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Perspective: Old Age Blues? or The Golden Years?

By Uma Majmudar, Ph.D. Email By Uma Majmudar, Ph.D.
November 2014
Perspective: Old Age Blues? or The Golden Years?

[Please note that this is the full version of the article.]

Feeling the weight of your years? You aren’t alone. But while mankind has always dreaded the prospect of old age and its inevitable corollary, death, we moderns have complicated the issue further. With technology holding out the seductive but largely fake promise of ‘youth forever,’ and a culture that obsesses over that impossible dream, are we trapping ourselves into paranoia over what is a purely natural phenomenon? The author explores our deepest fears of aging and some ways to overcome them.

It is a silent movie in which the sight reveals the story, but not a single word is uttered. In our modern youth-worshipping society, aging is a “hush-hush” topic, perceived to be unpleasant and painful, that no one seems to talk about in public. At the same time, at any public event in our community, a party, puja, or funeral, we cannot help but notice that the face of our community is changing and that most of our generation of friends (yes, we, too!) are getting old. So why not bring the subject out of the closet, acknowledge it, and discuss it? To have an open, honest, and transparent discussion on paper, in groups, or in seminars, is perhaps the best way to assuage some of the fears and misconceptions about aging. Once we take this crucial first step, it may lead to thinking of creative ways of coping with aging blues through awareness, acceptance, and adaptation, to transform these golden years into the grand finale of our lives.

Looking younga national obsession
America, which once prided itself as the youngest nation in the world, is turning gray. The many “baby-boomers” are aging. One out of every eight Americans today is 65 years old or older, according to the 2012 Census Bureau survey, the largest percentage of older persons ever.

The whole world is undergoing an unprecedented longevity revolution due to three major factors: medical breakthroughs, increasing health consciousness, and the age-old desire of all mortals to be immortal, to find the “fountain of youth” that makes them look, feel, and function like a young person.

The first factor, medical breakthroughs, has led to life expectancy rising dramatically more in the past 100 years than in the previous 1000 years. Several astounding new medical breakthroughs and revolutionary experiments in the fields of biomedical and tissue engineering and stem cell therapy are mentioned in Tom Corwin’s article from the Augusta Chronicle, for example, reprinted in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, May 5, 2014, B2. Another highly promising neurological experiment called parabiosis has been successfully conducted, whereby blood from young mice, when pumped into the veins of old mice, not only rejuvenated their muscles and brains, but caused new liver cells to grow at a youthful rate (Carl Zimmer’s article from the New York Times republished in AJC, May 5, 2014, A4). “As ghoulish as the research sounds,” say the experts, “it could lead to treatments of disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease.” Still another research article titled “Making Age Reversal” (David Sinclair’s article in Time magazine, May 5 - May 12, 2014) informs us about the discovery of “NAD,” a chemical that actually reverses the aging process in cells.

This “age-reversal” idea is not something new. A mythological story tells us that hundreds of thousands of years ago in India, king Yayati was so disgusted with his feeble body that he asked his young son to exchange his youth for his father’s old age. In those times, “a father’s wish was his son’s command” or his “pitru- dharma,” so the son complied. What was once wishful thinking, may now very well be scientifically possible!

Although the desire to retain our youth forever has been with us from time immemorial, it is only in modern times that it has come to grip America in its coils like a boa constrictor. Today, media everywhere bombards us with the message to look younger and slimmer, through television, radio, the Internet, and print. The powerful cosmetic industry shows us “Before and After” pictures, and new “age-defying” products pour off pharmacy store shelves. With this emphasis on the body, some people turn towards health consciousness, interest in exercise, diets—or more constructively nutrition, yoga, even body-mind disciplines. Others follow the plastic surgery wing of medical science that has jumped on the bandwagon. From facelifts to liposuction, all kinds of reconstructive surgeries are available to those willing to spend, as well as nonsurgical procedures such as botox.

A side effect: Looking down on the elderly
This youth-o-mania also has a negative side: gerontophobia, or the fear of getting old. Ken Dychtwald in his book Age Wave points to “the high value contemporary society places on youth and productivity,” and mentions seven assumptions of gerontophobia:
1. If young is good, old must be bad.
2. If the young have it all, the old are losing it.
3. If the young are creative, the old are dull.
4. If the young are beautiful, the old are unattractive.
5. If the young are stimulating, the old are boring.
6. If the young are full of passion, the old are beyond caring.
7. If the children are tomorrow, the old represent yesterday.

The wisdom of the ancients
“What is the biggest wonder in the world?” asked Yaksha to Dharmaraj Yudhishthira in the epic Mahabharata. The eldest of the Pandavas replied, “The biggest wonder is that everyone sees thousands and thousands of people dying all around them, yet nobody wants to accept the fact that someday, death will grab them too!”

