I’m so old my back goes out more than I do

Do you suffer from gerontophobia, which is the fear of old people, old age, and growing old? Judging by the number of books dealing with life after 50, or even 40, it appears that many people have difficulty dealing with aging. Since I’m 81, I have the right to ask, “What’s all the fuss about?”

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is how we interpret the meaning of ‘OLD.’ In the minds of many, the word means decrepit, in shambles, falling apart, broken down, or worn out. If that’s what we think, it’s hardly surprising that we grow anxious at the thought of growing old. But when we look at AGE-ING as SAGE-ING, life takes on a whole new twist. So, you see, we’re not growing old; we’re growing wise. That’s why Winston Churchill said, “The young sow wild oats. The old grow sage.”

When we were young twits, not knowing any better, we were wise guys, but as we grow in years, gain experience, and learn from our mistakes, we become wise men and women. That’s not something to be fearful of, but something to look forward to. We’re not growing old; we’re unfolding, blossoming, and developing our potential. When we realize this, we will find that aging is not enraging, but engaging. Attitude is everything, for as George Burns said, “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”

Ironically, fear of old age ages one and fear of death hastens death, so they’re good reasons for changing our attitude. Since we have limited resources, shouldn’t we be using them wisely? Our most precious resource is time, which is synonymous with life. If I spend time complaining about growing old, isn’t that a misallocation of my limited resources? Isn’t time spent unhappily, time misspent? The secret of life is not about enjoying the present moment, but about enjoying EVERY moment.

But isn’t it true that as we age our body deteriorates? So? Look, there are advantages and disadvantages in all stages of life. True, young people can outrun me, but I can outthink them. It’s just a matter of substituting one advantage for another. Why would I want to moan about the disadvantages when I could be enjoying the advantages? However, if you are concerned about your body crumbling in the future, do something about it today. Join a fitness club or exercise. That will stop your complaining, make you feel good, and greatly enhance your future wellbeing. So, stop griping about middle age; after all, you’ll grow out of it!

In some, the onset of old age kindles the fear of death. But the temporal nature of life is what makes it precious and enjoyable. We love summer, fall, winter, and spring because they will end. I look forward to Christmas banquets because they come but once a year. Life is a banquet that comes once in a lifetime. We are all attending that banquet. What will we do about it? Enjoy it? Or bemoan the fact that it will end? We can never enjoy all there is in one lifetime, so why miss out on more by wasting time being fearful?

Some complain they no longer feel young. Why aren’t they trying to feel life instead of feel young? Rather than striving to FEEL young, why don’t they choose to BECOME young by embracing the exuberance, curiosity, and courage of children? Instead of aging, why don’t they start living? There are many other points worthy of our consideration and some of them follow.

1. Lifestyle is more important than genetics. For example, my dad had several heart attacks, the first of which was in his 50’s. The fact that I gave up smoking at a much earlier age than my father probably explains why I remain in good health. So, don’t worry about your genes as much as you do about the size of your jeans. Remain fit and enjoy life.

2. A University of Michigan study suggests that friends are more important than wealth and health. Of what value is health and wealth if you are lonely? On the other hand, even if you’re impoverished and in poor health, life can remain enjoyable if you have friends to look forward to meeting. This is another reason for fostering a positive attitude. For a cheery disposition attracts friends, while a gloomy outlook alienates them. Old age may be the declining years, but don’t use them to decline friendship, fun, and festivity.

3. Hardening of the heart ages people more quickly than hardening of the arteries. When you fill your heart with love and kindness, you fill you heart with the elixir of life. Life may be short, but it’s long enough to lighten the burdens of others and bring smiles to their faces.

4. Are you searching for a Fountain of Youth? One is to be found. Sophia Loren explains, “There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of the people you love. When you learn to tap into this source, you will truly have defeated age.”

