Beyond Aging Well

Lloyd Den Boer

We lived busy working lives when we were employed. Our work gave meaning to our lives, and it was demanding. Then we retired. Almost suddenly, the unremitting pace and grave responsibilities of our former jobs fell away, giving us more time to shape our lives around other activities that we love. What we love to do is a long and varied list. For some of us, nothing is better than a well-earned pause on a high mountain trail, a pause when a stunning vista springs into view. For others, immersing ourselves in cities and cultures that we have long wanted to experience is the best thing. Still others treasure time to gather family members or friends in rooms bursting with laughter. Many of us volunteer. Serving others serves us with human connections and a sense of consequence in the world. Some of us pursue our hobbies — whether gardening, quilting, carpentry, or many others — more intensely than before. For many of us, more time to curl in a favourite chair, lost in yet another absorbing book, is the best gift that retirement can give.

Retirement brings big changes, including new opportunities. New opportunities are of less use, however, without full capacity to use them. Accordingly, seniors are cautioned against drifting aimlessly through their golden years. Instead, the best advice urges us to take charge of our health and to age well. Aging well requires the healthy mental, emotional, and physical functioning that form a foundation for active engagement with life. Sound advice for aging well includes plenty of exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep, varied interests, and an active social life.

However, despite our efforts to age well, as years go by, our capacities begin to fail. Most of us notice the vigour of our middle years fading, and a few will suffer consequential health events that accelerate decline. Some of us are gradually enclosed in more separated worlds as our sight or hearing dim. Others may lose easy access to activities that they love as they lose their capacity to move independently. Memory and cognition grow weaker for many, gradually withdrawing aspects of our selves from us. In time many of us lose our partners, leaving us alone when we had long depended on being together. Should we grow very old, we will also lose the relatives and friends in our age cohort, leaving us isolated on an island of time that few share. As we age, each of us walks along our own path, but, for most of us, it will be a path marked by losses.

How should we face these losses? In “Sailing to Byzantium,” the Irish poet W. B. Yeats portrays a man determined to abandon his love for the things that aging was taking from him. The ordinary world with its “… young / In one another’s arms,” is “… no country for old men,” he says. In the ordinary world, “[a]n aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick.” Accordingly, the poem’s speaker proposes to leave the ordinary world with its “sensual music” behind and to set sail figuratively for an exotic land beyond the indignity of aging. His destination is the world of the mind where, he believes, life among great works of art and intellect will insulate him from time.

As gorgeous as this poem is, it arises from profound heartache. I think Yeats knew that we cannot and should not turn our backs on the things we loved in life, even when aging takes them away. The things we loved are lovely. The appropriate response to their loss — at least for a time — is grief.

Perhaps these words from an ancient sage can move us from grief to a measure of contentment. The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” This includes, “a time to be born and a time to die.” Observing that everything is beautiful in its own time, he concluded, “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live.”

Lloyd Den Boer is a retired educator living in Edmonton with his wife. Together they aspire to live contentedly, enjoying the best of what lies ahead on their path through life’s later years.