Is Positive Aging Possible?

Positive Aging

When I mentioned to my son that I was writing an article on Positive Aging, he laughed. It’s an oxymoron, no?

Common wisdom: Aging means we’re falling apart, our bodies are breaking down, aches and pains increasing, minds atrophying, our family and friends are dying and, to top it all, what do we have to look forward to? Death. Did you hear what Woody Allen said about death? “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

I ask you: What’s positive?

The tech culture makes us feel like time is passing up us by , our American culture is a youth culture. Anti-aging is a billion dollar business. I read recently that even tech workers in their 30’s and 40’s are getting botox injections and having hair transplants prior to important job interviews.

Agism. Have you had the experience of being either neglected or shunted aside because of your age? Respect for elders seem like concepts of the distant past. Did you know that in colonial America, old age was a mark of distinction? Wigs were created to help young people look old.

What’s positive?

For one thing: we’re living healthier, longer. Have you heard of “The “longevity revolution”? People turning 65 this year will, on average, live to their mid 80’s and many will live to 100 and beyond, doubling life expectancy in less than a century. Did you know that centenarians are the fastest growing segment of our population? That’s the good news. The bad news –we can live a long time but what about the quality of our lives? That’s the question, isn’t it? I read recently about the 128 year old Russian woman, Koku Istambulova, the oldest person on the earth by 6 years, Koku said ““I have always worked hard, digging in the garden and you know what? I have not had a single happy day in my life.”

Quality of life. How many of you would like your aging experience to be more positive? You’re in the right place. I am living proof that aging can, in fact, improve the quality of your life.

What qualifies me to write this article?

The obvious: I’m 77 years old and I am a positive, happy person. I’ve been married to the same beautiful woman for 43 years, live & work right here in the Palisades. I have 3 great adult kids, 5 delightful grandkids and I’m a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in end of life concerns. I facilitate a positive aging group at the Lutheran Church. I get to spend my days helping people. What’s not to be positive about? How did I get here? Probably the best answer is that I got here through failure, many failures. You’ve heard the expression, “fail your way to success.” That’s me.

As a little boy my dream, my passion was to become a great baseball player like Mickey Mantle of the NY Yankees. Anybody hear of him? I practiced day and night, in front of the mirror, and in the yard. My mom even hired a professional player to tutor me. The 50’s were a time of big. Big everything. You remember? Big athletes like Mantle, big movie stars John Wayne & Gary Cooper, big cars, remember the Cadillac with 350 horsepower engine and fins? …there was only one slight hitch in my plan to become another Mantle, I was short, awkward, & slow – a dynamite combination, eh?

That theme played out multiple times in my life. As a young east coast college grad, I came to Hollywood to pursue a big acting career. Hey, I lived with Jack Nicholson for almost a year, hung out with movie stars, and sure, that made me feel important for a little while.  But you know what, it took me almost 10 years to realize it- I was a lousy actor.

Then, My first marriage ended in disaster. That turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me because it led me to my second and current wife, Dee Dee.

Then, after another career disaster as a singer, I was now in my 40’s I started experiencing shortness of breath, panic attacks, couldn’t sleep. I felt like a complete failure. In desperation, I called my older brother Dick who was a Christian minister living in Florida.

“Brother, I’ve got no $, no job and no job skills, what the heck am I gonna do?”

“Kane, Kane. Listen Kane, you’re whole life you’ve had great people skills.

“Dick, there’s no job called “people skills”.

“Relax Kane.Think about mom and dad, how dedicated they were, helping others, With your life experience and communication skills, Why not try something in the people helping business, like therapy or social work? You’d be great, I know you would. “

That conversation was a turning point in my life. It made me think deeply about my own strengths and about my parents, Walter & Connie. You see, my parents loved each other and they also loved me.  And I’m proud to share with you that when mom disappeared into alcoholism, dad stayed loyal, even founded an AL anon chapter in our community (we’re talking the 1950’s here, a time when AL anon was just starting, and it was mostly women.). Dad was also the school board chairman and mom eventually became a spokesperson for AA. They both died prematurely, mom tragically, just as she was blossoming in her recovery. Since this is Memorial Day weekend, it seems particularly appropriate that I’m here today, standing on their shoulders, standing on their love and their dedication to helping others.

What does that story have to do with Positive Aging? Nothing is more important than love, especially for those of us who are aging. A recent report Harvard U 100 year study found that having a mutually supportive relationship was an essential key not only for longevity but also to quality of life. On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your “lovability”?  How might you become more loveable? (exercise – recall a specific moment in your life when you either felt loved or felt loving toward someone or something). How to grow that feeling is by daily practice, spending time each day …

Along with love, another key to positive aging is Gratitude. Love & Gratitude as an attitude and also a practice.

