GOING FORWARD & LOOKING AHEAD (May 31, 2023)
Now that I’ve crossed the threshold into my eighties, I find myself increasingly pondering my future. What do I want to focus on and what let go? How long might I have left and how do I want to live it?
Here are three independent journal entries that approach these Agile Aging choices from different perspectives.
“We sail the ocean blue and our saucy ship’s a beauty”
Gilbert & Sullivan, HMS PINAFORE (1878)
Just back from a South Pacific cruise, two of our retirement-community friends set off on another voyage, this one circumnavigating the British Isles. Then another neighbor announced that she also had two cruises planned for the remainder of 2023. Then another couple, and another. It felt as if almost our entire circle of fellow seniors was taking to the high seas. What was going on? Had the “end of COVID” launched an oldies’ maritime exodus? How and why were so many setting sail?
I took the liberty of reaching out to my nautical pals and asked if they’d kindly respond to an impromptu questionnaire. Good sports one and all, they agreed to tick the boxes and fill in the blanks. Their responses were intriguingly consistent. A tight profile emerged of congruent cruising choices and motivations.
To my surprise, the interviewees (singles and couples) took, or plan to take, an average of four cruises in 2022-23. Most abroad, a few within the U.S. Most on the ocean, a few on rivers or lakes. All respondents were veteran voyagers, none novices. Almost all their itineraries were new for them. Almost all were travelling by themselves, only a few with friends or family. None joined a sponsoring group, like university alumni, although several had done so when younger. Likewise, none were now seeking on-board education programs, although they had often done so in the past.
Almost all were motivated to get out and about after COVID. Half added that their enthusiasm to do lots of cruising now was influenced by their declining mobility, increasing age and/or approaching impairment. There was a high degree of consensus over why they chose a ship for their main vacation transport, as opposed to a plane, train or car:
- “We only need to unpack once.”
- “A ship’s a moving hotel.”
- It can take you to multiple, remote locations, with a menu of optional shore excursions.
- There are comfortable accommodations, great service and food.
- And in one especially lyrical expression of a sentiment shared by other devotees, “I love the open seas, the endless vistas, the swells and salt air, the feeling of exploration and freedom.”
Almost all my respondents chose a small ship, with relatively few passengers (<150). For most, their chief criterion for choosing a specific cruise line and ship was a particular route and destination. Several also valued the line’s and ship’s positive reputation. None considered convenience of trip schedule a major planning consideration (perhaps because they had maximum flexibility as retirees and could book far in advance?) None did comparison shopping for fares. All resoundingly affirmed that they will cruise again.
Nancy and I were so inspired by our friends’ nautical enthusiasm that we decided to take a mini-cruise of our own. We drove up to Larkspur and boarded the Golden State Ferry. A 35-minute Bay crossing to San Francisco’s Embarcadero was no match for a full month at sea. But we relished the wraiths of fog, spray slapping our window, sharing the lanes with jib-rigged schooners and lumbering tankers. In the Ferry Building arcade, a dozen ethnic cuisines competed for our trade. We opted for hand-stretched noodles and char siu bao in a Hong Kong teahouse. When our return ferry headed out into the Bay, dramatic bridge towers loomed ahead. Even a quick-hop commute boosted our zest for floating adventure.
For the record, a number of additional friends explained why they are not fans of cruising. These seniors prefer to stay on dry land, avoid possible seasickness, travel alone and elude throngs. Most like to travel within the States, visiting relatives and/or retreating to their own secluded bolt-holes. A keep-dry alternative for getting out and about.
Judy Palm, a retirement-community friend and neighbor, alerted me to a local talk being given by cognitive psychologist and best-selling author, Daniel Levitin. The distinguished guest would be discussing his latest book, SUCCESSFUL AGING: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives. I couldn’t attend the presentation. But the title seemed so relevant to our Agile Aging blog that I promptly ordered a copy of the book from Amazon.
