I’m grateful for all I gain from the time I spend with friends at various points along life’s road: the little kids, with their energy and intensity; the teens facing the bewilderment of adolescence with wry humor; the young adults, so driven and caught up in becoming themselves; the hard-working mid-lifers who somehow keep all the balls in the air day after day. And the elders. Maybe especially the elders.
I use the term “elder” deliberately. To my mind it denotes someone on whom the experience of long years has not been wasted. Someone who has achieved a balance of acceptance and resolve, wisdom and curiosity, humor and compassion. Someone who radiates inner strength despite whatever toll time may have taken on their outer form. Someone who is growing old, but is not getting old.
Elder status is not automatic. It’s entirely possible to get way up in years without becoming anything more than old. Crotchety. Narrow. Fault-finding. Petty. Negative. Hopelessly out of touch. The geezer down the street who yells at kids to stay off his lawn. You know what I mean.
But true elders have treasures to offer. They’re worth listening to. They’re vibrantly alive, interesting to be around. They inspire our affection, even our reverence.
If it is your ambition to grow towards elderhood (because let’s face it, the alternatives aren’t pretty), here are six suggestions:
1. Keep Learning. No matter what else happens to you as you grow older, you can choose to stay curious. Read, take classes if you want, stay up with current events (and not just from sources that reflect your own point of view), stretch your boundaries. Explore.
2. Embrace Social Media. At Least, Give It A Hug. Yes, it can seem bewildering
and shallow and even invasive. But it’s a whole new avenue of social discourse and like it or not, it’s here to stay. Ask your kids to help you; they’ll love the feeling of superiority. And don’t stop with Facebook; at least check out Instagram or Tumblr or Snapchat or whatever the next thing is. You don’t have to go down every rabbit hole on the Interwebs, but if you want to stay current, it’s good to know what’s out there.
3. Have Fun. I can’t stress this enough. I honestly believe that the best gift you can give to the world as an elder is to enjoy life. Of course you will encounter losses and limitations; that’s a given for anyone who hangs around for enough decades. Lean into the tough stuff and give it its due, but seize joy at every opportunity. Have as much fun as you can for as long as you can. Show ’em how it’s done.
4. No Sweatshirts with Kittens On Them. Picture a fuddy daddy old fart, male
or female. Examine the image and notice how they’re dressed. Tops festooned
with silkscreened baby animals? White belts worn way too high? Polyester knit pants? Don’t do that. Also, don’t try to dress like you’re still 25, which is a surefire way to look not just old, but disturbing. Find a style that combines comfort with some edge. Makeovers aren’t just for whippersnappers.
5. Be Nice To The Help. I’m not talking about actual servants here, unless you’re in a position to have personal staff. But here’s the reality: as we grow older, we’re going to need a hand with a few things. Eventually, we’ll need help with a lot of things. It can be hard (irritating, discouraging, depressing) to accept that you can’t do everything you used to do by yourself. As many have remarked, growing old ain’t for wimps. The coolest old people I know freely acknowledge whatever physical limitations the aging process has thrown their way — hearing loss, played-out hips, wobbly knees, failing eyesight — without granting those conditions the power to diminish their sense of self. They not only accept help graciously, they relish it. They take the attitude, and rightly so, that it’s an obligation and a privilege of the young to be of service to their elders. It’s an interaction from which both young and old benefit, when offered and accepted willingly.
6. You Are a Pioneer: Own It. The older you get, the further you advance on the margins of human experience. Eventually all the authority figures you encounter — doctors, lawyers, scientists, alleged experts — are going to be far younger than you. You are pushing into regions they know nothing of, realms that can only be discovered through living long enough.
Try to forgive them their smugness, their patronization, their defenses against the firmly repressed fear of their own journey toward what awaits. It’s okay to laugh at them; just be gentle. There is so much they don’t yet know.