May has been designated as Older Americans Month. This seems to be a good time to make a few suggestions to my contemporaries about making the most of life in our declining years. I warn you that some of these ideas may be a bit of “Do as I say, not as I do.” However, I believe even the ones I don’t follow are good advice.
First of all, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, “Your life ain’t over till it’s over.” Sometimes I hear friends say that there is no point in getting a better car, hearing aid, dental work (or fill in the blank) because they won’t live long enough to be worth spending the money.
Of course, many of us can’t find money for some of the things we need, and that is a different matter. If you need something, have the money, or can scrape together the cash, by all means get it. It doesn’t make any difference whether you use it for one year or 20. You may have a lot more years left than you think, but even if you don’t, make the most of them.
We do have to face the fact that as we age there are some activities we are ill-advised to try. A few years ago I decided to slide down the slippery slide in Tampa park. Failing to get my feet under me in time, I lit on my tailbone, which was sore for months. Now that was a bad judgment call. I still pump-up in the swings now and then; that seems fairly safe. Do anything you enjoy and are still able to do. Keep active, both physically and mentally. I admit to being a little lazy about the physical part, but I do a lot of reading and puzzle solving to stave off Alzheimer’s. Try it; it may work.
Another bad attitude in this area is the feeling one is no longer useful. Nonsense! Some of us have our identity too tied up in the work we do. A farmer who can no longer buck bales, a homemaker whose children are grown (and she may no longer have a house to keep), or a retired teacher, banker, or business executive who no longer goes to work every day is still a person of value. Maybe you can use some of those skills in an advisory capacity. If not, take up something you’ve always enjoyed and have not had time to do. Two of my male college classmates have started wood carving and quilting in retirement.
If you still are able to get around well, there are many volunteer opportunities open to retirees. Schools and libraries always are able to use more volunteers to shelve books, grade papers, make copies, or (most fun) read to the children. Nursing home residents enjoy anything people do for them or with them. I go to a nursing home once a month for “chat time.” I read a short piece, and then we share memories.
I did a feature story on Viola Jost when she was 92. In summarizing her activities, she told me, “I go to the nursing home one afternoon a week to play Scrabble with the old people.” What a perspective!
Another example of the “can do” spirit in old age is Fanny Crosby, the blind hymnist who wrote many of our best-loved church songs. When she was in her upper 80s, somebody asked what she thought was her best hymn. Her reply was, “Oh, I don’t think I’ve written my best hymn yet.” Wow!
One of the most enjoyable and most valuable things an older person can do is to connect with young people — your children or grandchildren, or just kids in the neighborhood. If you make a special connection, you may wind up spending many hours with a particular child or teen-ager. But it is rewarding to both generations to just do the small things like smiling and greeting them on the street (preferably by name, but children usually will forgive some forgetfulness here), attending their events such as ball games and piano or dance recitals, and listening to them.
If you have become too feeble for some of these activities, you can always pray. A friend tells me about his father, frail both physically and mentally, who spent his last years in a nursing home and prayed for all his children and grandchildren by name every day. He sometimes could not remember his grandchildren’s names when they visited him, but never forgot them when he was praying. Those grandchildren have all turned out well, perhaps partly because of their grandfather’s prayers.
These may not be the very best years of our lives, but they can be very good years, if we face them with a good attitude. An interviewer was asking nursing home residents, “What was the happiest day of your life?” One elderly woman replied, “Today!”
Here’s to today and to tomorrow if it comes.