‘The really fundamental questions of our lives are not questions of fact or finance but questions of value.’ Patrick Grim, Ph.D.
A Baby Boomer’s Worst Nightmare – Growing Old
Aging is almost imperceptible in the moment. For most of us each new day seems like the last; and then it hits you – ten years have flown by! This phenomenon is called, for lack of a better term, a ‘time-warp’. And it happens more often as we get up in age.
Question: Have you ever experienced a ‘time-warp’?
If asked, most folks – young and old alike – would deny having any serious worries about aging. Sure, they may have some concerns about their health or financial stability; but they figure all will work out in the long run if they stay fit and plan accordingly. However, that’s certain to change. That’s because most folks are both myopic and overconfident. And even if they aren’t, getting old still sucks! It’s not so much about breaking down physically. It’s more about the psychological and emotional changes taking place, and the anguish experienced as a result.
This anguish may be a generational thing. You see, the American Baby Boomer – one born between 1946 and 1964 – has arrived. ‘Boomers’ – duped by the promise of pills, procedures and positive thinking – are probably the first generation to believe they’ll never die! There may be a few exceptions; and, of course, many have already passed away. But there’s something about Boomers … somehow they’ll survive. According to one commentator, the one trait that sets Boomers apart is their competiveness. Perhaps, but alternatively, another trait that sets Boomers apart is their self-indulgence. As a group, they’ve managed to live a charmed life and continue to have their way. A few quotes from their generation are revealing. ‘Never trust anyone over thirty.’ ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.’ ‘If it feels good, do it!’ Alas, the party is just about over, a fact Boomers just can’t handle.
Question: What’s your assessment of the Baby Boomers?
Probably the most difficult thing about aging is trying to stay positive when you’re faced with increasing disability, growing isolation and a shrinking time horizon. ‘Senior moments’ occur more often. Memories, once vivid, are now fading. Wake up, and it seems years have gone by. Paranoia creeps into the mind. You begin to feel superfluous – useless. You possess decades of real life experience, and would jump at the chance to share your wisdom. But you come to find out nobody’s all that interested. Your peers don’t need it…they’ve been there; and the young find it redundant…they’ve got their smartphones. Inevitably … you become a ‘geezer’.
‘Geezers’ suffer pain of some sort every day. Often anxious or depressed, they see themselves stuck in a rut, powerless to change. Some are trapped by circumstances beyond their control. Others try to keep up – doing what they’ve always done – to the point of exhaustion. They’re tired. Many are haunted by regrets of what might have been. Some turn bitter. Worse yet, tomorrow promises only more of the same. And all the while the clock continues to unwind. It finally dawns on them: Oh … struggled my whole life … and this is how it all ends.
This is but one appraisal; admittedly, a grim one. Probably written by a pessimist who believes that when it comes to aging it seems the negatives outnumber the positives. You may disagree. And it’s true, there are remedies available. You do have options.
Question: What options are available to cope with aging?
Perhaps it would help to consider how we’ve lived our life up to now. If one lived an ‘Active Life’, advice would be to stay active. Compile a ‘bucket list’ and get going! If one lived a ‘Contemplative Life’, advice might include writing your memoir or letters to the editor. If one lived a ‘Fatalistic Life’, advice would call for an attitude adjustment. Hey, be thankful you made it this far! If, like most everybody, you lived a ‘Hedonistic Life’, advice would be to just ‘chill’.
Seniors are encouraged to age gracefully. Sounds benign, but what does it really mean? It could mean: Don’t make any trouble! Or it may mean: Accept one’s fate, and don’t strive to be somebody you’re not.
Roger Rosenblatt, author of ‘Rules for Aging’, claims growing older is as much an art as it is a science, and it requires fewer things to do than not to do. The list of don’ts often includes things to avoid. I found one such list … old folks are advised to avoid: make-up, salt, negativity, TV, sun, stress, booze, and sin. The list of dos, predictively, includes more: exercise, sleep, healthier diet, de-clutter, humor, friends, and learning.