5. When we stretch our minds, we grow flexible, not feeble. The maxim “Use it or lose it” may be trite, but it is a truism. Research has shown that a life of endless learning lessens the likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s disease. Don’t let your brain get rusty; keep it well-oiled by using it daily. Follow a regimen of constant learning, not to avoid Alzheimer’s, but to experience the joy and youthfulness that comes from continual discovery. We do not stop learning because we grow old; we grow old because we stop learning. If all you can put your teeth into is a glass, you’re old!

6. Mirth and laughter are the shock absorbers that protect us from the bumps in the road of life. Share laughter and adopt a humorous perspective. Anything can be turned into a joke. Here are a few examples:

  • I’ve sure gotten old! I’ve had two bypass surgeries, a hip replacement, new knees. Fought prostate cancer and diabetes. I’m half blind, can’t hear anything quieter than a jet engine, take 40 different medications that make me dizzy, winded, and subject to blackouts. Have bouts with dementia. Have poor circulation; hardly feel my hands and feet anymore. Can’t remember if I’m 85 or 92. Have lost all my friends. But, thank God, I still have my driver’s license.
  • The Senility Prayer: Grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.
  • Regular naps prevent old age, especially if you take them while driving.
  • There are three signs of old age: The first is memory loss…I can’t remember the other four.
  • Birthdays are good for you. Statistics show that the people who have the most live the longest (Larry Lorenzoni)
  • My memory is not as sharp as it used to be. Also, my memory is not as sharp as it used to be.
  • The secret to staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age. (Lucille Ball).

7. A paradox of old age is although we have less time to live, we have more time to spend. Freed from the time consumed by a full-time job, we now have time to spend with friends and family, hobbies, personal and spiritual growth, and volunteering. This stage of life can definitely become the most rewarding one.

8. If you’re still not convinced that maturing is a positive experience, consider the many that were denied the privilege of growing old. Count your blessings and make life what you want it to be.

Here are some additional tips:

9. Keep busy. One of my favorite Japanese TV shows documents the lives of ordinary people 80 ~ 100+ years old. They are all in good health and enjoy life to the fullest. What do they all have in common? Well, they follow the examples of George Burns, Grandma Moses, and Bob Hope by leading active lives; they keep busy. They would rather wear out than rust out. Regardless of your age, engage in life fully. If you’re not active, you’re not living.

10. Exercise. In 1996, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that only about 17% of people over 65 are regularly active. Regular exercise, even if it is just walking, does more than keep you nimble and flexible. Exercise also reduces bodily toxins and maintains glandular health. It also tones the muscles, makes the heart stronger, and strengthens the bones. Stay active and you’ll stay healthy.

11. Exercise the brain. Memory loss and a reduction in the capacity for learning may occur in some of the elderly. However, it is not because of their age as much as it is because of their failure to tax their brains. New brain cells grow throughout our lives, but unless we continue to use our mental faculties, the nerve cells will atrophy. It’s simply a case of use them or lose them. Reading, studying, and learning new skills act as medicine and exercise for the brain. Working with computers and the latest technological marvels is another excellent way to stay mentally fit.

12. Minimize stress. Stress is the enemy of physical health and mental acuity. It reduces blood flow to the brain, reduces memory recall, and reduces learning ability. In the physical realm, stress is the leading cause of most diseases. Illness is aptly named “disease” because it is caused by being at dis-ease (stressed). To fight stress, take up yoga, Tai Chi, or meditation. Long walks in the park, beautiful music, or painting also work wonders.

13. A healthy diet. The so called Mediterranean Diet (one high in fish, fruit and vegetables) forms a good basis. Additionally, seniors should make sure they get enough calcium and fiber in their diet as well.

14. Drink plenty of water. Dehydration is a common problem with the elderly. The recommendation is one ounce of water per kilo (2.2 pounds) of body weight. It’s important to remember that alcohol, coffee, and soda pop do not count as water. On the contrary, as diuretics, their consumption doesn’t add, but further reduces the amount of water in the body.

