
In his retirement, Doug now has more time for his sailing and recently bought a motorcycle. Penelope works as a nurse, and is head-over-heels in love with the man she married six years ago. Becky will soon retire from banking, and so have even more time to devote herself to her beloved gardening. Jenny remarried at 63 and is helping her husband build their dream home. Chris still writes songs and takes pleasure in performing his music.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Aging is no paradise. Many older people must work into their 70s and even 80s, many face physical infirmities, and all by then have suffered the deaths of friends and family.
But as I say, often undetected behind that hobbled gait or time-beaten face is a zest for living—a growing ease amid the hectic pace of modern life, an interior contentment, an increased talent for finding happiness in the moment.
To my readers ages 50 and under, particularly to those who dread growing old, take heart: You may be in for one of the best surprises of your life.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.