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VITAL AGING

by Tom Heuerman, Ph.D.


"To age gracefully means to live as long and as well as possible, then have a rapid decline at the end of life."
Andrew Weil, M.D.

After a near accident on an interstate highway reminded me how fragile life is, I announced my retirement from consulting-the least enjoyable activity in my life. It took me a year to disengage entirely, and I made the final break from the world of commerce in May of 2007.

I wrestled with the idea of aging and retirement for some time. I found that I had many unconscious images of that time of life-most of them negative-done, finished, useless--images centered on decline and death.

I learned from research that 70% of premature death and aging are lifestyle-related. We can choose to change our lifestyles. We can reverse the culture-driven decline after age 50 and function at an optimal level for decades and then die suddenly. I watched my father live fully and continue to evolve into his 90th year and then die quickly. His example made the research real and personal. I began to believe that retirement can be an opportunity for renewal, new growth, and exciting new adventures; a time of wisdom, maturity, and adeptness.

I felt more hopeful for the last 1/3rd of my life. I concluded that retirement is a shift of focus and energy and is an external marker of inner development. Retirement represents the end of one phase of life and the beginning of a new season in our life journey-a season of greater freedom, deeper authenticity, and soulful ripening. Inner deaths and rebirths are not easy.

Some of my experiences:

  • In the broadest sense, retirement is an external change (quitting work and the many changes that come with that) with internal emotional shifts that take time to process and complete. This change/transition resembles all earlier changes and transitions in our lives: we leave home, we marry and have children, we change careers, some of us divorce, our children leave home, and so on. With these transitions, our identities change; we see ourselves differently.
  • We feel some mix of many emotions: loss, anger, frustration, depression, fear, anxiety, excitement, ambivalence, new hope, and aliveness as we end one phase of life and begin a new one. The emotions may be strong if we built our lives around work. We should feel them, ponder them, and spend some time with them to successfully make the inner transition.
  • All experience these inner shifts of identity and emotions to one degree or another. Each of us also feels our own unique emotions based on our singular life experiences, how we see the world, and how we experience life. As we slow ourselves down, we may feel emotions from past experiences not fully processed, and that may disconcert us some. I examine the memories and emotions, review them from my perspective of today, and let them go.
  • I worked hard in my career: as a Secret Service agent, newspaper executive, and self-employed leadership and change consultant. I was ambitious and idealism and a desire for justice energized my efforts; I felt called to my work. I overcame setbacks along the way and made many changes at midlife: career change, a return to academia, divorce, relocation, and remarriage. Those changes filled in the gaps of the first half of my life.
  • With retirement, I felt a great sense of relief. I was finished with more than 40 years of hard work, being a leader, and trying to please others and, at the same time, maintain my integrity. A big part of me was ready to move on to something new and undefined.
  • A certain "taking stock" occurs at such a transition in our lives. I reflected back, felt things long pushed aside, and reflected upon memories long thought forgotten. I considered my decisions in life from the perspective of time and distance. I sought to understand my choices and my mistakes within the context of my life, my history, and the world I lived in. I became kinder in my judgments of myself and others.
  • I felt sorrow and satisfaction with my life and work of those many years: sorry for the many losses along the way and the inevitable disappointments of goals not achieved and relationships not fulfilled. Satisfaction for many achievements, difficulties overcome, and challenges met.
  • I felt anxious and confused about what my new identity would be. How would people react to me as a retired man? Would my family love me if I wasn't making money? Would people still listen to me? Would I feel valued? Would I find purpose and meaning in my life? How do I want to evolve? I knew that it was important to spend time in this place of uncertainty. I thought about these questions. I discussed my insecurities with my wife and others. Gradually I grew more comfortable as I sorted through my issues.
  • I felt awkward as I tried new things and new routines. Freed from the obligations of career, I can wake up each day and ask, "What do I want to do with this day?" Many of us are wired to achieve and complete tasks and it takes time to develop and adjust to new routines. I continue to experiment with my activities, and I find what works for me.

Do I choose decline or do I choose aliveness each day? I found that I needed to be mindful and thoughtful-even strategic-when I contemplated how I would live these days of my life. For many of us, this stage of life may be the first time we can be proactive and forward-thinking in creating our lives.