Gautama Buddha explained mankind’s dread of aging and death as emanating from the fear of suffering. He saw selfish or ignoble desires (tanha) as the root cause of all human suffering (dukkha). The Buddha taught that the way to get rid of suffering is by learning to accept it and then transcend it by developing equanimity, detachment, compassion, and wisdom.

Similarly, in the Bhagavad Gita (Ch. 2:27) Lord Krishna also teaches Arjuna the fundamental truth, “Jatasya hi dhruvo mrutyu dhruvam janma mrutasya cha,” translated as, “Death is certain for whoever is born, and certain is also birth for the dead.”

Old age blues
Despite all this, no one looks forward to getting old. Who welcomes wrinkles, thinning or graying hair, drooping eyelids or jaw lines, sagging skin, missing or no teeth, age spots, or widening waistline? Adi Guru Shankaracharya (8th century B.C.) gave this classic description of “an old man” in his Sanskrit poem, “Atha Charpatpanjrika stotram”:
Angam galitam palitam mundam dashanvihinam jatam tundam;
vruddho yati gruhotva dandam tadapi na munchati ashapindam
Its translation is, “Look at this skeleton of an old man with limbs gone limp, bereft of hair, teeth and eyesight; bent and walking with a stick, getting weaker and weaker, and yet not ready to give up his unending desires.” He paints a graphic and frightening picture of old age, but does it have to be this harsh and negative?

Apart from minor aches and pains, weakness, lack of energy, forgetfulness, and the deterioration of hearing or eyesight, an even bigger fear is that of succumbing to age-related diseases: heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancers of all varieties, severe arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, and the list goes on.

Feeling depressed? Let’s look at positive and creative aspects of aging—but first, a few questions.

Why do different people age at different rates?
Is aging a chronological or biological process? One 70+ year-old may show more wear and tear of years than another. Aging, therefore, is not just a matter of arriving at a certain chronological number, and there is no precise age at which one starts showing the signs of aging. Chronological age does not always correlate with biological age. Although we can’t really determine our biological age yet, two factors are (1) accumulation of waste products in the cells; and (2) the loss of elasticity of the connecting body tissues. In the first, cellular changes impact our physical, sensory, and motor capabilities. Build-up of insoluble fatty substance results in “age-spots” and affects the outer cortex of the brain, the nerve cells, heart muscle, and many other tissues. The second factor is due to decreasing collagen, a substance that constitutes more than one-fourth of the body’s protein—and so we get wrinkles, sagging skin, and stiff joints.

The slowing down of “information processing” in age does not mean that intelligence declines, but that reaction time is longer in the decoding and recoding of information in the brain. This can be worse if a person lacks motivation or stimulation. It is also interesting to note that although people have difficulty with remembering things as they age, they have more difficulty with short-term recall than with long-term memory. Because old experiences and information have been deeply ingrained in the mind, they remain intact, while the new ones take time to recall due to slow transmission.

What about physical versus psychological effects of aging
Which is more important in deciding whether someone will age well or poorly? The answer, according to Dychtwald, is, “Invariably, the most essential determinant of successful aging is attitude.” Yes, there are physical, financial, and social limits to what we can do and be in any period of life. The most restricting limit, however, especially in old age, is always inside us.

Can society and culture affect our attitude to aging?
The Indian and American views of aging, for example, differ widely. From the Indian perspective anyone, especially a woman nearing or past middle age, is expected to look, dress, feel, and behave conservatively like a much older person. In America it is not uncommon to see an older woman flouting these rules of dress and demeanor. I will never forget how shocked I felt during my early days in America, seeing an obviously old, wrinkled, silver-haired woman who was dressed to kill in a tight mini-skirt, six-inch high stiletto shoes, multi-stringed pearl necklace, heavy makeup and a big hair-do! This is not a moral judgment, only an observation that our perception of how a person past a certain age should dress, think, and behave, is culturally determined.

Is living longer a boon or a curse?
The answer depends on how well a person is aging, and that person’s attitude. We are told, “We are not our body, we have a body. We are not our mind, we have a mind. We are soul with a body and mind.” True, but the body is still the house in which we live. The older the house, the more maintenance it requires. Building muscles and lifting heavy weights, however, is neither the aim nor the criterion in old age; rather, it is to have adequate day-to-day energy, strength, resilience, and zest for living. To age well, one must first be aware, alert, disciplined, and determined to take care of the body properly, while accepting the fact that even the most physically fit and well-maintained body will age and die, sooner or later.

