The moment to start is right here, right now
Any dream that you and I might have of living a different kind of life as we age is directly dependent upon what we’re doing right here, right now.
By that I mean the choices you and I are making about self-care. Whatever kind of shape your mind, body and spirit are in today, and how those spheres will fare tomorrow and twenty to fifty years from now, depends entirely on:
1. What you are eating as you read this. Or before or after, as it were.
2. What kind of exercise you did when you woke up or plan later in your day.
3. What kind of stress-relieving actions- and boy do we need those right now- you and I take to demonstrate loving care of the incredibly capable chassis we inhabit.
4. What kind of supportive “family,” blood or adopted, you have built around you.
5. Whether or not you are doing work you love, which you can sustain in one way or another long after you choose, should you choose, to shift away from working life. Work is work, it can morph. Purpose is something else again: that’s life-affirming.
Yesterday I got a telling comment from Medium peep Dave Murray in response to a piece I had written about happiness. The great truth of his words really struck home for me:
I’m 70 and didn’t retire until age 69 because like many American men, my identity and sense of purpose was in my job. My 94 year old mother lives with us and I can tell that she no longer feels purpose. An unintended warning to me that I need to adjust my thinking. I’m in a season of life that I pushed out of my thinking for my whole life.
No need for me to mention my sorrows, you don’t reach the age of seventy without scars. A thing that I see, assuming reasonable health, is that people who age well maintain purpose in life. Many, perhaps most of us need to find that because it probably won’t be what we thought if requires physical ability that we didn’t really accept that we would loose (sic).
A friend who is a bit older than me bought a cabin in Washington state to fix up and live in when he retired. He waited longer than me for that and quit contract engineering at 75. He now lives in Sun city Arizona after selling the cabin that he didn’t have the energy to live out his planned dream. Older people can make it real for us if we are paying attention. (author bolded)
I would remind us all the some of the greatest wisdom bubbles up from our readers, which is just one reason I write where people can comment. What Dave is saying is to bloody well pay attention to our older folks. Where they are in life and how they got there are incredible teachers for us.
Dave’s friend is like my father, who assumed that his considerable strength would always be there as he aged. As I have written elsewhere, Dad found out to his horror that without consistent effort, strength slips away, as with Dave’s friend, so do our options. A cabin in the woods takes energy and strength. I discover every single day, here in Eugene, Oregon with a bigger house, a very demanding landscape on a steep hill, this is hard damned work.
I love it. Every single sweaty, demanding minute of it. This is what I signed up for, and it pays off every single day.
Yesterday I maneuvered a heavy piece of beautiful wood furniture from the back of my car, through the garage and up two flights of stairs into my bedroom. Alone. With a foot down and a hand still partially down. I’m 67 and counting. That’s not bragging. It is what it is. I don’t have anyone here to help, not yet anyway, so it’s up to me. I love that- not the alone part, the strong part. I would want that for every single person on this Earth to enjoy physical strength that protects them from decrepitude, energy that sees them through each day, and options which allow them to play as they wish far later in life.
The way I got there and stay there is all over the house: pull up bars, exercise gear, DVDs that I love to motivate me in kickboxing and yoga. While some of that is still being set up, I head to the gym regularly and never stop working, even while injured. In fact, especially while injured.
I have trained all my life for this kind of life. Even more importantly, I am now in training for my eighties and beyond, in the same way that legendary rocker Mick Jagger just added ballet to his workout routine to keep right on rocking in front of screaming, adoring fans as he barrels towards eighty.
The truth is that a better future full of options is available for most of us- please note I didn’t say ALL, for that’s not true- if we make lifestyle changes.
The secrets to that kind of life, a life full of options, are simple, largely available to many if not most, and not particularly hard to do. With one exception: they take our willingness to redirect habits and to commit to a life time of self-care, which if I might point out, you and I deserve.
As do those who love us deserve us to be in our best health and life.
When we don’t care for ourselves, our sicknesses take us over, drive our lives and our life views. Many of us get bitter at how our bodies have let us down, and take our anger at our failing forms out on others who had nothing whatsoever to do with our difficulties.
