By Carole Carson | Special to The Union


Carole Carson Photo
Carole Carson

When I originally pitched the idea for this column to The Union, my goal was to counter the ubiquitous media message that aging was terrible and to be avoided at all costs.

Oldsters seemed to be regarded as people who drove their life-car in the slow lane looking in the rearview mirror because they had nothing to look forward to.

Consider birthday cards. Cards for seniors typically ridicule some aspect of aging, like loss of hair or teeth or one’s figure. (I have to admit, though, some make me laugh.)

Independent of the medium — whether cards, television ads, movies or magazines — aging was predictably associated with three Ds: depression, decline and death.

The media’s negative portrayal, however, didn’t jibe with my experience or that of my aging friends. For the most part, we were happy, productive and more satisfied with our lives than ever.

The more I looked around and read, the more convinced I was that the final stage of life, like the previous stages, should be appreciated for its unique qualities.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow expressed this idea in “Morituri Salutamus:”

For age is opportunity no less

Than youth itself, though in another dress,

And as the evening twilight fades away

The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

Going forward, I’m not being pollyannaish. Nor am I playing the “glad game” about everything aging involves. Indeed, I’m a realist about the fact that the final stage of life has its challenges.

That retirement life is not one seamless line of wonderful experiences seems to be a surprise to a group of people who formed the movement referred to as FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early).

The idea, promoted in the book Your Money or Your Life, first published in 1992, was to encourage people to save money aggressively so they could retire early and enjoy a carefree life from that point forward.

Comments from the movement’s pioneers, however, indicate that all is not well in retirement land. The four difficulties these pioneers report are strikingly similar to those of individuals who are in their final years.

First, the skills that got us to where we are now are not the skills that we’ll need going forward. In my case, I’ve always worked hard to achieve my goals. But with less energy now, I need skills in planning, setting priorities and pacing.

Self-examination is required to figure out which skills are no longer serving us (fatigue was my clue) and what new ones are needed.

Second, change is hard, and this is true whatever our age. Change may involve the loss of one’s health, the death of a spouse or a significant reduction of income. Change may come in the form of selling one’s home and downsizing or moving to live near offspring. And as happened in 2020, change can also come in the form of a pandemic.

A significant (and sometimes hidden) challenge for many of us is the unrelenting requirement that we become more proficient technologically — a real trial for nontechnical types like me! I no sooner figure out how to operate the air fryer than I have to figure out how to use my new cell phone.

For some, change may involve taking on the job of caregiver or giving up a driver’s license, thereby losing one’s independence.

Whatever the trigger for the unwanted changes, the path to a “new normal” is not easy.

Third, we have greater personal responsibility for our choices. For most of us, we can decide what we eat, when we eat, where we live, how much we spend, how well we take care of our body, whether we’ll exercise regularly, what we’ll spend time on and what we’ll neglect.

We can no longer blame parents, teachers, offspring, colleagues, a boss or a demanding job for our choices.

Fourth, there’s never enough time. That was true when we were younger and as we age, our experience of time speeds up. This isn’t simply our imagination.

Adrian Bejan, a Duke University mechanical engineering professor, makes a distinction between clock time (which is steady and measurable) and mind time (which is an individual’s unique experience of each moment).

Professor Bejan theorizes that the increasingly complex aging brain slows the processing of information and that the reduced pace of processing has the effect of speeding up mind time.

Without necessarily understanding the physics, we know from our own experience that as we age, mind time rushes by. We no sooner put the Christmas decorations away than it’s time to get them out again.

In coping with these and other challenges I will most likely face, I’ve chosen to replace the discouraging Ds with my own reassuring Ps:

• Perseverance, because however difficult the situation, I know “this too shall pass”

• Perspective, because that’s the benefit of having had hundreds of experiences over seven decades

• Personal power, because I’ve learned to sail my ship through fierce storms

If you came up with your own keystones, what would they be?

Carole Carson, Nevada City, is an author, former AARP website contributor, and leader of the 1994 Nevada County Meltdown. Contact: [email protected]