Attempting Agile Aging in Tumultuous Times (December 31, 2021)
As I prepare this final post of 2021, I’m in the mood for retrospection. What were the past year’s defining developments from this aging Californian’s perspective? How did those public developments influence and intrude upon my private experiences and impressions?
Two tensions are complicating my reflections. Somehow, late-December’s news headlines are jerking the year around. 2021 won’t hold still long enough for me to complete a coherent profile. Compounding the reporting challenges, my national impressions were mostly unsettling, even ominous; my local recollections are distinctly more calm and contented. How can I share the latter affirmations without coming across as an oblivious shuffleboard enthusiast on the deck of the Titanic?
My December 31 publication deadline is fast approaching. Let me give this personal recap a try. If coming to terms with 2021 holds interest for you, please send your own interpretations. What did it feel like for you as a concerned senior to navigate this roller-coaster ride? email@example.com.
DOUBLE, DOUBLE, TOIL AND TROUBLE
For me, three disruptive narratives dominated the entire year: COVID-19 ebbs and flows, the presidential transition and associated political combat, plus climate change’s accelerating destruction.
Rapid development and distribution of COVID vaccines got the year off to a promising start. The enticing prospect of US pandemic control and herd immunity seemed achievable within short months. Unfortunately, stubborn vaccination hesitancy and politicized resistance combined to keep those targets beyond reach. Opportunistic Delta and Omicron variants filled that breach. At year’s end, nearly 40% of Americans remain unvaccinated, coronavirus infections are again surging and public-health facilities are overwhelmed. To my surprise, despite the nationwide distribution of successful vaccines in 2021, 30% more US COVID deaths occurred this year than in 2020.
In the political domain, January was action-packed: the Georgia election runoff and Democrats’ achievement of a U.S. Senate majority on the 5th of the month, the Capitol insurrection on the 6th, and President Biden’s inauguration on the 20th. Offering hope and stability after Trumpian chaos, the new Administration was fast out of the gate. Its significant 2021 policy achievements included a $1.9 trillion pandemic-aid package, a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure program and Senate confirmation of 40 new federal judges. By year’s end, however, the Government’s progress is dramatically bleaker. The top-priority, $1.75 trillion Build Back Better bill has been stalled by two Democratic Senate defections. The U.S. Supreme Court is giving early indications of historic conservative activism. Republican-dominated state legislatures are racing to adopt gerrymandering shifts, voter-suppression measures and election-authority seizures ahead of 2022 mid-terms. And President Biden’s approval ratings have sunk to discouraging nadirs. Parallel foreign-policy changes have seen initial Biden victories like reengagement in the Paris Agreement and rapprochement with Trump-estranged allies offset by the Afghanistan-disengagement debacle and President Putin’s renewed saber-rattling.
In 2021, climate change intensified from a future mitigation-policy challenge to a probable driver of present extreme-weather calamities. Within short months the U.S. has been hit by mega-storms and devastating flooding in the Pacific Northwest, mega-drought and flaring wildfires throughout the Southwest, pounding hurricanes in the Southeast and unprecedented winter tornadoes and heatwaves stretching to the Atlantic. Parallel foreign global-warming assaults have included faster-than-forecast polar-glacier melting, faster-than-forecast Himalayan-snowcap melting and early water-competition hostilities in sub-Saharan Africa. The October/November UN Climate Summit in Glasgow generated aspirational governmental pledges but few binding commitments.
All three of these sets of disruptive developments have been reciprocally reinforcing. COVID-countering vaccines, masks, mandates and lockdowns have become politically controversial in the US and Europe. COVID-provoked supply-chain blockages and school closings have contributed to labor shortages, small-business bankruptcies and spiking inflation. Working parents were forced to stay home; fearful consumers shifted their purchases from in-person services to on-line goods. Fossil-fuel-industry resistance is slowing and blocking environmental reforms. Stalled intra-party negotiations on President Biden’s key domestic-policy bill forced him to abandon and soften the measure’s most effective climate-change responses.
Each of these domains is fast-evolving. One year is merely one chapter. At the end of 2021, President Biden will have completed only 11 of 48 months of service. Still, the current national mood, stirred by conflict-stoking media, seems anxious and agitated. Nightly TV news images of crowded airports, marathon COVID testing lines, smash-and-grab upscale-retail heists, exhausted ICU nurses and neon weather maps compose a turbulent collage.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH
Reviewing 2021’s impact on our Northern California retirement community yields significantly more positive recollections. Largely due to a combination of a safe, secure enclave, professional-management vigilance, geographic location and the residents’ advanced ages and accumulated resources, my impression is that we local elders have suffered relatively less from the roiling national stresses summarized above. Sheltered adaptation has been our experience, more than acute hardship.
