Aging Gracefully

Aging Gracefully

by Bonnie McLean O.M.D., A.P., M.A., B.S.N.

I am celebrating my 74th birthday in a few months. I am the most peaceful I have ever been, and my life around me reflects that peace. “How can you say that?” others ask. “Look at the state of the world!

We are in a state of global warming and environmental collapse. We are at constant war with threats of more conflict. We are being poisoned by polluted air and water and denatured and GMO food. Our medical care system is broken. Politics is beyond corrupt. And look at you. You went into a field that is out of the mainstream. What do you have to show for it? You still have to work full time. Plus you are part of a dying middle class that is carrying both the rich and the poor on it’s shoulders.” I say, “Gosh, you are right! And I’m a senior citizen!” Where did all of those years go?!

It was only yesterday that I was in nursing school looking ahead at a life full of adventure that seemed to stretch out in front of me forever. I felt beautiful. My body fit into my clothes without pooches and sags, and I never could have imagined my face with lines and wrinkles. And suddenly my role model is Betty White! I realize that more of my life is behind me than is in front of me.”

So, geez, why does my life feel so good? A dear friend, Tom, would have said, “Around age 50 is when we begin to become human beings. Until then we don’t have a chance, because we have not yet learned how to accept life on life’s terms. We keep thinking our will is running the show. We think that things happen because we make them happen. It’s not until we get beaten down a few times that we gain some compassion and realize that it is the heart that matters.” Tom had been a paratrooper in WWII. He grew up in the Bronx and was about as macho as a man could get. He told me stories of his fighting days in Europe. It was so cold that the men would share a sleeping bag and warn each other not to turn over in the night. I met him when he was 52. I was in my late 20’s. I had hardly known my father who was a busy physician and rarely home. Tom had been divorced by two wives who complained that he was a male chauvinist.

Over the 28 years I knew him, I watched him mellow. He lived in the present more than any person I have known. He ran a printing company. Every day was the same routine. I once asked him if he didn’t get bored. His reply was, “I guess I treat work like a meditation. I focus on something different every time I walk into the office.” Tom had been a closet opera singer….a tenor. This would have been pretty challenging as a young boy in the Bronx, and I figured this was how became a tough guy.

In his later years he listened to a lot of opera. His other favorite thing to do was to have dinner in a nice restaurant that served good martini’s. When he called me from California to tell me he had terminal lung cancer ( he had stopped smoking 30 years before ), I flew out to say “Goodbye.” Even though he was in a wheel chair and on oxygen, we celebrated our long friendship with a martini at a nice restaurant.

As a health practitioner who is also a senior citizen, of course a main interest of mine is longevity. I am always reading and studying something about nutrition, exercise, the effects of toxicity, the brain, telomeres, etc. The “Three R’s” of my childhood have become the Six R’s of health: Right nutrition, regular exercise, rest, recreation, right attitude, and relationship ( with self, others, and a Higher Power.)

Do I practice what I preach?…. not always. I’ve always pushed myself, and I don’t like that I can’t get away with it as well as I used to. Would I want to be 20 or 30 again? You bet! But only if I could know then what I know now. Otherwise I would not want to go back to a time when everything of value revolved around the external world…how I looked, how much attention I got, what I achieved, if I had a boyfriend, how much money I had. In my 40’s and 50’s I was still trying to “fix” myself. My values just changed to trying to get it together mentally and emotionally…..lots of therapy, methods of inner healing, and a spiritual quest.

Now at a time in my life where I thought I would be over the hill, I am working in the office of my dreams where I interact with amazing patients and colleagues. My health is good. I have wonderful friends who love me unconditionally. I’m growing every day through a nurturing relationship with a delightful man who helps me relax and embrace the beauty of every day. My gosh! If that is not abundance, what is?!

I can’t change the state of the world. So I try to remember the Serenity Prayer. I try to accept what I can’t change and change the things I can. I post social causes on Facebook and send emails to politicians. I send money to charity and tithe to my spiritual community. What difference does any of that make? Perhaps none , at least on a physical level. But who knows what impact it may have on an energy level? And it makes me feel good.

The most important thing to me is giving and receiving as much love as I am capable of ( yes, that changes every day ). Am I growing old gracefully? Some days yes, some days no. I went through a dark night of the soul only a few weeks ago with news about a loved one’s illness. When I emerged, I had discovered an enhanced appreciation of my friends and family and a desire to live in the moment. Plus somehow my boundaries have become much better. My experience of these dark nights has always been like this. So I am learning to embrace even these times, as they do have their gifts.

I once heard someone say, “If you are not growing, you are stagnating and thus dying.” Life will mold us whether we allow it or not. If we ignore life’s lessons, we do stagnate. And fighting them only wears us out and makes us old. So I am paying attention to my episode of burn-out and back on my own programs of health and self- care….those that I talk to my patients about. Yes, Betty White is indeed my role model…and Maya Angelo….and Tom….and George Burns who was still tap dancing at 99, the year before he died. He may have been 100 when he died, but he was not old!