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PUMPING IRONY: The Upside of Old Age

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When one is seeking contentment, aging might be the solution rather than the problem.

Robert Goldfarb is one of those super-agers we often read about whose fitness regimen would challenge folks half his age. Pushing 90, the author and management consultant still runs competitively and exercises religiously, secure in the belief that staying in shape is the best way to delay the inevitable.

And yet, he admits that something’s missing.

“I’ve been far too slow to realize that how we respond to aging is a choice made in the mind, not in the gym,” he writes in the New York Times.

“Some of my healthiest friends carry themselves as victims abused by time. They see life as a parade of disappointments: aches and ailments, confusing technology, children who don’t visit, hurried doctors,” he explains. “Other friends, many of whose aching knees and hips are the least of their physical problems, find comfort in their ability to accept old age as just another stage of life to deal with.”

Goldfarb tells the story of a friend who lost his sight after suffering a sudden brain seizure and, rather than curse his fate, casually noted that it could’ve been worse: “I could’ve become deaf instead of blind.”

This is nothing short of heroic, he admits, inasmuch as he can’t imagine being strong enough to utter those words under the same conditions. “It was clear I lacked, and had to find, the contentment those friends had attained,” he notes. “The hours I spent exercising had given me confidence, but not contentment.”

Goldfarb aims to shift his mindset so he can respond to the annoyances that plague his daily life just like he copes with a cramp on the treadmill. But he may be viewing the whole issue too narrowly.

“Aging is the solution and not the problem,” writes Marc Agronin, MD, in his book, The End of Old AgeAs a culture, we are stuck in an outmoded paradigm that pits all of us in a fruitless duel with Father Time. “Either we must submit gracefully to its rigor and ultimate tragedies, or fight it relentlessly with supposed antiaging strategies until we find a cure,” he explains. But, if we reconsider the aging process in the same way we view childhood and adolescent milestones, we can face each of these chapters without the accompanying cultural baggage.

“Instead of seeing them as harbingers of decline and old age,” he writes, “the seniors that surround me show timeless benefits to aging that emerge and sustain them during these age points, enabling them not simply to cope successfully but also to create new ways of living.”

The key, Agronin notes, is to embrace aging as an authentic and valuable chapter in our lives rather than aspiring to “an old age that is really youth in disguise.”

Instead of lamenting the piling on of years with their accompanying limitations, he suggests we acknowledge and nourish whatever wisdom we’ve accumulated. When you’ve been around the block a few times, he argues, you’re more able to handle the obstacles that aging places in your path. “Our age-enhanced resilience gets us through adversity, proves our value to ourself and others, and enables us to discover our true purpose in life,” he writes.

And that allows us to navigate our twilight years with an eye to new opportunities, rather than acquiescing to an inexorably narrowing horizon. “We can respond to age-related changes by taking the best of our past and renewing it,” he offers, “or by letting go of certain parts and reinventing ourselves.”

I suspect I’m not the only resident of Geezerville who might chafe at the idea of self-reinvention. There’s an understandable tendency among folks my age to stick with what got them this far. Just because we may have survived plenty of major life changes doesn’t mean we’re necessarily keen on slogging through another one.

But Agronin makes a valid point: Life is a series of adjustments and adaptations, and just because you’ve reached a certain age doesn’t grant you immunity. Goldfarb is now figuring that out and seems determined to take the first steps on the road to change. He describes a lunch with a friend that was interrupted by the noise of a nearby leaf blower. Normally, he admits, this would have put a damper on the occasion, but he decided to focus on his friend rather than the annoyance and came away with a small revelation.

“I wanted this meal to be different and decided to follow the example of friends my age who know they are running out of joyous moments and will let nothing interfere with them,” he writes. “I left the lunch feeling I had at least taken a small step in changing behavior that stood in the way of that contentment.”

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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