On the COVID front, in marked contrast to 2020, this year witnessed residents’ increasing confidence and renewed mobility. 100% of the 220 Independent Living residents were double-vaccinated by mid-year and then boosted in October. Mask-wearing has become accepted, with few complaints. With respect to residents’ health care more generally, we have conscientious on-campus professionals working 24/7, with world-class Stanford University medical services and facilities 10 minutes down the road. As for COVID’s negative economic impacts, as retirees, community residents no longer have to worry about lay-offs, business closings or child care. (Despite these protections and advantages, in December’s final week for the first time one of our fellow residents tested positive for the coronavirus. Symptoms were only mild and recovery began quickly. Community management immediately instituted tracking, testing and isolation of this individual’s recent contacts, to be promptly followed by testing of all residents. This urgent campus-wide mobilization was not an over-reaction. In 2021, 75% of all U.S. COVID deaths have been persons 65 or older.)
By custom, discussion of politics is discouraged at the community’s no-host dining tables. National and international affairs are regular topics at Zoom and now in-person campus lectures, but these are lifelong-learning activities, keeping informed about current events. Residents often contribute to political candidates and serve as volunteers in nonprofits’ get-out-the-vote campaigns, but partisan political signs and rallies are kept away.
As for climate change, after a frightening near-evacuation to avoid an approaching wildfire in 2020, this year our community’s main global-warming engagements were comparatively benign: preventive brush-clearing in our campus forest and planned installation of rooftop solar to generate 105% of our needed electricity. Our San Francisco Bay region suffered none of the extreme-weather calamities that plagued much of the rest of the continent.
SOME PERSONAL ATTEMPTS AT AGILE AGING
I’d like to attempt to illustrate this predominantly positive local 2021 experience by offering some personal examples.
As reported in prior blog posts, since early pandemic days Nancy and I have been trying to refine a family approach to low-contact overland travel. An excursion to Healdsburg two weeks ago was our most recent successful sortie. We booked accommodations at a boutique hotel two blocks off the town’s main drag, offering beautifully designed “urban cottages.” www.duchamphotel.com . We ate take-out breakfasts from a neighborhood French bakery and restaurant meals at outside patios. (The imaginative tapas from the Bravas Bar rekindled welcome Barcelona memories.) For recreation, we walked most of the historic center, using a local brochure to identify preserved period architecture. At the local museum in a repurposed Carnegie Library, we were delighted by paired exhibits of Healdsburg’s Native American heritage and its 19th Century fruit-canning boom. Motoring past handsome Sonoma County wineries, we hiked through Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve’s original-growth forest, marveling at scars from the 2020 wildfire.
Several of our retirement-community neighbors have been more ambitious travelers in 2021: flying across the country or even to Europe and Asia; and in a few cases, booking cruises around South America. Our own choice for the time being is to avoid crowded aircraft, incubator cruise ships and the risk of foreign governments’ changeable entry restrictions. But for all of us, there’s a balancing act going on: getting out and about to reduce cabin fever without incurring high risk of coronavirus infection. To be clear, all these aging explorers are double-vaccinated and boosted faithful mask-wearers.
Despite our 50-year romance, in 2021 Nancy and I sometimes found the long hours cooped up together in our small apartment beginning to weigh. I even asked my Primary Care Physician whether my periodic irritability could be attributable to aging. She laughed and assured me that all of her patients – young and old, male and female, single and married, parents and child-free – have been suffering from similar tensions. She warmly endorsed the self-help measures Nancy and I have been employing to maintain domiciliary harmony. In addition to dedicating his-and-her away-spaces within the apartment and talking things out frankly when differences arise, we’ve recently reactivated an additional strategy. Our “solo retreats” are individual getaways on an as-needed basis. One spouse takes off by car for a few days of privacy and breathing room. Both partners benefit from these occasional separations: a time to be alone, to listen to your inner voice, returning with restored equanimity and recharged batteries.
Stepping and Splashing
COVID isolation made regular exercise all the more imperative in 2021. Our community campus offered a pair of inviting resources. A wooded hillside short steps outside our apartment door is laced with trails and ranging wildlife. Grazing deer and turkeys pay little attention to hiking humans; sauntering bobcats are much rarer but a treat to observe. I learned to laugh at myself when climbing these hills. For years I’d avoided using hiking poles, despite arthritic knees and undependable balance. “I’m not old!” Surprise, surprise. When finally swallowing my pride, I immediately found that the poles improved my stability, spared turned ankles and even freed me to glimpse camouflaged critters. Elder vanity is a chronic disease.
This past year our campus swimming pool attracted me on alternate days. Heated and conveniently located, it became my playpen for buoyant exercise and floating meditation. Having the pool mostly to myself when swimming laps was a comfort, since my profile was more manatee than orca. But again I was amused by my senior self-absorption. Whenever a fellow resident turned the key in the door and joined me at this shared facility, my first instinct was “Who’s intruding in my private pond?”
With crowded movie theaters, concert halls venues and sports venues still feeling too risky in 2021, I found myself reading more and more. Two marvelous facilities made this joyful recreation safe and convenient. Our retirement-community library holds hundreds of volumes, all organized by 25 dedicated volunteers. Five minutes’ drive away, the Portola Valley Public Library draws on ready access to all 12 branches of the San Mateo County Library System. Spot a tempting title in The New York Times or The Economist? Shazam! Here it comes.