Early last year my wife, daughter & I were visiting in Atlanta with our son and his family. Super Bowl Sunday when I started experiencing tightness in my chest and pain in my left arm. I knew something was very wrong. My son suggested driving me to the hospital but I insisted he call 911. That saved my life. I had a heart attack in the ambulance. I had emergency treatment in the ambulance and then had 2 stents implanted when I arrived at the hospital just a couple of hours after the initial event symptoms. I was later informed that my “widow maker” artery was 100% blocked and that only 40 % of men even make it to the hospital with the same condition.

What I experienced upon waking in the ICU was … Not only was I was alive but I reflected on the richness of my life an overwhelming feeling of love & gratitude. Gratitude is an attitude. It’s been said that “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.”

All the literature on positive aging includes this key. It takes daily practice. The author, philosopher Meister Ekhart wrote: “ If the only prayer you ever say is … thank you… that would suffice”. Take a moment and consider what you are most grateful for.  Consider using “thank you” as an affirmation that you wake up to, use throughout the day, and go to bed with. Love & gratitude, a dynamic duo.

After my heart attack, I made a silent vow to spend the balance of my days dedicated to relieving suffering and increasing joy both in my loved ones and those that I serve.  Seems like my heart attack motivated me to double down on my life purpose. Purpose, that’s key #3 to positive aging.

The Japanese call it Iki Gai. The island of Okinawa is a blue zone, meaning it’s one of 7 special places on the earth where people live much longer lives than others. Ichi Gai is foundational, staying busy by helping others. I had a recent experience at the VA hospice in the valley and was assigned a young (in his 40’s ) ex marine named Frankie. Frankie’s stomach was riddled with cancer and hugely bloated, He had no teeth – and less than 4 months to live.

He had lead a dissolute life, consumed by alcohol and drugs – as a result he had alienated everyone in his family, including 2 ex wives. The only thread of dignity in his life was a photo of himself on the dresser of him in his early 20’s in his marine dress uniform. Frankie was a mess.

But, but seeing my age, He soon shared with me that he loved the music of the 60’s, a taste he had inherited from older brothers and his parents. As he talked he seemed to come alive. Of course, I, too, was into 60’s music, having lived it right here on the Sunset strip in Hollywood. Santana, Chicago, Johnny Cash, The Byrds, the Beatles –This created an immediate bond. I got the idea of starting a playlist for him – all my adult kids had playlists on their Iphones. Why not me? I bought a small Bose speaker and brought it to his hospice room and started playing the music. It was like magic. He climbed out of bed and we started dancing. We cranked up the volume and danced our asses off. This became a weekly ritual. Soon, nurses and neighboring patients began to join us. Party time in Frankie’s hospice room! This was not normal hospice life.

Then he hit a precipitous decline, couldn’t get out of bed but he still wanted to hear the music. The day before he died, he was barely conscious and I said, “Frankie, maybe I shouldn’t play the music today.” In barely a whisper he said, “please, play the music. You dance, I’ll watch.” That’s what I did – I could see him wiggling his toes in time to the music. He died the next day.

Today my playlist has expanded to over 100 songs. It has brought me so much joy. Thank you Frankie! Ichi Gai – in giving, you receive. And that is true for all of my work with clients. Purpose/Service – what might you do to improve the lives of those nearest to you and thereby improve your own life? How about music? Do you have a playlist of your favorite songs?

The 4th key to positive aging is simply …. Smile, Laughter, Play. –  Doesn’t it feel like Aging helps us not to care so much about what other people think. So we have greater access to our silliness, our fun muscle, our … happiness muscle. Smile – fake it till you make it.  The trick is to exercise it regularly; One of the greatest gifts you can give to another human being is a smile.

How about laughter? Laughing yoga. Another fake it till make it …Laughing Yoga exercise.

To conclude, we have discussed 4 keys to positive aging: 1: Love, 2: Gratitude, 3: Purpose, and 4: Laughter. I believe that we, everyone here in this room, at this time in history have an opportunity to create a paradigm shift away from thinking that aging sucks. The great 20th Century English poet, TS Eliot wrote:

“An old man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder

Sing, for every tatter in its mortal dress.”

What if we show that world that we can clap our hands and sing, that we can age gracefully and meaningfully? Let’s make our generations” legacy not about all our past achievements and accumulation of material goods but rather about how well we finish our lives. Let’s find the music in our souls and share it with the world.