It is inevitable that, as we grow older, we begin to focus our attention on the difference between one’s latter years and those that formed the first decades of our life. This distinction is one that comes to us slowly; there is no cathartic moment, no revelation that seemingly comes from the heavens to alert each of us to the onset of old age.
To think of one’s aging is to begin a new journey in one’s life. It should not be the presaging of the beginning of the end of life. For to think in such a pessimistic fashion is to fail to open ourselves to the many benefits to be derived from the experiences of our earlier years, to reflect on how we can best craft those experiences into a decade or two or four that can be the most fruitful times of our lives.
So it was with great pleasure that I came to read this summer the beautifully wrtiten book by the late Sherwin B. Nuland, The Art of Aging: A Doctor’s Prescription for Well-Being. Nuland wrote this book in 2007, some 17 years after he wrote “How We Die,” which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1994 and which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction in 1995, having sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide. In its concluding chapter, Dr. Nuland confessed that he, like many of his readers, desired a death without suffering “surrounded by the people and the things I love,” though he hastened to add that his odds were slim. This brought him to a final question.
“And so, if the classic image of dying with dignity must be modified or even discarded,” he wrote, “what is to be salvaged of our hope for the final memories we leave to those who love us? The dignity we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives.”
In “The Art of Aging” Nuland writes elegaically about how we must dedicate ourselves to accepting the onset of aging and not struggle to fight the contrasts between how our body and mind addresses growing older. He notes that "The rivalry within ourselves reflects a rivalry with youth, and it serves neither youth nor age at all well. Successful aging is about successfully adapting which brings the greater opportunity for far greater tensions and for brightening the later decades with a light not yet visible to the young,” it is the acknowledgement that aging is a gift that creates new boundaries in our lives. "Everything within those boundaries becomes more precious than it was before: love, learning, family, work, health and even the lessened time itself.”
His advice to us is to accept the wisdom that comes with age. Even if we did not attain wisdom at an earlier age, we can now begin a new journey that will bring us (1) a sense of mutual caring and connectedness with others; (2) the maintenance, insofar as we can influence it by own actions, of the physical capability of our bodies; and (3) creativity. Each of the three requires work; each of the three brings immense rewards.
I took several pages of notes from the book as they portrayed to me ratification of some of the principles I have adopted for my own onset of the aging process. My focused attention on staying in excellent help by investing in time in a gym doing workouts with weights to my time on a tennis court playing singles against others sometimes decades younger than myself was addressed by Nuland who cites Dr. Michael deBakey, inventor of the heart replacement operation who was performing these delicate operations at age 94. Nuland notes that "Planned, vigorous exercise is a far better anti-aging treatment than all the elixirs, creams, lotions, potions, and cosmetic surgery in the world.”
It was especially soothing to have Nuland point out that If there’s a Holy Grail, it’s our relationships with other people. For each older man and woman, "each needs to maintain a significant role as a distinctive individual within his or her familial and social encirclement – to have purpose, to have value, to have dignity – not only self-perception but in fact as well.” For, as he points out with examples, "Whatever else aging may represent to us, it is first and foremost a state of mind."
Finally, Nuland discusses the need to separate ourselves from our careers. As we age, we just cannot continue to identify who we are by what we did for a living. Our unique personality is what defines us not our chosen path of career. "So long as we are actively engaged in career, we must abide more or less strictly to the boundaries imposed by it. But *once we begin to separate ourselves, we bit by bit become freer to continue maturing in ways distinctive to ourselves. By such means, age becomes a liberator. The better we have used our years, the greater will be the rewards of individuality and accrued wisdom."
As friends and colleagues, I hope that you find the peace of mind to accept that growing older is mostly a state of mind and part of the exciting journey of our lives that is as important as all that came before…. if not more so.