“Old friends, memory brushes the same years; Silently sharing the same fears.”
— from “Old Friends,” as performed by Simon and Garfunkel
John Leland’s new book (“Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from the Oldest Old”) will be available soon, and I am anxious to read it. It’s based on his series “85 and Up,” an excerpt of which appeared recently in the New York Times. The title of the article was: “Want to be Happy? Think Like an Old Person.”
Folks 85 and older comprise one of our nation’s fastest growing demographic groups. This stands to reason, with life expectancies increasing and so many Boomers reaching their golden years at the same time. So how are these Americans coping with the challenges of life at this age? According to Leland, in many cases, pretty darn well. It’s all about one’s attitude.
Want to hear some really good news about aging? Leland writes: “Gerontologists call this the paradox of old age: that as people’s minds and bodies decline, instead of feeling worse about their lives, they feel better. In memory tests, they recall positive images better than negative; under functional magnetic resonance imaging, their brains respond more mildly to stressful images than the brains of younger people.”
Several of the subjects Leland interviewed exhibited a hearty spirit and a resilient attitude. And while those with whom he spoke were not immune to accidents, pain, suffering and sadness, they seemed to understand the old adage that it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react to it that really matters. One subject mentioned persistent pain in her hand. Nothing much could be done about it, but she refused to focus on it, saying that it’s not healthy for older people to complain all the time. Most looked forward to family visits, enjoyed social activities with others, and cultivated valued friendships. Others loved tending to plants and listening to music. Few fretted about possessions or other worldly issues.
The one thing most feared is becoming infirmed. A fall often precipitates loss of mobility and mental acuity, and none wanted to lose their ability to enjoy life.
Naturally, if we are financially well-prepared for retirement, we are less vulnerable to the challenges of paying for medical expenses and facing issues like rising inflation. It’s very important that we save and invest and put ourselves in a position to live comfortably in the future, especially since we’re likely going to live longer than our parents’ generation.
That said, it’s good to know that our senior years may provide an opportunity for growing levels of happiness, even if our bodies and minds are experiencing a decline. The happiest subjects seemed to focus on the things that they could do, not on what they couldn’t.
Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC®, AIF®, author of the syndicated economic column “Arbor Outlook,” is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850.608.6121 – www.arborwealth.net), a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.