One of the indignities of aging is that sooner or later our bodies and minds begin to betray us.
It’s all too easy to bemoan this inevitable loss of youthful dexterity, stamina, strength and sharpness. Griping about our troubles is one of the privileges of age, after all. But what if we could think of this inevitable decline in a different way — that is, as an energizing creative challenge rather than a draining cross to bear?
Personally, I love to gripe, and am by nature a “why-can’t-the-glass-have-something-more-interesting-than-water-in-it?” type of guy. But at some point in my 50s, I got tired of dwelling on the physical abilities I was losing — to cancer, multiple back surgeries and various other medical complications — and decided to start treating the various annoyances of aging as a game of sorts, one that can be “played” every day and is rewarding in its own right.
Trying Creative Things a Different Way
For example, I have been an avid guitar player for more than 30 years. I almost gave up the instrument at one point, however, because chemo-induced neuropathy reduced the feeling and dexterity in my fingers, particularly my left pinky. Frustrated that I couldn’t play certain songs the way I used to, I stopped trying.
I always hated golf, and spent the first 40 years of my life disparaging the sport as a “good walk spoiled” (in the words of Mark Twain).
Then I read a story about how a guitarist named Billy McLaughlin overcame a career-killing neuromuscular disorder called dystonia by teaching himself how to play with his opposite hand. Inspired, I decided to try re-fingering the songs I knew to minimize or eliminate using my pinky finger.
It was difficult and awkward at first, but pretty soon the challenge of re-learning the songs in a different way re-kindled my enthusiasm for playing music. Now I play every day.
It’s All About Attitude
Everyone employs strategies to make their life a little easier, of course. There is more than one way to do just about everything, and learning how to adapt — to find a better, easier, less painful way to do things — is an important and necessary skill as we grow older. The difference I’m talking about is one of attitude, of tricking the brain’s reward system to make necessary coping mechanisms feel like worthwhile accomplishments.
For example, at one point in my life, I was not physically capable of walking around the block. The discs in my back were degenerating, and walking was just too painful. It felt as if the universe was unfairly punishing me. All I wanted to do at the time was be able to take my dogs on a walk, but I couldn’t.
‘A Mile with My Dogs’
So one day I set a goal: Within a year, I told myself, I would walk a mile with my dogs. With that goal in mind, I researched what sort of physical conditioning and lifestyle changes would be necessary to achieve it and dedicated myself to the task. It took a lot of work, but at the end of the year, I could easily walk a mile, sometimes even two, with occasional stops to sniff and pee (my dogs, that is, not me).
During that year, I can’t tell you how many times the gloomy voice in my head told me to give up, or how much I resented having to work so hard to do something “normal” like walk a dog. But at some point I realized that comparing my own abilities to other people’s was a recipe for depression, and that by re-calibrating my expectations to fit my own personal circumstances, I could change my entire attitude about the project from that of resentment and resignation to one of determination and hope.
The work itself wasn’t exactly “fun,” but doing the work with a goal in mind gave those days an extra level of meaning and purpose.
Can’t Play Tennis? Learn Golf
Granted, I am what psychologists would call a “goal-oriented” person, which means I derive satisfaction from setting goals and achieving them. All too often, however, getting older means giving up activities one used to enjoy. But giving up doesn’t have to mean giving in.
Taking up a new activity to replace the old one is an excellent way to fight back.
When I was young, I was a competitive tennis player. I expected to be able to play tennis my whole life, but had to give up the sport because of back issues. I always hated golf, and spent the first 40 years of my life disparaging the sport as a “good walk spoiled” (in the words of Mark Twain).
But one summer, I decided to try it and discovered that while I couldn’t make a full swing, I could hit the ball with a modified half-swing and get acceptable results. It took a while to learn to like golf, but the better I got at it, the more I enjoyed it. Now I play golf whenever I can, and do not miss playing tennis at all.
The Satisfaction of Accomplishment
The same basic idea can be applied to other areas of life. As Merlin tells young King Arthur in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, “The best thing for being sad is to learn something.” It doesn’t matter if you take up quilting, bridge, needlepoint, painting, pottery or poker, the point of learning something new in the waning years of life is to remind yourself what it feels like to accomplish something — to make progress, not regress.
If you’ve been baking the same three cakes for the past 40 years, take a cake-decorating class and learn how to make buttercream roses.
If your exercise routine hasn’t changed in 20 years, try yoga or Pilates. Take a dance class. Learn tai chi.
Positive Effects on Health
Approaching later life creatively, with a willingness to experience new things or trade one experience for another, not only keeps the neurons in our brains firing, it wards off depression and fatigue. Anything that changes things up and disrupts the stagnancy of an entrenched routine can work. This principle of creative problem-solving can also be applied to the little things in life:
- If your hands hurt carrying a shopping a bag, try carrying it with your forearms.
- If you can no longer drive, learn to use a ridesharing service like Uber or Lyft.
- If you have trouble holding onto a fork, wrap a piece of foam around the handle with duct tape.
- Learn how to use your phone to record voice memos, reminding you when to take medication, send birthday cards to grandchildren or a hundred other things.
Entire industries are now devoted to helping older adults navigate the difficulties and indignities of later life. But a simple willingness to try something new or find a better way of doing something old can go a long way toward rediscovering a sense of accomplishment in our latter years.
Sometimes, the only defense we have against life is to outsmart it.