Editor’s note: If you haven’t already experienced aging in the senior citizen sense, yourself or with loved ones, you will at some point wish there was a clearly written manual. With his weekly column, Mark Harvey has been writing the rough draft for many years and Grays Harbor News Group is grateful.
I’m fighting off the urge to begin with “The time has come, the walrus said…”
But, the time has come: I’m retiring.
After 772 weeks of us meeting here, I’m stepping away. I will be forever grateful to Doug Barker and all the good folks at The Daily World for their patience and encouragement, and for the amazing opportunity to “meet” so many of you.
How does one say goodbye after 772 weeks? I have no idea, so I won’t even try. I think what I will do, however, is attempt to sum up what are, in my opinion, the most important aspects of this whole aging thing. And that usually begins with a question that goes something like this: How smooth is the road ahead likely to be?
Answer: About as smooth as the road behind. And if you take the time to think about it, I just told you a whole lot more than you think I did.
Folks in my business tend to spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating the question “What do Elders want?” — in the same general tone of voice and inflection as the question “What do Martians eat?”
As though, at some magic age (60? 65? 79? 98? — whatever), all those “normal” people stepped into the Elder Machine and were duly processed and homogenized into an anomalous species called Elders — emerging with unfathomable habits, preferences, tastes, predilections, abilities, challenges and destinies.
Alas, allow me to be the bearer of thought-provoking tidings: There is no Elder Machine.
When you hit that magic age, here’s what will be magically different: nothing. You will still be the same old you, with the same foibles, opinions, tastes, talents and beliefs. The same preferences and the same politics, the same joys and the same sorrows, and the same old body that got you here, more or less.
Now, close your eyes for 30 seconds and visualize what you want your life to look like in 10, 15 or 40 years. Go ahead, we’ll wait.
OK? Here’s the picture most of us saw: a life that looks, more or less, like it looks right now — colored by a few hopes, dreams, fears and the tyranny of genetics, certainly — but we want life to continue to be “life,” as we have chosen to define it. We do not want to be “less.” We want to be “us” — to continue.
Here’s the only thing that really changes in that Elder Machine is the sudden realization that none of us will achieve immortality.
So, in my opinion and in my world, the game becomes: How can we keep life looking — as much as possible — the way it looks right now?
I’ll offer these points:
Think “health and health care,” but think about it in terms of what you can do, not in terms of any diagnosis. We want to be able to get up and get going, and spend our days and our nights on our own terms, with as little “help” (think: “interference”) as possible.
1. Stop doing stupid stuff! We all know what we do that we shouldn’t do, so stop doing it! (Or, at least, do less of it.)
2. Move! “Use it or lose it” applies — so, unless you’re done with it, use it!
3. Find a health care professional you trust and tell them the truth! Listen and talk! Then do what you need to do, as though it were your responsibility to be responsible for yourself — because it is.
4. Figure out your health insurance — or find someone who has, and make friends.
This is America; money counts. Like it or not, that’s how it is, so figure it out and do the best you can. Plan! Get out of debt! Figure out Social Security! It is absolutely true that money can’t buy happiness, but it does buy heat, food, medicine and underwear — So, think about it!
I’m often asked some derivation of the question: What’s the worst thing that is likely to happen to me as I get older? — and people expect to hear something like “falls” or “Alzheimer’s” or “stroke” — but here’s what’s more likely to get us:
Not knowing there’s help out there, or being too proud to ask for it.
Being afraid that if “they” knew how much help I really needed, “they” would put me in a nursing home, so I isolate myself and go downhill fast, and pretty soon … the self-fulfilling prophecy is fulfilled.
A little help on the front end can change everything.
I could bury you alive in programs, services and acronyms! I could put you into a coma with strategies, resources, advance directives and durable powers of attorney. I could drive you screaming from the room with health insurance nuance. But I can’t give you the one thing that will do you the most good, because we all have to find it for ourselves: a sense of purpose. A mission. A reason to be.
The belief that there is a reason to continue. That there are still opportunities to contribute — to be part of the “solution” — to make things better — to help. And that it truly is not “over,” until it is.
That every day is the next opportunity to begin again — to get it “right” — to do better.
I want you to hear that aging is not an affliction; it’s an achievement!
Be careful. Strive to be happy.
Love is all there is.
Mark Harvey retired last week as director of information and assistance for the Olympic Area Agency on Aging.