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Growing Old Gracefully

As a physician who specializes in geriatric psychiatry, I have been privileged to learn some very important life lessons from my patients. Forget the antiquated notions of ageism—last chance, last round, last supper, last judgement, last breath, and last rose of summer. Instead, think of old age as that very special time when, like fine antiques, one is valued for the depth and layers of years of memories, emotions and events.

It may seem that we are a youth culture, but the fact is we are in the middle of a “longevity revolution.” Think of this: For most of human history, life expectancy was about eighteen or nineteen years of age. The life expectancy for a man in the United States today is 74 and for a woman, 78.

The truth is that there is a new kind of aging. Age is no longer associated with years, but rather with the vigor, strength and useful lifestyle a person enjoys at any given age. The following have been identified as the most significant predictors of good health in advanced years: 1) regular exercise 2) good nutrition 3) stress management 4) sense of purpose in life, and 5) meaningful relationships with family and friends.

Scientific advancements are contributing to this longevity revolution. Pharmaceutical companies are developing new medications, nutritional scientists are discovering ways to enhance the foods we eat, and even cloning has the potential to create new life and organs for life- saving transplants. Finally, geneticists are now unlocking the secrets of the nucleus of the cell, giving us the capability to prevent and treat illnesses more effectively.

When you think of it, the age at which a person is determined to be eligible to collect Social Security, 65, is more a political demarcation than a biological one. One does not really become “old” until one becomes so disabled that he can’t take care of himself anymore. It would seem that, until that point, everyone should be considered middle-aged. Verdi composed Ave Maria at the age of 85; Martha Graham, the dancer, performed on stage when she was 75; Michelangelo, the renowned sculptor was carving until six days before his death at age 89. John Glenn, the astronaut, who became a senator and became an astronaut again at the age of 78, exemplifies a life of meaning and purpose.

With all of this said, growing old gracefully means “don’t be afraid of the years ahead.” The majority of elderly people do not become demented. Most elderly people live in their own homes or in semi-independent living situations; only 5% of the elderly live in nursing homes. Aging does not have to mean physical deterioration, loss of sexuality or social isolation. On the contrary, retirement can be renewal; people discover new talents, go back to school, reinvent themselves, get involved in new activities, new adventures and find new friends. Sounds pretty good.


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Boomers Resource Guide is a special supplement to the Senior Citizen's Guide