The Secrets to Aging Gracefully, with Joy and Meaning

In my salad days when AARP was a hearty burp rather than an acronym, the sun, moon, stars and wheel of fortune revolved around me. Today, sipping my-end-of-life’s digestif, I see the world from a far different perspective.

I hear a lot of older men complain about no longer “being in the game.” I know what they are saying and feeling: they’ve gone from the corner office to a tiny corner of the den and instead of running things and making big business decisions they’re having trouble walking and deciding on Ginger tea or the decaffeinated Chamomile.

They’re stuck on their perceived loss of influence and affluence. They turn into curmudgeons easily annoyed or angered and complaining about anything and everything. I try mightily not to be that way; how old I am is not as important as how I am old.

I suggest they turn off Lake Shore Drive and take a look at the tent city under the Foster Street viaduct and be grateful they’re not dealing with survival; grateful that they have clean clothes and are sitting down to a warm dinner with convivial companions rather than surfing a dumpster. I try to accept loss rather than endlessly bemoan it. I’m not the man I used to be but I’m adding years of joy and meaning to my life by embracing the man I am now.

How one looks at aging makes an enormous difference. If you think you can stem the creep of time with a Photoshop program you haven’t read the last chapter of Dorian Gray. It’s an ugly demise. On the other hand, if you see your years as an elder as a time to present yourself to the world without artifice, faithful to your authentic identity regardless of the situation, your biography will add many exciting chapters.

I spent more than half my life adapting to societal pressures and changing family boundaries. The responsibilities I took on in response to the realities of life sometimes made it difficult to let my true voice emerge. But now I don’t have to compromise in order to be on the popular side of an issue. If what it takes to belong is not fully in sync with whom I truly am, I listen to my inner voice and skip the meeting. I’m not suggesting ignoring what others are saying; you may learn something by listening. But trust your own opinions.

As I moved farther away from the trees and the forest came into view, this is what I learned. For the blunders of the past – ignoring the consequences of unbridled ambition; negotiating love as quid pro quo transactions – forgive yourself. If forgiveness doesn’t come easy, take the path of redemption and live with unwavering integrity. In time, you’ll leave the past behind.
Accept the impasses that can’t be bridged. If the loggerhead with your wife, husband, son, daughter or friend can’t be resolved, have the Reinhold Niebuhr serenity prayer tattooed on the palms of your hands as a perpetual crib sheet.

Mourn your losses, and move on. It’s appropriate to take time out and heal when the wound is deep, but the flow of life is inexorable and too long as a spectator watching the world go by is missing the fun. Even grief has a time frame.

Move from rationalizing the status quo to committing to a plan for change. Give it a try. If you mess up, so what? Inherent to trying is the possibility of failing and that’s where the learning comes from; next time you’ll do better. And besides, there’s a perk to being retired; you’re not going to get fired.