As someone who has written several books about aging and spirituality, I am often asked to describe the most important issues about aging that people need to know. I often answer with what I call the four features of aging—loss, time, gratitude, and new chances. There are many other aspects of aging that are worthy and important, but I feel that these four are the universal components of growing older that everyone experiences.
Loss. There is no getting around it. Aging means loss—loss of youth, loss of possibility, loss of energy and stamina, loss of physical attractiveness, and even loss of some aspects of core identity. Older people all experience this loss, sometimes poignantly and vividly. Younger people, for the most part, don’t. Part of what it means to be young is that you are not old—this is obvious, though many young people aren’t consciously aware of this. And part of what it means to be old is that you are not young—and every older person knows this. It’s a badge of identity for an older person; you wear it on your forehead, so to speak. You see it in the mirror every morning when you wake up, and other people see it on your face.
Aging’s losses include increased fragility. Older people are more fragile physically. We have to watch our step, make sure we don’t trip. I never get up on a ladder, or even a stepstool, without my wife to steady me. We are more emotionally fragile too. Emotionally speaking, fragility means any sudden unwelcome surprise. It could be anything—a friend calling with bad health news, the unexpected death of someone close, a dip in the stock market that threatens your nest egg—it’s a long list. And when you are older things are more fragile because, like a vase that breaks, they cannot be easily repaired or replaced.
Time. Time changes when you age. This is often a subtle thing. It creeps up on you so gradually that for a long time you might not notice how much time itself has become an altered reality. Some older people I interview tell me that for them, time seems to move faster. Before you know it, you’re having another birthday. Other people say that time moves more slowly, as repeated daily routines take the place of a younger person’s daily adventures and excitements. What’s more subtle is the very texture of time, which starts to seem thicker and more viscous as the growing awareness of mortality takes hold. More and more the ticking of the clock invokes the slow march toward the final tick, life’s end. I think this has especially been true in the time of Covid. Dire illness and death fill the daily news. Friends of long standing disappear into the hospital and never re-appear. The trauma of Covid affects everyone, but older people most of all. It’s a reminder of something we don’t ordinarily like to think about.
Gratitude. Gratitude is the obverse side of loss. Because of your growing awareness of what you have lost, you are uplifted by the abiding presence of aspects of your life you have not lost, or have newly learned to appreciate. Just to wake up in the morning and realize that you are still healthy, that no catastrophe has occurred during the night, is cause for thankfulness. You haven’t fallen in the night and broken your hip, you haven’t awakened dizzy or disoriented in the dark, or having chest pain. Those are small chances for rejoicing that younger people never have to think about. In this time of Covid, when even something less major–like stomach pain or falling or cutting yourself in the kitchen, can send you to the emergency room–has now become a daunting obstacle course of risk in the ER that you often have to face alone, often without the comfort of spouse or family. When another day ends and it has been a good day, an older person can breathe a sigh of relief. Thank you, they can say. I’m still here, still alive and kicking.
New Chances. This the most positive, upbeat part of aging. As long as we have breath, we have the opportunity for new chances, new beginnings—perhaps not as much or as frequently as when we were young, but we do still have them. The title of my latest book on aging reflects this—Every Breath, New Chances: Growing Older with Honor and Dignity. Actually, every breath brings new chances for everyone, but when you are older you might tend not to notice or appreciate the opportunity. The lives of older people are more constrained, more organized around daily routines and chores—making breakfast, taking a walk, going to the store—and so we have to actively seek out ways to restore novelty and excitement into our lives, whether it be a meal out, volunteering for charity, or social events that allow us to meet new friends. Once again, Covid has been a real constraint on this, which makes it all the more important that we strive to keep doing it. “Every breath, new chances” also points to a deeper, subtler shift, energized by a daily appreciation for the small treasures that life brings. I have talked to many older people who find that they now have the time and awareness appreciate the sights and sounds of nature, the rhythms of light and shadow in the rooms of their house—experiences they might have been too busy to notice when they were younger. This is, we might say, the aesthetic and beauty of the elder years. Some days—perhaps when we are more sad and lonely—it takes more effort to bring that beauty into focus. All the more reason that we should make that effort. Life indeed is precious—a piece of hard-won wisdom that can be the treasure of advancing years.