Aging Gracefully in an Uncertain World

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Aging Gracefully in an Uncertain World

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When 77-year-old John Glenn blasted off into space aboard he space shuttle Discovery, the positive aspects of graceful aging were clearly evident.

The United Nation General Assembly has designated 1999 as the International Year of Older Persons. This shows a significant shift in Western society attitudes towards sympathizing with aging and the elderly. Recognition of their value is long overdue.

Calling Out the Gray Army

Retirement at an ever-earlier age is spawning a far-reaching trend. It results in a huge pool of still vigorous men and women too often involved in a restless floating about the country. Some occupy themselves with part-time jobs or self-employment as they search for effective meaning to this vital stage of their lives.

As governments' deficit spending eats away at the value of retirement programs, a gray army emerges of still-capable workers who need to pay ever-present bills—now even into their 90s. In some parts of the world-in particular the Indian subcontinent as well as in Asia, China and South America—the economic value of older people seems better appreciated. Because of cultural and economic necessity, many of the so-called underdeveloped countries still value senior citizens. Though walking into the sunset of their lives, many maintain fitness, health and their mental abilities.

Perhaps such countries are ahead of the affluent West. Society should see the need to treat golden-agers with more dignity, recognizing that they need not be shunted off into nursing homes for the aged.

Human Laboratory on Aging

An astronaut for the second time, John Glenn is a shining example of what social scientists have learned about aging gracefully. Mr. Glenn, astronaut and former United States senator, blasted into space on a nine-day mission last October, 36 years from when he became the first American to orbit the earth. Now he holds the record for being the oldest man in space.

Scientists hope Mr. Glenn's shuttle trip will lead to further space research on how and why we age. "Why send a 77-year-old man into space?" asked Robert Luchi of the Huffington Center on Aging at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "Here's a man who's done all the right things. He's exercised, watched his diet, his salt intake, not had too much to drink."

Aging research conducted in space may prove invaluable, Dr. Luchi and others say, because of the many physical astronauts experience. The near-weightless environment of an orbit around the earth resembles a speeded-up version of the aging process. The studies Mr. Glenn underwent to aid research bear on problems common with space and aging.

In astronauts, as in the elderly, muscles atrophy, bones weaken, sleep becomes difficult, and balance grows precarious. By studying an aging astronaut, scientists may better compare the effects of aging with the way the body changes in space flight.

Anything these tests eventually conclude may have already been upstaged by one simple fact: A 77-year-old man had the physical and mental capacity to pass stringent NASA flight testing to serve on the crew of a space-shuttle mission.


Avoiding the Despair Trap

Since Most of us are likely to live longer than our parents lived. What can we do to make our latter years as profitable and productive as possible?

The idea of retirement tends to push some people into discouragement and despair. Then, after the sudden loss of employment, boredom results. After all, who are you when you no longer define yourself by your work?

Retirement is one of the most troubling passages of adult life for many Americans. The higher the perceived status of one's work, the steeper and scarier the slide into anonymity. Retirees find themselves subjected to cultural prejudices, at times labeled "slow old geezers" and much worse. The elderly who accept such characterizations usually underestimate their mental skills. Pessimism can overcome those who believe the aging process has left them behind in reasoning and verbal skills. As a result, they can begin to adopt an unnecessary dependence on spouses, children or doctors. But positive steps can be taken to sidestep these circumstances.

Debunking Myths About Getting Older

Old people are not necessarily more handicapped than younger people. Anyone at any age can experience sickness or otherwise become incapacitated, even from birth. A handicap is not necessarily the result of advanced age.

According to recent studies brain cells do not die off in extensive numbers leading to a mental decline. Rather, they shrink or grow dormant in old age, especially from lack of stimulation and challenge. You can expect to continue to enjoy mental alertness throughout late age. If you are an older person who practices a daily discipline of mental exercise, you already maintain intellectual agility. Staying alert and alive can be as simple as doing crossword puzzles, writing family journals, balancing your budget or reading newspapers and books instead of passively ingesting too much television.

Certainly input and recall slow. But children, too, forget their clothes, toys and schoolbooks. How many parents exclaim, "You'd forget your head if it wasn't screwed on"? Aging does not automatically equate with forgetfulness.

