The Ninety-Year Plan
If you estimate you will inhabit the Earth until you reach into your
ninetieth year, you can use an obvious baseball metaphor to
represent your aging life. At 60 you are in the sixth inning of a nine-
inning game, and you are – congratulations – manager of the home
team. With 60 being the first decade of the final third of the game,
reaching that milestone, in my opinion, means you can officially be
Now don’t start screaming, “what do you mean old? I refuse to be
called old; I refuse to be called a senior citizen. Never felt better. I can
keep up with life just as vibrantly as the next person.” Lots of healthy
people in their 60s, in particular, refuse to say they are old. There
must be some wording that can appease these naysayers, these
optimists, these strong minded and strong willed. Some say “elder”
suggests an aura of wisdom and respect. Elder, however, feels more
like 75ish and older.
Since I’m 64 as I write this, I have no problem calling myself “old,”
primarily because my physiology is not even close to what it used to
be when I was, let’s say, 40. Nonetheless, I can still walk, albeit
relatively slowly, but not at a snail’s pace, depending on the day. My
mental acuity is still quite strong, and I still have the spirited energy I
have always possessed, although I do take more mental naps and
perhaps do not study as hard and determined as I have in the past.
Old age brings a certain kickbackness – did I just invent a new word?
All this brings up the question of should I or should I not slow down?
Or, since my time left is obviously more limited than before and keeps
getting closer to the inevitable end, shouldn’t I be extraordinarily
more focused on precisely how I spend my time? Does the thought of
having more free time bring more anxiety because deep down I know I
am not spending my time as wisely and productively as I could?
Contemplation, Disillusionment, Loneliness
How about taking this free time to spend contemplating and reading
and studying more in the humanities and social sciences, everything
from history, literature, art, psychology, philosophy, sociology, and
spirituality – just learning for learning’s sake?
In “The Coming of Age” (published in 1970),
controversial French existentialist philosopher
and prolific writer Simone de Beauvoir explains
how further development of one’s intellectual
plane in old age brings clarity of mind and
liberation “accompanied by an often bitter
disillusionment.” Suddenly we come to the
conclusion that we are not going anywhere
other than to our total demise, and everything
we worked hard at throughout our entire lives has ultimately
amounted to a whole lot of meaninglessness. We realize, unless you
are famous, that you will eventually be forgotten, all your work buried
in the sands of time never to resurface again.
Yet, she adds, this does not mean we are incapable of pursuing things
“that are useful to mankind.” She continues on this theme, writing
that “freedom and clarity of mind are not of much use if no goal
beckons us anymore, but they are of great value if one is still full of
projects.” For me, personally, that’s spending more time studying and
writing. With that comes a certain amount of solitude that I find
challenging to balance with my old-age desire for more meaningful
and selective social interactions.
Certainly, loneliness can be a dangerous side-effect of aging, as many
of us become less socially active and even gerotranscendent. Many
elderly suddenly find themselves with very few, if any, close friends.
Plenty of scientific studies point to loneliness in old age catalyzing
poor health and even an early demise. So, if you are lonely, it is vitally
important that you work at increasing your social interactions, at least
at a minimal level. Maybe check into a meet-up. Maybe go to a
friendly watering hole or cafe, or take a walk around your local college
campus if there is one nearby. If you are the volunteer type, there are
plenty of options to look into.
Director of the Work/Life Integration Project at The Wharton
School, the University of Pennsylvania, Stewart Friedman, in an article
headlined “The Retirement Problem: What to Do With All That Time?”
says “the most successful people in retirement look to use their
talents and passions to make a contribution.” The article also points
to studies claiming that elders who volunteer have a larger sense of
purpose, more self-esteem, “and are both happier and healthier than
those who do not.”
Thomas Moore wrote an excellent chapter on
loneliness in his recent book “Ageless Soul:
Living a Full Life with Joy and Purpose.” Here he
paraphrases one of his good friends Patricia
Berry, a Jungian analyst and archetypal
psychologist. Moore starts by describing
loneliness as a discomforting feeling with a
purpose that could be pointing you to what you
really need. “Loneliness may take us into the space needed to reflect
on the things that matter instead of being occupied all the time,” he
writes. “Loneliness may be a hint at a cure for the incessant activity
people engage in that is often empty and pointless.”
In short, Moore offers lots of great insights about loneliness in just
this one chapter that in my opinion is worth the price of the entire
book alone. Here’s a simple quote from near the end of the chapter
that I felt like pinning on the wall by my desk:
Old age doesn’t have to mean a diminishing of self but an
increasing, multiplying sense of who you are or could be.
Another tonic for loneliness.
Still, loneliness can be, and often is, debilitating, which is why for
many people there needs to be some semblance of meaningful work
that entails some measure (great or tiny) of social interaction in their
lives when they have entered their retirement years. Research on the
nature and time spent working during our elder years have brought
insights into these kinds of questions. A good number of articles and
studies boldly assert that we should work at least into our seventh
and even eighth decades/innings.
I’m okay with that, but only if you
wholeheartedly love your work. Joan Chittister
put it best I think in “The Gift of Years: Growing
But we are here to depart from this world
as finished as we can possibly become. Old
age is not when we stop growing. It is
exactly the time to grow in new ways. It is
the period in which we set out to make sense out of all the
growing we have already done. It is the softening season when
everything in us is meant to achieve its sweetest, richest, most
Chittister, a Benedictine nun, has an uncanny way of making you
think extraordinarily positive about growing old. “As long as we
breathe we have a responsibility for the cocreation of the world, for
the good of the human race,” she proclaims.
I concur wholeheartedly.
Thanks for stopping by,
clarity of mind are
not of much use if
no goal beckons us
anymore, but they
are of great value if
one is still full of
- Simone de