As it turned out, most of the book is focused on enhancing longevity, with drugs, diet, exercise and “sleep hygiene.” Living longer, not aging wiser. But the final chapter is closely congruent with my own quality-of-senior-life priority. The chapter heading introduces a compact guide to affirmative aging: “Living Better: the greatest days of our lives.” Combining reports on gerontological and psychological studies with his own professional experiences and opinions, Levitin zips through an extended list of how-to topics: measuring senior happiness and appreciating its causes; retirement; sustaining personalized health care; shifting to supportive communities; preparing for cognitive impairment; choosing the right hospital; drafting Advance Medical Directives; and conducting end-of-life planning. I found his prose accessible and his material informative. For my purposes, this section synthesizes recent agile-aging know-how.
Levitin’s discussion of elder happiness is a representative example of his approach. He begins by reiterating a counterintuitive finding discussed in this blog last year: old age is by far the happiest stage of life.
We often look at old age as a time of limitations, infirmities and sadness. Of course, it’s true that as we get older there are a number of things we don’t do as well as when we were younger. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all older adults are sad or depressed. Some certainly are, but as a group, they are actually happier than younger people. Happiness tends to decrease in the late thirties and then begins to increase sharply after age 54. This holds true across 70 countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe.
The apex is 82-85 years. The author summarizes varying scientific hypotheses explaining this curve. He goes on to discuss “social comparisons” between cultures that influence personal satisfaction, contrasting Western individualistic societies with Eastern collectivist and holistic societies. He then notes that America has been steadily dropping in the UN’s World Happiness Report, falling to an all-time low of nineteenth out of 156 countries in 2019, the most recent year for which he has data. (The Report’s criteria are per capita GDP, social support, health span (not life span), freedom to make life choices, generosity and freedom from corruption.) With specific reference to interpreting America’s slide, experts have emphasized “overuse of digital devices.”
Analyzing the Harvard Grant Study, the longest study on health and happiness ever conducted, Levitin quotes its current director: “The clearest message we get from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.” Not parental social class, IQ or income. And the most crucial relationship in this context is a sustained, mutually respectful marriage or personal partnership. Better yet is a union characterized by independence. Levitin riffs “If you love somebody, set them free.”
The single elder-happiness subtopic on which I found myself strongly disagreeing with the author was retirement. Levitin doesn’t mince words: “What is the ideal age to retire? Never. Even if you’re physically impaired, it’s best to keep working.” From my perspective, this labor-centric counsel is an American cultural trap. It ignores the fact that most Americans are unhappy in their jobs. And that automation is rapidly replacing less-efficient human laborers. And that old age is an earned reward, offering time to explore deferred creative passions, as well as learning, mentoring, grand-parenting and travel. The author does hedge his bets by occasionally including volunteering in his definition of work. But his advocacy emphatically recommends that elders practice “unretirement,” resumption of paid employment and resistance to on-the-job ageism. An implicit Calvinist bias underpins his retirement rejection. (If I’m honest and climb down off my agile-aging hobbyhorse, I’d probably concede that, uniquely within the current American culture, Levitin’s anti-retirement partiality may be the majority position.)
Setting aside this specific difference, I enjoyed and learned from this author’s wide-ranging discussion of Living Better. His aspirational appendix is worth posting on elder bulletin boards:
REJUVENATING YOUR BRAIN
- Don’t retire. Don’t stop being engaged with meaningful work.
- Look forward. Don’t look back. (Reminiscing doesn’t promote health.)
- Get your heart rate going. Preferably in nature.
- Embrace a moderated lifestyle with healthy practices.
- Keep your social circle exciting and new.
- Spend time with people younger than you.
- See your doctor regularly, but not obsessively.
- Don’t think of yourself as old (other than taking prudent precautions.)
- Appreciate your cognitive strengths — pattern recognition, crystallized intelligence, wisdom, accumulated knowledge.