We must keep playing the game of life for as long as we live, and while we are still in the game, why not enjoy playing it? Why not play it well, safely, and wisely? Here are positive ways to age well—physically, mentally, and spiritually—thereby transforming these remaining years of life into healthy, happy, creative, peaceful, and deeply fulfilling ones.

1. Attitude: First uproot fear and negativity of aging; accept it as a natural, mellowing-ripening process of life. Senility is not necessary, and “an old dog” can “learn new tricks.” Intelligence does not decline with old age; it only takes longer to connect the wires. Whatever one loses in speed can be gained in wisdom by becoming more loving, giving, and kind. Look at nature: fruits taste sweeter as they ripen, and fall is more colorful than spring!

Use this powerful AAA package to cope with old age blues with equanimity, dignity, and gratefulness: AAA = Acceptance, Adaptation, Attitude-adjustment:
Accepting that our bodies are changing lets us win half the battle. Instead of depression, cultivate equanimity, which Lord Krishna describes in the Bhagavad Gita as the hallmark quality of a sthitaprajna, a man of steady wisdom and balanced mind. As we get older, we need to humbly accept the fact that we are no more in control of anything or anyone except ourselves.

Next comes Adaptation. Instead of resisting the notion of retiring, giving up driving or walking by ourselves, and being independent, adapt to relaxing and let someone assist in whatever we absolutely cannot do ourselves anymore.

Neither Acceptance nor Adaptation will work, however, without an Attitude-adjustment. Whether the cup of life is half-empty or half-full will depend entirely on where you focus: on what you cannot do or on what you can still do. Examples are Mahatma Gandhi, also former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter—both in their mid-80s, still actively and selflessly engaged in eradicating poverty and diseases around the world.

2. Body: Be physically fit and adopt a healthy lifestyle. Let this be the Guru mantra of your life, “As long as I live, I will first take proper care of my body, mind and soul.” In Gujarati the saying “Pahelu sukh te jate narya” means “First be healthy to be happy.” There is no requirement to compete or overdo, just to follow a regular, moderate regime of the kind of exercise, healthy foods, and habits that suit you, in consultation with your physician. Walk outside to breathe fresh air or even walk inside the house. If your knees permit, you can go, up and down stairs. Try Tai Chi or light yoga. The benefits of deep breathing (pranayama) cannot be overstated: inhaling oxygen (pranavayu) helps the whole body, and breathing deeply instantly calms the mind and nerves. Exercises that encourage better balance, flexibility, and stability include stretches, working on posture, and even sitting on the floor Indian style. No smoking and no excessive wining, dining, or wild partying, of course. Proper diet includes eating healthy foods that suit the individual, including protein, green leafy vegetables, and the occasional gulab jamun or two!

3. Mind: Stimulate and challenge the brain. In the absence of neurological disease the brain can stay healthy. Regular physical exercise not only shields against cognitive decline or dementia, it actually improves cognitive ability. Brain exercise is just as crucial as physical exercise. Keep stimulating your brain by reading, reflecting, writing, and doing problem-solving puzzles. Keep challenging it by learning something new: a language, a musical instrument, game, recipe, or even a magic trick or two!

4. Soul: Nourish your soul and explore the inner realm. If you are fortunate to be free of life-threatening diseases, or if you have survived one as I have, you would consider these years as bonus years or “a second chance,” by shifting your focus from the outer to the inner world. You may or may not be religious in a traditional way, but you may still be spiritual and explore the possibilities of the world within. Many are the ways to dive deeper into the Self or Atmanthrough Jnana (Knowledge of the Divine), Bhakti ( devotion), Karma (selfless action) or Yoga (physical and spiritual disciplines). Choose whichever fits your personality and health condition, but above all, choose what fulfills you deeply. When you live life, not for show and tell, and not for name, fame, fortune, or material success, a whole new dimension opens up within yourself. The Bhagavad Gita says, “Aatmanye atmana tushta,” or “You are happy in the Self, by the Self.”

Instead of people-pleasing ways, you now have the freedom to turn to soul-pleasing ways. Pursue whatever creative activity gives you inner joy, peace, tranquility, and self-expression, be it gardening, painting, singing (even karaoke), acting, writing, watching something funny on TV or a movie, traveling to places that nourish your soul, or even dancing like a child in your house for the sheer joy of being alive. It is not how long you live, but how well you live, what you live for, and what kind of legacy you want to leave behind for your children and grandchildren. No one likes to be around a grumpy, grouchy old man or woman—not even yourself! So laugh a lot and make others laugh. Love and be loved. Share. Volunteer. Be a mentor. Go ahead and live it up! Make your children proud of you for having lived gratefully, joyfully, and lovingly to the end.

[We are pleased to be able to publish here the full version of the article above, which contains a significant amount of additional material that could not be included in the November 2014 print and digital issues.]

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