To support the goal of "live as long and as well as possible," I developed three key strategies:

  1. Take care of myself: physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual: I think that most naturally I am a couch potato most happy to watch television, smoke cigarettes (I quit in 1982), drink beer (I quit in 1974), and eat chocolates (I still do, in moderation). I reject that destiny and choose to "get busy living" instead of "get busy dying."
    I don't look for doctors or experts to tell me how to live. I am the captain of my life; I am responsible to learn how to live at each stage of life and for the choices that lead me to renewal or to more rapid decline. I draw on experts for information, but I lead proactively and decide for myself.
    Motivated by two energetic dogs, I walk at least five miles six days a week, workout three times a week, and eat generally healthy foods. I don't diet. My health remains excellent: my biological age about a dozen years younger than my chronological age. I know what my values are and strive to live them. I thought long and hard about my purpose in life and live accordingly. I continue to learn how to set myself up for positive emotions. I read, write, and engage with smart people to stimulate my mind. Volunteer work rewards the spirit.
  2. Nurture my relationship with Melanie, my wife: Melanie, my partner in life, is the person I trust completely. I remind myself over and over that "love is a verb" and do what I can to support her journey in life; she does the same for me. We feel sadness as our children leave us and live their own lives, and we are excited about our freedom and time together. We talk constantly about different scenarios for the future.
  3. Stop doing things I don't want to do and do things I care about that make me feel alive: More and more I say "NO" to things I don't want to do. I feared that I would not be able to say "NO" to offers of consulting work after I retired. I've had many calls. I've said "NO" to all of them. After I made the decision to not work (for money) anymore, I lost all desire to consult again.

I felt a great sense of urgency at mid-life-urgency to do all the things I wanted to do in my life. I made my "Bucket List" then and reviewed it 15 years later at age 62. I had completed many of my goals and no longer cared about others.

My sense of urgency as I enter the last 1/3rd of my life motivates me to build healthy and enjoyable routines into my life, to have new adventures, and to more consciously appreciate the beauty and mystery of life in the here and now. I've had many external adventures. I want to have more, and I want to go deeper into the spiritual mystery within and around me. As my father did before me, I want to feel alive and renew my life over and over again.

I read and write constantly-they make me think--and my photo trips provide beauty and adventure. I savor more fully the relationships most important to me. I laugh at my dogs as I try to "lighten up" my seriousness and have fun. I want to focus more on "being" than on "doing" and must admit that I find just "being" difficult; I remain driven to achieve something each day. I grow better at being happily ruthless is saying "NO" to things I don't want to do.

Endings remind us that all things are temporary. Since midlife I have read and thought much about lonely death. The awareness of my mortality helped me make choices in life for the right reasons-values, idealism, and spirituality with the long-term in mind.

Now death looms closer. I have an even deeper awareness of my mortality than at midlife. This awareness invites me to find meaning daily and gives greater urgency to live a more deeply authentic life and to renew myself continually so I can feel alive for as long as I live. I don't want to be young again. I want to grow forward, scary as the unknown can be. I reduce my fear of death by living a full life.

I fear the timing of death. I want more time with my wife and to do the things we want to do. We share that urgency. I also fear the process of dying. I don't want to be dependent or a burden to loved ones. I watched my mother die slowly-my father faster-each with awareness of death and unbelievable peace and courage. I hope when my time to move on comes, I will die with the grace my parents modeled for me, and will pass their gift on to my children and loved ones. I feel some anticipation and excitement about finding out what consciousness resides on the other side of this life-if any, as no one living really knows.

Ed McGaa, an Oglala Sioux, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota. As a Marine pilot Ed flew over one-hundred combat missions in Viet Nam. He earned a law degree from the University of South Dakota and is the author of many books including: Mother Earth Spirituality, Native Wisdom: Perceptions of the Natural Way, and Eagle Vision: Return of the Hoop.

Ed believes that when we die, we go to a place with people like us. Abusers end up with abusers. Spiritual warriors spend eternity with other spiritual warriors. I like that idea. It motivates me to learn life's spiritual lessons so I might end up with the kind of people I would like to spend eternity with. I've come to realize that wounds earned in the fight for justice are of more value than awards received.

We care about the legacies we will leave behind-our positive influence on others, such as it is, that will stay behind and ripple through future generations. We can live our lives accordingly.

Decline or renewal in the last 1/3rd of life? Think of retirement as a transition to greater freedom-the opportunity to refocus our energy in ways we want. We can be fully engaged with life-broader and deeper-if we choose. Such a journey calls for new growth and great courage.

Recommended Readings:

  • Healthy Aging by Andrew Weil, M.D. (www.drweil.com)
  • Younger Next Year by Chris Crowley & Henry S. Lodge, M.D. (www.youngernextyear.com)
  • The Spectrum by Dean Ornish, M.D. (www.ornishspectrum.com)
  • RealAge by Michael F. Roizen, M.D. (www.realage.com)
  • Change or Die by Alan Deutschman

About the Author:

Tom Heuerman

05/10/2008

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