- Promote cognitive health through experiential learning: traveling, spending time with grandchildren, and immersing yourself in new activities and situations. Do new things.
GOING FORWARD ALONE
Nancy and I try to be forthright with each other about all facets of aging. Likely challenges as well as opportunities. Decline, death and dying, not just birthday parties and hearing aids.
I’ve just turned 80 and experienced near-fatal heart failure last year. Both of my parents died at 83; my brothers at 79 and 74. Nancy’s mother passed at 67, her father at 88. As Dr. Levitin would put it, genetics are not a prescription, merely an influence. Still, our biological clocks are ticking. We may not last another decade. This prospect has gotten us thinking ahead, attentive but not afraid.
During a recent day trip along the Pacific shoreline, we slipped into a spontaneous conversation about the possibility of going forward alone. How might each of us handle the transition if we became a surviving spouse?
For us, this was a relatively novel topic. After 50 years of marriage, we tend to approach most family subjects as a couple, more than as individuals. At the same time, we have deliberately sustained a high degree of independence within our union, so thinking by or for ourselves is not unfamiliar or off-putting. On this occasion, it was interesting and curiously gratifying to discover the degree to which our independent reflections had led us to closely parallel expectations.
Even before we began sharing transition ideas, we acknowledged that, in fact, neither of us might ever become a mobile surviving spouse. Both of us might die simultaneously in a car crash or other calamity. Or the surviving spouse might suffer severe mental or physical impairment, so that wide-ranging solo planning might not be realistic. We were also aware that end-of-life preparations don’t always mature into actions. More than a few of our relatives and friends inserted DNR instructions into their Advance Health Care Directives, only to opt for extreme medical interventions when the actual decision had to be taken. But setting aside those caveats, if circumstances should leave one of us alive, alert, mobile and solvent, how might the survivor adjust and adapt? Here are some highlights from our first-thoughts dialogue:
- For openers, we anticipated that, if one of us were forced by our spouse’s death to go forward alone, we would not find the transition insurmountable. Within a half-century partnership of intense intimacy, we remain core introverts needing restorative privacy. Producing blogs in separate “away spaces” symbolizes our reciprocal independence. So, although the survivor would definitely experience wrenching loss and destabilization, we both predicted that, over time, he or she would successfully create a solitary new normal.
- Each of us envisioned this personal adjustment as beginning with a take-it-slow transition. In the initial months following our partner’s demise, we’d plan to make few major changes in our individual living arrangements. With guidance from professional counsellors, we’d work our way through financial and legal re-registrations. We’d likely dispose of our spouse’s wardrobes. But no apartment change. Probably no sale yet of our second car, until we clarified our ongoing transport needs. With the support of family and closest friends, we’d organize a Celebration of Life. For the most part, however, we would request retirement-community neighbors to give us alone-time for grieving.
- Perhaps six months into separation, the survivor would plan to take a major physical and geographical break. The main purpose of this excursion would be to get accustomed to single life — practicing permanent solitude, thinking, doing and being by ourselves. Nancy thought she might structure this expedition as a leisurely national country-roads loop. Since deteriorating eyesight might disqualify me from self-driving marathons, I might fly to a recuperative foreign destination, like Bhutan, rural Japan or Mauritius.
- Before, during and after this extended sojourn, we were pretty confident that we would not want to form a substitute intimate relationship. Our 50-year symbiotic pairing would be impossible to replicate. And we’ve become too set in our ways and too comfortable in isolated introversion to want to build a new partnership. Retirement Community friendships would continue to be welcome. But no new roommate.
Even though the subject of this “What if?” conversation was profoundly serious and potentially melancholy, our free-ranging chat was relaxed and sharing. It felt natural and supportive to look ahead together to our possible future separation. An extension of how we’d lived our lives so far. Now an attempt to practice agile aging going forward.
My thanks to Nancy Swing for her evocative photos.
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