I recently told a close friend, a successful young man in his late thirties, that I was getting braces. He mused, “Hmmmm, I guess that’s okay for someone your age. It’s never too late.” This guy loves my writing, my curiosity, my zest for life, and of all things, is a dentist. But he is an unwitting victim of a pervasive American cultural malaise called ageism.
Despite his “it’s never too late” quote, I find myself positioned between youth and old age in a way that provides me a panoramic view of life. The research for my latest book, “The Quest,” has widened this perspective even more.
I, too, have exhibited ageism (discrimination based on age, especially prejudice against the elderly.) At a traffic light a few short years ago, a tiny silver-haired man that looked about ninety pulled beside me in a shining new Aston-Martin. My first thought was, what a waste. That amazing sports car driven by an “old fart”—one of many typical disparaging nicknames for elders. With a single entitled thought, I stripped him of his identity, not stopping to think he was enjoying that extraordinary car just as much as I would. Probably more.
Until recently in human history, the average life span was thirty to forty years, with childbirth, accidents, and infections routinely cutting lives short. These days, average longevity has doubled. With so much more time, now, alongside childhood and adulthood, the vast majority of us can also expect a third and fourth act that begins at fifty or sixty and lasts for decades.
Last month, The New York Times featured a longevity assessment. It was a complicated and lengthy questionnaire that required your latest blood test results, family history, and living habits. I was stunned to see my results. It predicted I would live to be 101 years old. If that is true, I have almost forty years of life ahead. Hell, four decades ago, I was only 23 years old. There has been a lot of life since then. So I began to contemplate what forty more years of life might look like. That means that my seventies (I’m 63) would be, in essence, my mid-life.
Many of us have much more time than we think. And we need to look at old age (I now call it Elderhood) in new ways. We should want our Elderhood to be long, meaningful, and enjoyable. Yet, most of us do not approach it with the shameless ambition we devote to childhood and adulthood.
Consider these facts:
—Yahoo Finance says that a stunning 64% of Americans are not financially prepared for retirement—and 48% Don’t Care.
—Approximately half of the Baby Boomers will be living off of their Social Security benefits, which will average around $18,000—$24,000 per year.
—Based on information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, adults between ages 65 and 74 spend, on average, $48,885 a year. As someone who retired early, I have found this figure to be accurate if one has no debt and wants to thoroughly enjoy the second half of life.
—Most people do not consider how strongly diet, environment, temperament, and heredity influence aging and longevity. Yet, we have the power to address and adjust three of those factors.
—Most people think (wrongly) that dementia and aging are synonymous.—Americans fear dementia more than any other disease except cancer.
—But just 14 percent of adults in their seventies or older have dementia on average.
—Some common types of dementia can be delayed by minimizing the same risk factors associated with heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers: regular exercise, healthy eating, avoiding obesity and cigarettes.
—But living healthy is hard if your family (like mine) has been poor for a long time and developed traditions, including favorite foods and family activities, that are simultaneously deeply meaningful and unhealthy.
—There is an important difference between an older person who can no longer run a 10K race but who can still work a register, sit on the Supreme Court. Provide after-school grandchild care, drive for a ride-share company, be a museum docent, or run a medical center and one who can no longer find her way home or remember their children. What’s not different is that both are human beings worthy of attention and care.
—Unless you die, you will become old. Barring an early death, old age is every human’s fate.
—We tolerate negative attitudes about old age in ways that we—at least publicly and officially—no longer tolerate racism or sexism.
—We treat old age as a disease or problem rather than one of four major life stages.
I write candidly about each stage of life in “The Quest”—Childhood (Development), First Adulthood (Establishment), Second Adulthood (Enjoyment), and Elderhood (Enlightenment). Are you prepared (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually) for a life that could last four or five more decades? This is the question I am attempting to answer as I write. It is a fascinating journey.
I call the third act of life (~age 50 to 75) the Enjoyment Stage and the fourth act (~age 76 to 100+) The Enlightenment Stage. For the first fifty years of my life, I gave everyone else the best parts of me. My family, children, boss, parishioners, and friends. My profession required that I minister to people during their transitory stages of life, at birth, marriage, divorce, illness, and death. It exacted a considerable toll on my soul.
One of the most challenging things during the first part of the second half of life has been to enjoy it without guilt. After serving everyone else for the first half of life, it is finally time to enjoy MY SELF. If I want to read all day, then so be it. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. Guilt has been my life-long companion, and I’m just beginning to erase it from my life. I do not choose to live the next four decades with the guilt and shame of the first sixty years.
In fact, most days, because I have prepared for retirement (and I’ve been extremely lucky), you can find me on the beach, naked if possible. I’ll be listening to Metallica on my Bluetooth speaker and sipping a tropical beverage with my muse—the first person to ever really get me. She enjoys watching me enjoy life and growing whole, and vice-versa.
Or we may cruising the Caribbean. Or cloistered in our tiny and cozy beach cottage. Or reading a Pulitzer-Prize winning book or timeless classic in my atelier, The Sandbox. Or writing these words at 4 am in the morning. Or whenever the hell I want to—because we do not live by a clock any longer.
And if that life expectancy prophecy does come true, and that old fart (just kidding) in the Aston-Martin doesn’t run over me while riding my bike, I hope to still be here at age 76 or so. About thirteen years from now. And I plan to once again serve others. But only those who truly want it.
I don’t want to be that aging person who bores you to tears talking about their old days. I hope talking to me on my screened porch sipping a cocktail will be like listening to fascinating excerpts of a captivating novel. About real life. About sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.
Let’s plan on getting together. Because we have more time than we think.
***Inspiration and credit for some of these thoughts and stats go to Dr. Louise Aronson and her extraordinary Pulitzer-Prize nominated book “Elderhood.”