When I was young, it seemed as if my mind could declare its independence over my body in order to do whatever I wanted without limits. That body was a limber, resilient, well-tuned bill of rights to do just that without apparent consequence. I could stay up for two days straight and recover by the next, run forever, and had a bladder and mind that could retain their contents as long as I needed. That freedom, however, seems to be slipping away; I cannot run as far as I used to without pain, sleep as little as I used to without suffering or sleep as long as I used to without peeing. And what’s the other thing? Oh, yes, I also cannot remember things as easily.
I am old enough now to see the new walls that middle age is building around me. My body is supposed to be a temple, but some days it feels as though my growing limitations are slowly turning that structure into a prison. Whining about that, however, seems akin to whining about a bad golf shot; you are unhappy because you cannot do something you love (living and golfing) perfectly, focusing on the fact you are doing it imperfectly instead of enjoying the fact you can do it at all. Moreover, focusing on what’s not perfect about it detracts from being able to enjoy what’s still great about it. Why would we do that?
Pie-eyed optimism, however, is not sufficient to the task of aging gracefully, a phrase whose meaning I am now starting to explore as the key to the maintenance of relative freedom during aging. I used to think that grace just meant accepting the limitations that aging imposed; my first dawning in this new day of the older me was understanding that graceful aging is not the grace of acceptance, but rather the grace and maintenance of as much freedom as possible come from real work of aging done well. Some acceptance is just part of that work.
Another part is physical activity and exercise, which is required to slow the effects of aging because the sedentary body degrades at an accelerated rate. The phrase “use it or lose it” was not only written by our muscle, bone, and brain cells, but is their prayer to us each day.
For me, another requirement of graceful aging is exploration and use of those powers that increase as we age, many of them powers of intellect, emotion and task skill. I cannot remember things the way I used to, but my mind solves problems better than it ever did when I was 20. It recognizes problem patterns and potential solutions, and develops algorithms of options, faster than it ever did. Another person’s perspective is something it can see more frequently on its own, without having been forced to do so (I said more frequently, not always). My hands ache at the end of a day in the woodworking shop, but they can tune a hand plane, construct a tight joint, and saw wood to a line, all with skill I thought at age 17 I would never be lucky enough to have.
Some degree of financial security — including health insurance — also is required, because if aging is a progressively deep freeze, some money in the bank is a warm coat. It cannot protect us forever, nor is it a guarantee, but it can help keep us viable as long as we physiologically have a right to be.
I cannot age gracefully if I feel my diminishing time is slipping away ever more quickly, so I have begun to slow the passage of my remaining years by savoring the content of their seconds more completely. That is an active process; a walk down the street during which one is environmentally aware and appreciative can make a hundred yards an enriching minute, while the mindless walk makes the same journey wasted time doing a tedious task.
Aging is not for the faint of heart, they say, but I hope it can be enjoyed by those who actively work to do it gracefully. It would also be totally wasted on the young, who could not handle or enjoy it. Too bad for them.
Erik Steele is the former chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems. He recently accepted a new job at Summa Health System in Akron, Ohio.