Growing old gracefully

It’s easier said than done

By Dick Sonnichsen
Reader Contributor

I love that title phrase. If only it were true. 

Sadly, it isn’t. Not even close. It’s an oxymoron, a myth, a preposterous impossibility, a delusional figment of imagination. It’s a disingenuous expression often expressed when greeting an old friend, when what we really think is that they have been prematurely embalmed. 

Growing old is inevitable. Doing it gracefully is not. The haunting reality is that the experience is actually graceless, awkward, annoying and disheartening. The aging crisis is an apocalyptic adventure that profoundly alters both mind and body. 

At some time in life, we are boldly confronted with the unnerving truth of the vulnerability of our fragile and failing body, susceptible to those pesky hints of mortality that during adolescence and middle age were on the outskirts of our thoughts. 

Many display a shell-shocked unwillingness to acknowledge and engage with the troubling notion of terminal decline. We become scared, confused, concerned and overwhelmed. We struggle with discordant feelings of faltering health and cognitive impairment. In this situation, denial is a popular mental attitude to embrace, but the body continues to deteriorate regardless of any cerebral gymnastics on our part. 

Dick Sonnichsen. Courtesy photo.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that the only constant in life is change. He is credited with the famous notion that, “You cannot step twice into the same river,” meaning that both you and the river have changed. Heraclitus’ profound metaphor represents the impermanence of life and the insidious nature of aging. 

As an octogenarian with comorbidities, I have become somewhat of an authority on aging. I have a specialist doctor for most of my organs and sufficient medications that I need a pill box to keep them organized. My most significant health fear is catching something else. Three of my doctors have advised me that I will not die from the problems they are treating but more probably from something else. Something else is apparently lethal. 

Signs of aging are obvious. Our once athletic gait begins to resemble a camel walking on glass shards. Falling down is a major fear. Getting up is a major feat — an exercise in patience and ingenuity. Our steel trap brains begin rusting. Short-term memory loss is an unwelcome visitor, as I vaguely recall. 

The sudden appearance of facial wrinkles is a miserable indicator that the ravages of aging have commenced. Sagging is a particularly annoying problem. Replacement of body parts becomes routine as we age. A vein from my leg, formerly used to drain blood from my extremities, is now employed to bypass clogged arteries in my heart. My aortic heart valve function has been reconstructed thanks to a bovine refurbishing. I feel slightly guilty eating steak now, thinking it might be one of my relatives.

The antidotes available to grapple with the labyrinth of aging are limited. We can deny it’s happening, develop some method of resistance or attempt to control it. Some find spiritual solace in religion, which promises improved conditions on the other side, although I have never met anyone eager to test that hypothesis. Alcohol is a popular, temporary diversion from the reality of aging but it’s only a short-term sensation and often with unpleasant side effects. 

Surgical interventions, retinol creams and contouring treatments are fashionable, but they are expensive and often result in unintended consequences.

Birthdays — which once defined cultural rites of passage toward adulthood — have morphed into miraculous, treasured milestones. They have become precious collectibles, and the more of them we celebrate the happier we are. 

Having birthdays is significantly more enjoyable than not having birthdays. As we drain the last celebratory flute of champagne for one birthday we immediately start anticipating the next, hoping we can evade the Grim Reaper and preserve our mind and body for one more year and achieve another celebration. 

Experts tell us the elderly should exercise, eat a healthy diet, stay hydrated, engage in mental exercises, visit friends, limit alcohol consumption and stay busy. Just reading that sentence makes me want to lie down and take a nap. Naps are mandatory for the elderly.

As we age, our mindset ping-pongs between hope and despair, joy and sadness. Recalibrating our mental outlook is essential. Confronting the inevitable takes courage and a healthy dose of humor. 

To survive this arduous endeavor — and possibly even flourish — requires first embracing the process or at least acknowledging it, then developing some nimble, pragmatic rituals and behaviors that can assist in navigating the end game of life. It takes determination, some luck, a loyal support group and a positive attitude. 

We all know how it ends. The journey is important; the destination, not so much.

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