15. Embrace old age. When you embrace old age, you’re embracing life. Don’t run or hide from it. My wife’s hair may no longer be black, but she is just as beautiful and a lot wiser. No wonder Marcus Annaeus Seneca said, “As for old age, embrace and love it. It abounds with pleasure if you know how to use it. The gradually declining years are among the sweetest in a man’s life, and I maintain that, even when they have reached the extreme limit, they have their pleasure still.”

16. Have something to look forward to. By setting goals and cultivating hobbies, you’ll always have something to look forward to. Your next vacation or art class, an upcoming meeting with a friend, a visit to the theater, these can fill your life with enthusiasm and passion.

17. Wonderment. We are miracles living in the midst of miracles. How is it possible to live without wonder and awe? And when we experience it, how is it possible not to be like children, not to be young at heart? Or as Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote, “You must not pity me because my sixtieth year finds me still astonished. To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly.”

18. Character. “Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old by deserting their ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up wrinkles the soul. . . . You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair.” (─Douglas MacArthur)

19. Positive attitude. Pause and reflect on this quote from Samuel Ullman, “When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with snows of cynicism and the ice of pessimism, then you are grown old, even at twenty, but as long as your aerials are up, to catch the waves of optimism, there is hope you may die young at eighty.”

20. Remain in love. Stay in love with life, friends, learning, hobbies, clubs. For as Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young.”

I don’t mind growing old because it’s the only way I know of having a long life. I hope you feel the same way.

Case Study

A reader (Leo) writes, “Chuck, I was reading a book last night that said, ‘In every old person is a young person wondering what happened.’ Soon, I’ll be 47 years old, which to me is like being two years older than God. As a quasi-atheist, when I look into the abyss, I become very angry. Yet, having a total and complete lack of insight, I am unsure why this feeling alights. Can you share your ideas on growing old?”

Did you ever see someone get upset over a misunderstanding? It happens all the time. Even if the perceived injustice is entirely imaginary, the anger one feels is real. But once one realizes that things were not as they were imagined to be, the anger subsides. You may FEEL like you don’t have much longer to live, and get angry because so much more remains to be done, but what are the facts?

In 34 years, you’ll be my age. You’ll be 34 years OLDER, but not OLD (unless you allow your imagination to tell you that you are). One of the chief causes of human suffering is REVERSE VISION. That is, we tend to focus outward when we should be focusing inward, and we tend to look inward when we should be looking outward. Or we may be thinking about the past, when we should be thinking about the future, and vice versa. It seems, we’re always facing the wrong direction.

Here’s what I mean. You see a 23-year-old man and think he’s half your age and has a long life ahead of him, so you envy him and are filled with sadness. Why are you miserable? Because you’re facing the wrong way. If you turn around and face the other way, you’ll see Gwen Beer, who wrote her first novel, a best-seller, at age 96 (as reported in the Toronto Star, December 6, 2004). Wow, and you’re only 47? Rejoice and allow yourself to become filled with excitement. Just think of all you have yet to accomplish and savor in life.

A friend just called to explain that he’s at his wits’ end because his basement apartment got flooded. He’s looking inward, at his own problems. No wonder he’s frustrated and angry. Yet, not long ago, the lives of millions were thrown into complete chaos because they were the victims of raging tidal waves that swept across Southeast Asia and beyond. If my friend had looked outward at the problems facing the tsunami victims, he would be happy that his problems pale in comparison.

Can you see how changing the direction we face also changes our perspective? Being miserable is a state of mind, so move to a different state. It’s easy when you realize that you’re not growing old; you’re just living a long life. Personally, I never felt that I was growing OLD, but always believed I was IMPROVING. Can’t you say the same for yourself? When you do, you will discover life is glorious, not odious.

