After all, 65 is a longtime bullet-point mile marker along the Interstate of American Life, the product of uncounted hours of congressional back room dealing and insurance-company probability charts. Sixty-five is when you're supposed to retire, put your feet up, smell the roses, to bask in the glow of a well-spent life in the land of the fee. This lovely neo-utopian vision has largely been replaced by the ethic of work-work-work until you drop, but 65 still remains the top of the stretch, where, like a creaky claiming horse in the sixth race at Aqueduct, you're supposed to be turning for home.
For me, 65 was an onset of pure panic, an ingress of cold claustrophobia. My father died when he was 75, but he was sick. Years of kidney dialysis and he keels over from a heart attack. My mother made it to 84, full speed ahead to the last breath. If the DNA holds up, that gives me another 19 years, but what's 19 years? Only yesterday I was 26, a strapping Icarus, soaring on the drunken tailwind of my own infinity. Or was that last week?
"Beats the alternative"; that's what you're supposed to say about getting old. Yet a strange thing was happening. As I trod ever deeper into the outer ring of oldness, my fears, nightmares I've nurtured the bulk of my life, began to lighten. I began to look upon my venerability not as a state preferable only to death, but rather as the opportunity of a lifetime.
This new paradigm took hold as a scattershot succession of time-specific mini-epiphanies. One of these realizations came while thumbing through a book titled A History of Old Age. In addition to detailing Aristotle's distaste for the aged, whom he thought to be excessively pessimistic, malicious and small-minded owing to their extended interface with life's grinding "disappointments," A History of Old Age featured a number of Enlightenment-era drawings titled "The Stages of Man's Life From the Cradle to the Grave."
In this scheme, life is depicted as an eternal staircase; the steps ascend, reach a topmost platform, then go down. The traveler begins on the ground floor as "a lamb-like innocent," then climbs upward, each step signifying a ten-year interval. The "eagle-like" 20s lead to the "bull-like" 30s, nearing the apex in the 40s, when "nought his courage quails but lion-like, by force prevails." (A companion chart notes a woman's peak to be 30, when she is said to be a "crown to her husband.") From this upper perch, it is all downhill, through the grasping, Scroogelike 60s; the languorous, ineffectual 70s; and ending in the largely symbolic "one-hundredth year," when, "tho' sick of life, the grave we fear." In a French version of "The Stages," called "Le Jugement Universel," the final downward phases are known as l'âge de décadence and l'âge décrépit.
Probably even Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie couldn't make l'âge décrépit sound sexy, but it was no great task to create a personalized, modern-age version of "The Stages." A pattern of whiplash upheaval emerged. I was born in 1948; my "lamb-like innocence" was spent learning how to be a Cold War kid, schooled in the nuances of 1950s preteen reality, "Have Gun -- Will Travel" and "Gunsmoke" on the tube every Saturday night. Then, just as I mastered my kidlike state, becoming a King of Kids, the rug was pulled out. Without warning, I was thrust into a hormone-laced universe of spouting pubic hair and the Rolling Stones. It was back to square one, a whole new playing field to navigate. The ensuing "eagle-like" adolescent-cum-teen quake lasted through the lionization-canonization-commodification of youth culture during the 1960s and early '70s, during which time I would grow to become an exemplar, warts-and-all specimen of my burgeoning bunch, who were on the cover of Time magazine every other week. This period also ended with unprecognitioned abruptness when I became a husband, a father and a simulacrum of a grown-up. It was one more Sisyphean moment, a brand-new rock of unknown size and density to roll up the hill. This was the structure, a repeating push-pull of stasis and change requiring periodic recalibration of self.
This essay appears in the April 7-20, 2014 issue of New York magazine.
An extensive body of research has linked community and strong social support to good health, less stress and increased longevity. Prioritizing time with friends, family, community groups and even pets can go far in increasing well-being during your golden years.
Spending time in nature has been shown to reduce stress levels and improve quality of life. A recent UK study found that urban-dwellers reported less mental distress and higher life satisfaction when they were living in greener areas. Try to fit in a daily walk or outdoor recreational activity, and if possible, plan trips to relaxing places of natural beauty.
Mindfulness -- the practice of cultivating a focused awareness on the present moment -- can not only improve the quality of your life, but it can also improve your health. Practicing mindfulness meditation can improve your sleep quality, boost focus, support weight loss goals and reduce stress, among other health advantages. But the best part? It will help you to make the most of your life by making you take note of all that's around you.
Exercising the brain is just as important as exercising the body in aging well and maintaining good health through your golden years. Keep the mind agile and sharp through crossword puzzles, sudoku, and brain-training games. "It’s huge for the brain," said Hall. "Instead of it getting stale and old and not getting the oxygen, water and blood that it needs, these exercises work the brain just like you’d be working out in the gym. "
Whether it's yoga, meditation or jogging, find a stress-relief tactic that works for you, and make it a part of your daily routine. Whatever it is, creating a simple daily stress-reduction routine wil keep your mind calm and help ward off the negative health impacts of chronic stress.
The Buddha once said that the only constant in life is change, and this is never more true than in your post 50 years, when many life-changing events are taking place. At this stage in your life, everything is shifting -- and it can be difficult to keep up with all the transformation and movement. Work on accepting the changes in your daily life by consciously attempting to let go and accept the present moment. Click here for inspiration from wellness experts on the little and big things they've stopped stressing over.
Financial health is a crucial component of a relaxing, stress-free older adulthood and retirement. Plan for the future as early as possible, and develop financial habits with your retirement in mind to minimize money stress later in life when you should be enjoying yourself. Click here for helpful money management information for retirees.
The health benefits of gratitude are many, included increased well-being, improved sleep, stronger relationships and better heart health. Instead of dwelling on health problems, financial woes or family issues, try to focus on what you're grateful for in life. Keep a gratitude journal where you write down a list of things you're thankful for every day, and try to flip around negative situations so that you see their silver lining (for example, if you're missing a loved one, focus on what they've added to your life).