When I was a young laddie, growing up in Texas, we had a family friend named Mary Ann Sparks. Mrs. Sparks spoke with a thick southern drawl and did not suffer fools gladly. One day when she was in her early eighties she drew me to her side in our small family kitchen and conspiratorially said to me “Joe, do you know why growing old is like cheap underwear?”
I looked up at her in horror and shook my young head from side to side and she then leaned down into my face and said with a grimace “It just keeps creeping up on you!”
Many years later, after both my parents had passed away, I returned to our family home to see if the current occupants would allow me to have a peek inside for “auld lang syne”. The current owners were now a Mexican – American family and they were somewhat surprised that an actual descendant of the original owner of our family home was now standing upon their door step. However, when I asked for permission to enter, they warmly welcomed me.
I peeked around for a few minutes and then returned to the kitchen where Mrs. Sparks had told me the secret signal of old age. The old saying that you cannot go home again is partially true and I found it disconcerting to see all the modern appliances replacing my mother’s ancient stove and refrigerator. However, when I opened the pantry door I saw a faint historic memory of my mother’s ageing philosophy as I read the sign left by my mum on the inside of the wooden door that announced boldly “Old age is not for sissies!”
Both as a young child and young adult, I could not fathom that my mother and Mrs. Sparks were indeed wise seers of the ageing experiences I would encounter as I approached their ripe old age.
The reality of ageing first appeared as I began to lose loved ones in increasing numbers each year. For example, in the past two months I have experienced ten bereavements of family and friends. I have from time to time experienced the feeling that the grim reaper is edging closer and closer to me with each loss. Therefore, I have begun to reflect upon the process of ageing and here are my thoughts.
In my own experience, the thirties were dirty. I mean that it was my last opportunity to make mistakes and still be able to excuse these errors as the messiness of youth.
The forties were naughty. This time period allowed me to try some final bold adventures such as driving a horse and carriage 250 miles across the state of Tennessee, changing careers and more that I still had the youthful energy to try and attack.
The fifties were nifty. During this time I finally received the respect of others because I had achieved this milestone birthday and they believed (perhaps incorrectly) that wisdom was forming within me that may be of use to others who were younger.
The sixties have been sensational. During this decade I have experienced new sensations in my knees, back, feet and gastro – intestinal track that I never imagined before. The simple act of bending over produces new sounds (including explosions) from multiple places within my ageing body. And for the first time, prior to bending over, I often think, “Do I really want to do this?” because of the effort I know it will take to return to my vertical position.
As I look forward, in a couple of years, to entering my seventies, I am hopeful it will be a heavenly period where I have fewer physical sensational surprises and may spend more time in deeper reflection and contemplation. I am preparing for this now by adopting the following four daily habits.
First, upon rising each day, I have a short period of meditation or prayer. During this period I give thanks for my life, for my sustenance and for being allowed to reach this time in my life. Next, I remember the dozens of people who have passed away, starting with my parents, and ask for help from the universe for all those who are bereaved. I then turn my thoughts to those who are unwell and ask for their healing and freedom from pain. Then I ask for help for my adopted country of Scotland where many people including me aspire to achieve independence. Finally, I ask for help for all the countries in the world that have experienced national disasters. At the end of this moment of meditation I ask for protection during my travels and successful outcomes from my various meetings during the day.
Secondly, in the late morning or afternoon I exercise. My exercise is swimming and I try to daily achieve 50 lengths of the pool. During my swim, I visualise upon family for ten lengths, favourite food and drink for ten lengths, and my favourite places I have visited and / or musicals for the remaining thirty lengths.
Thirdly, after my daily swim, I practice mindfulness for about ten minutes whilst laying down in the steam room. I allow myself to only focus upon my body and breathing and then imagine that I am floating from the steam room to the pool and returning again. I walk out of the steam room lighter than air!
Fourthly and finally, when time permits, I lay down each afternoon before dinner. I may take a short half hour nap or simply read. I have learned from my post retirement life, that good ageing starts with good pacing. So, I try to slow the pace each day for a brief while, if I am able.
You may have heard of a phenomenon entitled slow food wherein diners seek culinary experiences with natural foods slowly prepared and enjoyed at leisure. I am now an advocate for slow events and that also includes slow living wherein I take more time to prepare for each upcoming event and try to relax more whilst experiencing my life.
This daily rythm of beginning with meditation, incorporating exercise and concluding with more meditation and then a brief rest seems to work for me. Although I still experience my “sixty something sensations” my attitude is more positive and I am able to gracefully navigate around the occassional surprises ageing springs upon me.
One of the occassional surprises I have experienced is insomnia. Those who follow my adventures may see some posts at 2, 3 and event 4am. However, rather than worry about my lack of sleep, I simply enjoy a glass of warm milk, adjourn to the living room, lay down upon the sofa and read or write. Within an hour or two, I am ready for sleep. And now that I am retired, I am able to rise later in the morning.
Mrs. Sparks and my mother, during their lifetimes, may have actually provided me with the early awareness I needed to be ready to, as the serenity prayer states accept the things I cannot change, find the courage to change the things I can, and the find the wisdom to know the difference.
And so I am ready to welcome the seventies for they shall surely be heavenly and for me that is creating heaven upon this precious earth surrounded by family, friends, and new experiences (but not necessarily new sensations!)