You talk about being a quasi-atheist, but that’s like being quasi-pregnant. It’s not possible. One is either pregnant or not and an atheist or not. What you mean to say is you’re confused and in doubt. Many others share the same feelings. Especially those that were reared in religious environments and later grew disillusioned by the hypocrisy and untenable beliefs that were foisted on them. Such people find the word “God” conjures up bad memories. But don’t confuse God with bad memories. Don’t get hung up on a word. Change the word to something more meaningful, such as Creator, Intelligence, or anything else you feel comfortable with.

Again, it’s a matter of facing and looking in the right direction. Instead of looking back at bad memories, take a walk in the park and look at what surrounds you in the present. A log cabin never was nor ever will be created by chance. But once intelligence (man) enters the picture, it’s a simple matter to create one. As you look around the park and see butterflies, beetles, and frogs ─ all of which are infinitely more complex than a log cabin ─ isn’t it obvious that Intelligence is at work? If you allow yourself to soak in the wonders of nature you will find belief in a Creator self-evident. Just because you don’t have all the answers doesn’t mean you can’t believe in the obvious; mainly, an Intelligence or Creator that brought us into existence.

Not only is our world filled with creatures, but they are all cared for. Nature provides for their needs. Nature cares about its members. It cares about you. It has granted you the resources you need to thrive. As you are confused about life and your role in it, you naturally feel vulnerable. But vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. It signals that you are facing your fears. What a wonderful position to be in! For at no other time is life so exciting, joyful, and bursting with energy than when we live it with courage. So, take heart. Don’t be afraid, for you are not facing a tsunami that will sweep you away, but a rising tide that will lift you to new heights, if you allow it to.

I already mentioned a major cause of suffering is reverse vision. Another is denial. And by that I don’t mean a river in Egypt (the Nile), but I’m referring to our tendency to blame others and circumstances for our unhappiness. Although growing OLDER is unavoidable, growing UP isn’t. But growing up, that is, accepting responsibility is necessary before we can lead fulfilling lives. When we accept responsibility for how we respond to the events in our lives, we gain control; we become masters of our fate.

There is a fine line between acting irresponsibly and responsibly. It is the difference between saying “I feel miserable,” and “I DON’T WANT TO feel miserable.” There is a subtle but big difference between the two. For when you say, “I DON’T WANT TO feel miserable,” you are implying you have a choice, which is true. Responsibility, then, is all about making the right choices. It’s about deciding to have the right thoughts.

For example, when responsible people begin to feel blue, their train of thought may be as follows, “Since I don’t want to feel miserable, what am I going to do about it? Complaining, getting upset, or drowning in self-pity doesn’t help, so what positive steps can I can take?” This line of reasoning is rational and solution oriented. Merely looking for solutions leads to their discovery.

Part of making responsible choices is choosing HOPE over DESPAIR and FAITH in yourself and the world over SELF-DOUBT and CYNICISM. Armed with these tools, we will be able to whittle down mountain-sized problems to the size of molehills. We will also have the courage to leap into the unknown. After all, the abyss you wrote about is frightening only if we don’t have faith in a Loving Presence that will catch us before we splat into the bottom of the chasm.

How would you feel if your favorite composer, vocal artist, or comedian refused to perform? I know how I would feel. I would feel cheated because the world needs them. We need the pleasure of laughter and the joy of music. And, you know, Leo, the world is counting on you to do your part. Regardless of how you feel, the world is depending on you to spread joy to those you meet. Once you accept this challenge, a funny thing happens, all the joy you give away is multiplied many times over and returned to you. I guess what I am trying to say is the surest way to end your suffering is to end the suffering of others.



The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life by Marc E. Agronin M.D.

How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life by Marcus Tullius Cicero (Philip Freeman, Translator, Introduction)

Growing Old: A Journey of Self-Discovery by Danielle Quinodoz

On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old by Parker J. Palmer

The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister

The Art of Growing Older Gratefully: BE Attitudes for Purposeful Living by Sherry D. Ransom


How to die young at a very old age

How To Deal With Fear of Aging and Getting Old

Embracing Old Age