Assert These Positives

Proper and sensible exercise helps maintain mental sharpness, vibrancy and the physical strength to negotiate steps, stairs and obstacles. In fact, it appears to be the single most effective nonmedical balm to retard the negative impact of aging. Long daily walks are part of a sensible regimen. In a fitness study, men and women typical of frail nursing-home residents worked out vigorously on exercise machines for 45 minutes three times a week to strengthen their legs.After only a few weeks these people—in their late 80s and 90s—could get around more quickly, climb stairs better and sometimes even throw away their walkers. Working out strengthens aging muscles and improves life in other significant ways.

Octogenarians who started exercising were less depressed and more likely to walk around on their own or take part in social activities. Exercise oxygenates the blood and helps release mood-elevating endorphin enzymes. It increases the oxygen and sugar available to the brain. Working on your health also helps you tell yourself you have not given up on life.

A word of qualification: A person with a chronic illness or serious debilitation may need professional medical advice before embarking on a strenuous exercise program. Consider acquiring a pet animal. Although pets are not for everyone, some hospitals and nursing homes use cats, dogs and canaries to entertain and help rehabilitate their patients. Pets can boost morale because they help people forget their problems. They induce laughter and help recall memories of favorite animals of the past. A pet can be a wonderful friend to ward off isolation and loneliness, not to mention the need for home security.

The Challenge of New Opportunities

Old age shouldn't be viewed as the automatic end of enjoyable and productive activities. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that new ventures in life that only the elderly can fully appreciate are on the way. The words of Psalm 92 are positively encouraging. Declaring that part of a blessing of being "the righteous" is also that "they shall still bear fruit in old age; they will stay fresh and flourishing" (verses 13-14).

Senior citizens need to find new goals for this critical stage of life so it turns out productive and fruitful. No matter how poor or limited life might have been, we still hold the power to shape our future.

Instead of focusing on time running out, it's a more positive exercise to make the most of each day. Priorities become different when time grows shorter. Have you heard the story of the aggressive young salesman trying to sell a 95-year-old man an insurance policy? In spite of polite refusals from the elderly gentleman, the young man persisted. Finally the old man said, "Look, young fellow, you don't seem to understand. At my age I don't even buy green bananas."

If every day is welcomed with a joy for life, you'll never feel too old. You will just keep on growing, and new opportunities will begin to present themselves.

Choosing the Good Life

At retirement or in advanced age, we have a second adulthood with an opportunity for new ambition. Instead of letting life push us around, we can begin to take charge. We invariably have two broad choices: passive aging or continued maturity. Passivity is to allow ourselves to be dominated by enfeeblement and breakdown of our health. Instead, we can make a conscious decision to push forward. Just like changing a career, it may mean trusting in faith and even involve some risk and require some tough discipline.

The closer we come to an end of our life's vitality, the Everest of all questions has to be faced. Is aging a cruel joke by the Creator? Or did He plan people to become old for a reason? What is turning elderly supposed to teach?

Near the conclusion of our life's experience, shouldn't we grapple with the basic questions like why we were born and why we even have life? We need to have the hope of living again—the expectation of a resurrection to a better life.

The aged tend to come to a clearer realization of how close they are to the Kingdom of God—a sense of urgency about making the most of each day and being closer to God. A new and better world awaits us all beyond the grave. With this comforting thought gloom and pessimism will fade. The final heartbeat in death is not an end, but a grand beginning.

As inconveniences of old age arrive—perhaps health problems, maybe just aches and pains—the expectation of a life in a new and better world order should shine more brightly. This is to be more prized than any other possessions. Seeking the Kingdom of God first (Matthew 6:33) makes our present lives more abundant and worthwhile.

Badge of Honor

God chose to portray His awesome majesty to the prophet Daniel and the apostle John by describing "the Ancient of Days" with hair as "white as wool" (Daniel 7:9; Revelation 1:14). So be delighted if white hair should come your way. Our creative, sustaining God is content to picture spiritual maturity that way. If white or gray hair represents accumulated godly wisdom, you wear a badge of honor.

Scripture encourages the younger generation to "rise up before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man, and fear your God" (Leviticus 19:32). It is important, however, that gray heads be "found in the way of righteousness" (Proverbs 16:31).

The International Year of Older Persons is a recognition that age should not be a trash-heap experience. Rather, it should be a new start. That new start should be viewed through a proper biblical perspective. Successfully coming to terms with aging means not viewing death as a period ending a sentence. Instead it is a comma, briefly interrupting a sentence that has yet more to say. GN

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