Life has seven stages, according to William Shakespeare, starting with the “mewling and puking infant.” The “Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, without teeth, without eyes, without taste, without everything.” In our earlier years, we grow and learn. In our mid-years we accomplish and build. During these years our minds are filled with energy and plans for the future. Ever so gradually, we notice signs that our body is less capable than it once was. Aging has many side effects: gray and balding hair, slower reflexes, reading glasses, aches and pains. But even more important than the physical effects, we begin to see ourselves in a new light. Birthday cards joke about the downhill slide, and we feel a thrill of fear when we hear our age. As our body continues to grow old, we may experience a sense of loss, failure and shame.
Our culture glorifies youth. That’s easy to do, because youth is attractive and declining is never fun. But we’ve gone too far, building a wall around the process of getting old, and trying to block it out of our consciousness. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we deny it, old age won’t go away. And the best thing we can do for ourselves at any age is to accept the inevitability of aging. This acceptance will become a saving grace as our body and the bodies of those we depend upon grow old.
One way we can improve our attitude towards aging is to open up to the world of the elderly. There’s a reason why “Honor thy father and mother” is one of the Ten Commandments. Behind those drooping cheeks and tired eyes lies a life-time of experience. When we honor them, we honor the treasures of civilization. And we honor our own future, as well, because some day we’ll be looking in the mirror and seeing their image.
While aging bodies may be unattractive, they point to a future that’s even worse. Aging means getting closer to death, and few of us are at peace with that prospect. However, we have little to gain by fighting against death. Denial dulls our precious life energy and flattens and narrows our future. When we open up and accept this cosmic plan of life and death, we’ll be healthier at any age.
To face death with an open heart we must dig deeper into the mysteries of the soul. By seeking to understand religion we ease our fears and deepen our faith. Our beliefs about the existence of a soul, the kingdom of heaven, and God’s compassion on earth, will be especially important as we face our final decades. A deeper grasp of these mysteries is so valuable, we should attempt to investigate them even if we feel burned out or unfulfilled by our religion of birth. Philosophers and thinkers have pursued these transcendent truths throughout history, and among this wealth of wisdom we may find insights that give us strength to weather the storm.
Because our mobile society often spreads families out over thousands of miles, the elderly may have little contact with their grandchildren. The presence of children in the lives of the elderly enhance the lives of young and old alike. When we choose our home, closeness between generations is a smart investment. The presence of grandparents can give warmth and continuity in a world that is moving at the speed of light.
In times past, the elderly have relied on their children to become their companions and caregivers. However, for many of us, immediate biological family may not be conveniently available. When we expand our connections to include neighbors, old friends, new friends, and our community, we realize there’s a whole world of people, many of whom are lonely and would be as happy for our companionship as we are for theirs. Entering into mutually supportive relationships in an expanded social circle, we can grow, give and receive support and stay energized in our human mission.
We must face the only two options, grow old or die young. If we expect to live long, we protect our financial future by saving for retirement. We also need to prepare for other dimensions of older life, by developing skills and attitudes that will help us maintain mental health. For example, developing hobbies and skills now that will be suitable into our older years can help us throughout every period in our lives. Playing a musical instrument, or pursuing a hobby stimulates our energy and gives us pleasure and satisfaction at any age. The skills we’ve accumulated during our lifetime will also provide sustenance to others as we contribute our expertise to our family and community.
The key to activity and purpose in our later years, as at any time, is to make effort. By exerting effort to become involved in the community, we overcome the sense of defeat, valuelessness and even victimization that comes from sitting passively waiting for others to act. By overcoming passivity, and becoming active, we gain companionship, satisfaction, physical health and continued fresh and expanding horizons.
In recent decades, our life expectancy has been increasing, so there are more of us alive in older years. As a result, we are likely to live longer than our parents, and will be stretching the frontier of living to our full capacity in later years. We may challenge ourselves early to expand our horizons. What seems distant today need to soon become our heritage.
Quoted from William Shakespeare, “As you like it, scene VII”
See also: Death, Existential Therapy, Grief
From Age-ing to Sage-ing, Zalman Shachter-Shalomi
As You Like It, William Shakespeare
Still here; embracing aging, changing and dying by Ram Dass