I get nasty darts from aging women in particular who fire bile-filled arrows at me about how lucky I am. How easy my life is. Honey, follow me around some day and find out how “easy” my life is. Do what I do, lift what I lift, eat what I eat. Find out the secrets to easy.
There are none. Easy is bullshit.
Healthy is hard work.
While I can understand the pain you and I might feel as our bodies begin to fail, the simple truth is that about seventy percent of our quality of life as we age is squarely in our hands. The rest, accidents of genes, disease, bad luck or circumstance, well, those are when the gods roll the dice.
Still, them’s great odds. I like knowing that if I am willing to do the work, if I am willing to put in the time to stay healthy, make good choices about what I use to fuel my aging body, then the odds are very much in my favor, just as they are in yours.
Katie Andrews is one of my favorite Medium stories, because she has, over time, self-care and steady determination, lost 172 pounds. Here is her story:
Katie also exercises. She has moved back to her beloved rural Louisiana, which feeds her Southern soul. She’s retired, and as she continues this journey she also continues to carve out options for herself as she ages. At 52, which is still quite young by any measure, Katie has immeasurably improved her late-in-life conditions. She can play, as opposed to watching others play on TV from a sagging couch.
Still, thin isn’t fit. Fit is fit. For Katie, she needed to drop enough of her body weight to give herself options. She will never be a fitness model. Nor will most of us. But she sure as hell is a model for a fitter body.
Having been obese, and so skinny from eating disorders I nearly died, I know that price we pay when we fail at self-care. This year I’ve had to completely re-work my diet because of health conditions which fall into the “roll of the dice” category. While I miss my donuts and my chocolate almonds, I’ve not had either for a very long time. Of course I miss my sweets. But knowing that certain foods harm me makes this non-negotiable. I won’t ingest anything that I know can cause me harm. Why would anyone do that?
Look around. Most of us do just that, and then get mad at their hard-working bodies for failing them. That’s like buying the best horse in the world, hooking it up to a plow, beating and starving it and getting pissed that it falls down in its traces.
For my choice of lifestyle and the work I do, being fit isn’t a nice to have:
As a society and increasingly in the rest of the world, we want our cake, to be able to eat it too, and not have to pay the price of an increasing waist line. The shelves are full of products that shriek that promise, as well as a laundry list of exercise programs and products which guarantee the magic six pack in Six Short Weeks.
Most of these things are not only patently false, they are also unattainable. Anyone who shops garage sales in spring can tell you about the bargains we get from failed exercise commitments.
The basics are simple, the basics work, the basics do NOT need organic food and pricey exercise gear. The habits of learning how to feed our unique bodies, then committing to minding our mouths every time we shop or eat out are actually pretty easy.
Most of this really is pretty simple.
Here’s one example. I never leave the house without food and something to drink in my car. While I’ve had to give up my beloved smoked almonds and nut butters, I’ve replaced those with big Honey Crisp apples. I always have water. That way I don’t pull into a MickeyD’s or Jack in the Box or Dunkin which will torpedo my diet and my mood.
You and I can do this. Dave’s story reminds me that if we are going to communicate any kind of hope to those coming up behind us, we have to live lives that telegraph that hope. There’s nothing that needs to be “epic” about any of it: just small, better choices, day in and day out, those gestures of self love that pay off in big dividends. The yogurt vs. the donut. The walk around the block or park vs. the Barcalounger.
I fully recognize that the fundamental inequities the communities of color face in terms of access (to decent food, health care, open spaces and outdoor recreation and the like) make some of these self-care options much, much harder. That is work that we all have to do in order to better ensure that health isn’t a nice-to-have, but the kind of imperative that is not only a shared value but a shared experience for all of us.
Health is a human right as well as a responsibility. The better we care for ourselves, the more we care about how others are able to care for themselves.
Dreaming of that cabin in the woods? Or your version of the same thing? The only way that dream comes true for us as we age is if you and I put the work in right now to ensure that we can take care of that cabin and ourselves later in life.
This is no time to get old.
We can age, but we don’t have to be aged.