Two recommended examples that are holding my attention during the holiday season have transparent titles and subtitles: BETTER WITH AGE – The Psychology of Successful Aging by Alan Castel; and EIGHTY SOMETHINGS – A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness by Katharine Esty.
I greatly enjoyed another calming, on-campus activity in 2021. I’d first studied meditation in India in 1968, under the tutelage of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (Remember his other pupils, Ringo and John? Never met ‘em.) Over the ensuing decades of intermittent efforts, my meditation sessions had been mostly discouraging. Flinching and fidgeting, I’d be routinely distracted by the drone of passing cars or the whine of grazing insects. Determined to achieve reflective concentration, I instead waged a constant skirmish with intruding thoughts and parading images.
This past summer, aging may have contributed to near-total replacement of my meditation restlessness with relaxed receptivity. I realize that this perceived transformation may be attributed to my slowing metabolism. I accept that Buddhist treatises caution that inner mindfulness is only the first step towards insight, compassion and enlightenment. But I can faithfully report that 2021 witnessed calmer, encouraging progress in my practice.
In this final stage of life, I find much to respect about Zen: its insistence on direct experience and personal responsibility for meditational progress, without dependence on priests or prayers; its complementary commitment to social engagement; and its intriguing historical migration and evolution from Indian roots through East Asian reflowerings to modern Western adaptations. For fellow seniors sharing my curiosity, I can recommend any translations by Thomas Cleary and any publications by Shambala.
One of the disadvantages of living in a retirement community is that I’m surrounded mostly by old folks like me. Many of our neighbors have children or grandchildren who visit, increasingly during this holiday season. For others like Nancy and myself, interacting with energizing youngsters requires more proactive outreach. In 2021, I renewed my participation in Yale alumni interviews of applicants for admission. Before moving to this retirement community, I used to conduct such meetings in-person near our home on the Monterey peninsula. COVID converted all such contacts to Zoom. But I still keenly enjoyed chatting with these bright young sparks.
You might well ask, as I did, how a near-80-year-old could have anything to offer a multitalented teen. But in practice, I have repeatedly found that these kids quickly seize the opportunity to present their candidacy to a non-official university representative; and to exploit our conversation to inquire what was Yale like during my (ancient) era and how has it made a difference in my life. For my part, at the university’s guidance, I form an impression of how each candidate might fit in to this intense learning crucible and whether they might benefit from, and contribute to, this distinctive undergraduate experience. Nearly all of my interviews have been encouraging for me, brief glimpses of potential leaders of the next generation. In that same spirit, I’ve just accepted an invitation from the Coro Foundation to help interview candidates for its Fellowship in Public Affairs.
Big Talk and Other Togetherness
I’m convinced that this past year stimulated more candid conversations among our retirement-community friends and neighbors. Whether due to consciousness of our mortality, concern about swirling societal stresses or restlessness from COVID isolation, our pals seemed to want to devote together-time to serious sharing. Not who won the latest Stanford game but what did they really care about. As one neighbor charmingly recollected, “My husband once said to me, ‘You’re just not a small-talk girl. You like big talk!’”
What intrigued me was the juxtaposition of this welcome seriousness with enthusiastic playfulness. The community’s Halloween Gala inspired creative costumes and inventive variations on COVID masks. Again, I sensed that neighbors were eager to burst out from pandemic isolation. But with a carpe diem energy.
One campus activity that combined both these emotional commitments, candor and play, gave Nancy and me repeated pleasure in 2021. A small group of friends began assembling for a monthly evening of Charades. As a couple living and working for decades in developing countries, the two of us had enjoyed this game in multiple posts where TV and cinemas were unavailable. Now an octet gathered in a retirement-community parlor to let our remaining hair down, relishing sanctioned silliness. What gave these evenings special meaning was that we started each session with serious conversation around a potluck dinner table. These candid exchanges preceded the game-playing and a final home-made dessert. It was as if the participants were implicitly agreeing, “As long as we’re going to trust each other enough to perform improv mimes, let’s harness this same trust to nurture deeper sharing.”
If I could place these notes in a time capsule for a reader 10 years down the road, I hope two main observations would come across. For most Americans and their leaders, 2021 presented a conjunction of disruptive challenges: a resurging pandemic, dysfunctional political polarization and accelerating climate change. For the residents of our privileged Northern California retirement community, those stresses were greatly attenuated: by our fortuitous location, insulating resources and the valiant labor of our protective staff. This was not the old age our neighbors had bargained for – still cut off from most in-person contact with loved ones and compelled to postpone bucket-list expeditions. But thankful to be safe and secure, reaching out to each other within the campus while looking forward to less tumultuous times.
These reflections have been exclusively retrospective, aiming to interpret what we’ve just been through. Next month I’ll risk peering ahead. As a bridge, let me leave you with three proverbs borrowed from an Amish calendar:
- Don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can.
- The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.
- When you know all the answers, you haven’t asked all the questions.
My continuing thanks to Nancy Swing for her enhancing photos.