That wake-up birthday—a poem
Have you had a wake-up birthday?
Can you barely believe
you’re a certain age
and dread what lies ahead?
Is your future self a blurry screen
or a stereotyped cartoon?
Are you frozen even though you know
exactly what to do?
Do you think it’s too late or too soon?
Now’s the perfect time
to face the facts and get a grip
and get control of your precious life
not because you ought to
but because you can.
Tweak your life and make the best
of your bonus years
and here’s the bottom line:
you’re not dead!
—Rachel McAlpine 2020
Are you ready to design your own old age?
“That wake-up birthday” is another of my sock-it-to-’em, unsubtle, now-or-never poems about aging. (At 80 I don’t muck around.)
It’s your birthday. Overnight you turned 21 or 39 or 47 or 50. And for unknown reasons, this particular birthday comes as a shock. You do the sums and a crazy thought invades your mind. Are you … going to be old one day?
Thoughts about aging (positive and negative) flourish in lockdown
In lockdown earlier this year, people over 70 were arbitrarily defined as old overnight on the basis of chronological age alone. Many of us were shocked: our life is so rewarding that it barely occurs to us that we are old. Technically we are old, but old age comes in many flavours.
If you have ever, even for a moment, had an inkling that you yourself might grow old, hold that thought. Don’t brush it off because you are still young or at least feel young. Because this is the very time to determine how you wish to age: slowly and cheerfully—or quickly or sadly?
Old people are not aliens but pioneers in the mysterious land where you yourself are heading.
What sort of old person do you want to be? Some age positively by accident, some by design.
The good news: you are not doomed to a miserable old age
In the olden days it was believed that genes, luck and fate controlled the way people aged. Happy, healthy 90-year-olds were seen as anomalies. Centenarians were seen as exceptional, miracles of survival.
But the last decade or two have brought exciting research that now has been replicated multiple times. We now know for certain that to perceive aging in a positive way can strongly influence our health and happiness and even our longevity. Again and again we read that lifestyle and attitudes dominate at least 60% of the aging process.
It’s hard for lay people to interpret such data but what-to-do is perfectly clear. The scene for a positive old age is set in middle age or earlier. Attitude and mobility are powerful factors: no scientific study so far tells us to sit alone all day and smoke.
True: not everyone can change their lifestyle
Poverty eliminates many choices, that’s obvious. The power of self-improvement is an uncomfortable truth, because it’s also true that powerful social, political and economic forces push hard against individual efforts. They often sabotage what we try to achieve as individuals.
Nevertheless, if we’re privileged enough to even think about making an effort to age positively, why the heck wouldn’t we?
Self-help is not selfish
A body of strong, healthy, positive older people benefits far more than the individuals concerned. Families benefit, communities benefit and the national economy benefits simply because (with luck) our years of dependency are reduced. That’s a crude thing to say but fair enough, don’t you think?
And if we’re happy and healthy in old age we can contribute in so many ways. Maybe by leading a revolution or supporting a community group. Maybe by working. Maybe by mentoring or teaching. Maybe by babysitting or knitting or writing a poem. Certainly by pulling our weight in a pandemic.
First step: one small change, one tiny habit
If you’re ready and you know what to do, do it!
The thing is to do something, not nothing. Choose any one of the ubiquitous tips on positive aging and take the hint, follow through. Just one. That’s all. Don’t think about the journey of 1,000 miles: think about that single step. (You can talk about positive aging until the cows come home but if you do nothing, nothing will change.)
You know what to do but how on earth will you do it? That’s the tricky bit, isn’t it? But it can done and it can be fun. No need to rush or strain to change your lifestyle: taking the easy path is (strangely) more effective.