Want more advice? How about trying new things? There are a lot of things one could do. But what’s the chance you’ll pick a winner? Consider checking off a ‘bucket list’. The problem with a ‘bucket list’ is that it only makes growing old more painful, more stressful. How? It proves you had your priorities wrong all along. Any such ‘bucket list’ should have been checked-off years earlier in your prime. Time, wasted in the past, now becomes a most precious commodity. A ‘bucket list’ just adds to the pressure. OK, how about an attitude adjustment? Don’t be a malcontent, look at the bright side! When dealt lemons in life, make lemonade! This is simply a nice way to say: Quit whining! Better advice would call for a bit of humility and gratitude. The future may not work out to your delight, but you can always count your many blessings. And if you can afford skilled help, that’s a big plus. Of course, giving up is an option, but not a very good one.
Question: Can any of this advice really make a difference?
Sure. But everything hinges on your current state of physical, cognitive and spiritual health. Efforts to improve or sustain your overall health surly can’t hurt. And if your body, mind and spirit are in excellent shape, then what’s to complain about? Why worry?
Question: Let’s say you have your health. Does that eliminate worry?
Well, while many have their health now; that could change in a heartbeat. Moreover, many seniors, healthy or otherwise, suffer serious financial stress. It still takes money to live so it also helps to have a healthy bank account. Poverty can be hazardous to one’s health. So we worry.
Question: When all is said and done, what’s the worst that could happen?
How about being confined to a nursing home, and out-living your loved ones? A close second might be losing your mind to dementia, and be confined to a nursing home. In the first case the world abandons you; and in the second case, you abandon the world. Intense suffering may lead some to contemplate suicide. Death, sudden or otherwise, is not the worst thing that could happen. Death serves a purpose; it makes room for others. And for the faithful, it marks the beginning of a new life in Heaven.
The clock continues to tick away. Each day is ‘one day closer to death’. You can thank Pink Floyd for that line. What to do? All of the above! None of the above! Or, as Boomers are apt to do: Wait expectantly for a cure.
You may be thinking, why discuss immortality? Nobody either lives forever or leaves this world alive, so why bother? Well, for two reasons. First, our different values have a complex relationship to time. Second, philosophical reflection on immortality teaches us much about what we ultimately value in our mortal lives.
Permanent existence is clearly not the only value. Some things, were they to last forever, would not have the value that they do. Examples include a child’s smile or the hypnotic glow of a campfire. There are also things that are valued because of their relative position in time. Examples include your first kiss and a parent’s final farewell.
Question: Would you like to live on forever? If not, how long would you like to live?
Question: If it were revealed that you would live on Earth forever, what things would change in value? What things would not?
Consider how immortality is often portrayed in literature. To be ‘stuck’ in time while those all around you move on, leads to boredom, followed by despair, and ultimately madness. Be careful what you wish for.
Question: What do you make of ‘doomsday preppers’?
Breakthroughs in medicine and biology have extended human life spans. So much so, that some thinkers see aging and death as a disease. They believe aging can be retarded and death can be ‘cured’ one day; it’s just a matter of time and technology. But then what? Don’t lifespans have a purpose?
Question: If death was somehow ‘cured’, what opportunities or pitfalls would open up?
What about immortality and the meaning of life? In our Christian tradition, this life is merely a portal to the next, from which it gets its significance. Immortality – everlasting life – is the ultimate reward, but it is also an aspect of the ultimate punishment. We’ve all heard the question: Where do you wish to spend eternity?
The standard caricatures of Heaven carry a general promise of eternal bliss. Heaven is a place void of unfulfilled needs. But does not the idea of continual bliss or ecstasy seem a bit tedious? An unchanging eternity of subjective bliss would eliminate the joys of curiosity, exploration, discovery, learning and growth – all of which engage change. Other values, such as altruism and courage, would lose their meaning in Heaven.
Question: Do you think about Heaven (or an afterlife)? If so, what attributes or conditions do you hope are revealed in Heaven?
* The bulk of materials offered were borrowed and adapted by Wayne Harper for our use from: ‘Questions of Value’ taught by Patrick Grim, produced by The Teaching Company.