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Silver linings playbook: Making the most of our bonus years

From the Boston Globe

A new column about embracing life as an old person.

A century ago, men and women in the United States weren't expected to live past 60. Now that life expectancies hover around 80, we have some choices to make.
A century ago, men and women in the United States weren’t expected to live past 60. Now that life expectancies hover around 80, we have some choices to make.

“Life is short. Stay awake for it,” declares a national coffee brand’s slogan. That may sell coffee, but it’s probably not the right way to introduce a column on living life to the fullest as we grow older. Instead, I propose “Life is long(er). Let’s make the most of our bonus years.”

A century ago, life expectancy for men in the United States was 56.1 years and for women 58.5 years. Now life expectancies hover around 80. As a bona fide old old person, I hope to offer some ways to accept the changes that aging brings and to embrace the extended life that we will be able to live. Bear in mind that, while we can’t control everything that happens to us, we can (try to) control how we react to it.

I recall my adolescent self being chided by my mother. “Nobody likes a sourpuss,” she would say as I pouted about my latest angst. Her admonition didn’t make me a delightful teenage daughter, but I never forgot it.

We don’t have to be the grumpy old folks ridiculed by unfunny greeting cards. I think of my beautiful Aunt Ruth who refused to give up driving at age 90. Her children insisted that she take a driving test at age 95. The officer who accompanied her (brave man) reported that she did a lot better on the road than many people half her age. She continued to be an engaged leader in her community until she was 100 years old. She died at 104.

I am painfully aware that life can change on a dime. Years ago, when my husband Peter tripped while out on a spring walk and pulled me down with him, I broke my hip. (He was fine.) My health plan directed us to a hospital we were not familiar with in a part of Boston we didn’t know. Getting in and out of our car was very painful for me. Because it was a Friday, the emergency room doctor told us that no one could do anything for me until Monday. I raised an uproar (being noisy helped) and was transferred by ambulance several hours later — Red Sox post-game traffic also delayed us — to my hospital of choice within walking distance of our home. A not very thoughtful doctor said to me, “You know, most elderly people don’t live a year after breaking a hip.” That was 15 years ago. I would love to show that whippersnapper this 85-year-old who walked 10 miles in one day recently. Lesson for all: Don’t be shy about being demanding when your health is at stake.

I also love to have something to look forward to. There are no guarantees in life, but if one doesn’t plan, if one doesn’t work on maintaining friendships, on contributing to one’s community, and on one’s self-care, chances are, one won’t be using these bonus years to the fullest.

One year into the COVID pandemic, my son Jeremy and his family invited me to join them for a spring trip to Germany. Until I boarded the plane, I worried that COVID would intervene. But it didn’t, and a year later, I am still living on the fumes of that marvelous trip.

Everyone can’t hop on a plane to Brazil. (And probably everyone doesn’t want to.) But everyone can make plans that work for them. And what joy it brings when they come to fruition!

A controversial theory, the “U Curve of Happiness,” holds that we are happiest in our 20s (the left peak of the U), and that our happiness declines by about age 40, the start of our least happy decade. Our less-happy selves go through a so-called middle-age crisis only to re-emerge happier as we grow older and learn to enjoy the fruits of our hard work — and/or to accept that all of our childhood dreams may not be fulfilled. Although some dispute the U Curve of Happiness theory and have some compelling data to back up their claims, I can only speak for myself. I have reached the top right of my personal U, and I am pretty darn happy.

Why else am I happy? I have become a looker. I look at the daffodils peeking up along the Charles River. Are they earlier or later than last year? I am fortunate to live with a view of that river and delight, now that spring is here, in watching the crews that hit the water at the crack of dawn as they glide past my building, a corps de ballet in their colorful shells.

Another thing that gives me great pleasure now is helping others. It is sometimes inconvenient to pick people up after their colonoscopies or to bring food to a sick friend. In the end, though, it makes me happy to have done those small favors.

I also find that it helps to mine history for lessons about the present. Recently, I spent eight days in Alabama and Georgia on a civil rights tour, revisiting some of the darkest days of our collective history. I followed the route of the march from Selma to Birmingham. I was free to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after the 19th-century senator and Ku Klux Klan leader, where brutal beatings stopped the freedom marchers on March 7, 1965. I revisited the sites of the Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked by the amazing Rosa Parks, the Children’s March, and Birmingham’s 15th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed. I spent the better part of a day at The Legacy Museum, a brilliant depiction of our country’s human rights challenges from slavery to the mass incarceration that still lands a disproportionate number of Black men in prison. The museum is located on a site where slaves were warehoused. It is just across the street from the railroad station where these human beings were transported to be sold. Sadly, today, there are meetings of the Proud Boys and other extremists not too far away.

And when I do have my moments of feeling blue, I seek comfort in a great big dish of Trader Joe’s coffee ice cream. It works every time.

Judy Kugel, a Globe contributing opinion writer, blogs twice weekly at 80-something.com and is the author of “70-something—Life, Love and Limits in the Bonus Years.”

Published by jimsull