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Guest Column: Grey Hair and Silver Linings


 

Dr. David Haber

Dr. David Haber


In this issue, author and gerontologist David Haber of Western Oregon University (Monmouth, Ore., U.S.A.), shares his personal "take" on aging with a nod to late comedian Joan Rivers.

In tribute to the feisty American comedian, Joan Rivers, who recently died at age 81: Can we talk?

Let’s be frank. Senescence – a decline in function that ends in death – sucks! There is nothing pleasant to say about the decline of the heart. The lungs. Sight and sound. The skin. Kidneys and liver. I could go on, but physically it’s all down hill.

No wonder so many people fear or deny old age. But I’m in my 70s now, and I can’t endorse this type of fear or ignorance. Besides, I’m a gerontologist and I have discovered there is more to life than the physical. And guess what? Some things improve. Joan was a good example. She kept getting more and more outrageous. Maybe not your cup of tea or humour, but she made me laugh like crazy. And she got better at it over time.

So here are four ways in which most of us, not all, get better.

1. Wisdom

Sure, some people don’t get wiser with age. They either remain foolish, or become foolish. But come on. Most of us learn from our experiences. We don’t want to make the same dumb mistakes more than a half dozen times. I’ve learned that disagreements with people I love can not be totally avoided, but they can be reduced in number and intensity. I’ve learned that ambition served a purpose when I was career-oriented, but now I am more present-oriented. And I’ve learned that collecting material stuff has lost its charm. I could go on.

2. Encore Career

A surprisingly large number of baby boomers are interested in an encore career, according to a 2008 MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures Encore Career Survey (www.metlife.com). An encore career combines modest income – though it can be a volunteer experience – and personal meaning with social impact. Retirees move into jobs in such fields as education, health care, government and nonprofit organizations that serve a public good. Those over age 50, for example, now constitute seven per cent of Peace Corps volunteers. Almost 10 per cent of baby boomers are already engaged in encore careers and 45 per cent of the remaining surveyed were interested.

To learn more about careers that combine personal meaning and social impact in later life, read Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life by Marc Freedman.

3. Meditative Practices

I took up meditation in the late ’60s and then again in my own late 60s. The first time was about 1969, when The Beatles came back from India and touted transcendental meditation. I tried it, liked it, and kept at it for more than a decade. Then I lost patience with it because I wanted to spend more time dwelling on careerism and failed relationships (in my age cohort, I wasn’t alone in these preoccupations).

Move up to my own late 60s, age 68 to be precise, and I resumed meditation. This is not surprising because meditative practices, including yoga and Tai Chi, have long been associated with old age in eastern cultures. This is the stage of life when many of us have more time and greater motivation to pursue spiritual endeavours.

The book that I found most interesting on this topic is: Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying. The author, Ram Dass, a well-known spiritual leader and former Harvard professor, suffered a crippling stroke while in the middle of writing this book, and the septuagenarian at the time (age 83 as I write this) managed to eloquently integrate this experience into the rest of his writing. As he notes in this book, "These days I’m the advance scout for the experiences of aging, and I’ve come – to bring good news. The good news is that the spirit is more powerful than the vicissitudes of aging."

4. Life Story

You can think or write about the story of your life at any age. But if you are younger, there will be several missing chapters. It’s just not as interesting to read a story with the last few chapters missing. What’s that you say? I don’t want to write about myself? My life is not interesting? Even my children and grandchildren get tired of the same old stories? Well, that’s different.

Your life story, or whichever parts you want to focus on, is more thoughtful. There are questions that you may never have considered, and techniques for jogging your memory. The book I recommend is the one I use in my Life Review class: Telling the Stories of Life Through Guided Autobiographical Groups by James Birren and Kathryn Cochran.

Writing about yourself later in life gives you the advantage of perspective. The story told at age 40 is different than when told at age 70. The painful divorce? Not so painful anymore, and you can better understand what led up to it. The fun hobby as a kid? You can see how it animated the rest of your life. Memory is about perspective, not just facts.

The Final Word

Why stop at four advantages? Because, I’m in my 70s and I can do what I want. Besides, you can come up with your own ideas. Remember: Old is bold!

No, this is The Final Word

Joan was bold in her humour, but less so with her other passion – fashion. She cautioned: "I can’t wear yellow any more. It’s too matchy-matchy with my catheter."