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Old Age Ain’t No Place for Sissies!


Blogs are theoretically supposed to be well reasoned tightly constructed, personalized essays on a specific matter or topic. I think the bulk of my blogs over the years have conformed to this paradigm.

This time, however, I want to offer you something slightly different.

What I’m posting here is the script that I prepared for a radio show on WGN – The Download with Justin Kaufmann. Every month I join Justin as the “Resident Philosopher” of the show and we discuss a topic of socio-political or philosophical importance. In March, we tackled the benefits and problems of aging. I hope you find my script comments and quotes are of some interest and use to you.

The Act of Aging

Al Gini

Resident Philosopher, WGN


Based on: John Leland, Happiness is a Choice You Make


  1. “Old Age Ain’t No Place for Sissies!” (Betty Davis and many others!)
  2. But, it is also not a punishment, a penalty, or a curse. Old age is not just the sum of our disabilities. It isn’t just a prolonged “death sentence”. It’s not just a daily “organ recital” – old age is a perk! And, you only get it if you’re lucky.
  • Aging needs to be seen not as the end of life, but as another phase of life – a phase that has its drawbacks but its opportunities too!
  1. Book Thesis / My Thesis
    • “Aging is an extraordinary process whereby you (get a chance) to become the person you always should have been”. – David Bowie
  2. Big Caveat:
    • Age doesn’t necessarily result in wisdom and insight.
    • Age is not without its physical/psychological problems (at 85+, 72% of us have one disability, 55% more than one.)
    • Aging does not necessarily heal all wounds.
    • There is no one formula for aging well.
    • Aging for most of us is a foreign country with a language unknown to us until we get there!
    • Too many of us view aging with fear, despair. “A post script to life”.
  3. There are some things you can do to prepare for old age. According to Harvard Medical Research, we all need to adhere to at least seven major life factors:
    • Not smoking or quitting early
    • A positive mental attitude; being able to cope with, if not cure, life problems
    • Not total abstinence from alcohol (thank God!), but the absence of alcohol abuse
    • Healthy weight
    • A solid marriage. (Ironically, after 30 years of a 50 percent divorce rate in first marriages, we now have proof that marriage is good for us!) (But not always true for both parties. Men seem to live longer married. Women live longer with or without marriage.)
    • Exercise and physical activity. (And remember, sex is exercise too!)
    • Years of education. The more years of schooling people have, the more they tend to age successfully.
  • Bottom line, health is a component of happiness, but not always the only component.
  • John Leland (Happiness is a Choice You Make) is not a given, it’s an artifact.
    • You have to plan and work for it.
    • Need to overcome dread
    • Need to overcome apathy
    • Start changing your attitude
      • G.: “You can go to a museum and think, I’m confined to a wheelchair in a group of half-dead old people. Or, you can think, “Oh look, a Matisse.”
    • True, old age is a “gift” that keeps on taking! The Q is: What are you going to do about it?
  1. The underlying thesis of all the research on aging is a classical one

Victor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning

  1. Without meaning, life is not endurable.
  2. Without meaning, there is no purpose.
  • But meaning and purpose need not be “rocket science / brain surgery” – It can be pedestrian and parochial. (A child’s smile, a sunny day, a chance to see a loved one/friend, less pain today than yesterday, a good book.
  1. We must choose happiness amid other options! Life is relative. The only Q is: Right now, are you happy?
  2. Why is this topic critical today?

Because: Demographics is Destiny. How do we address, as a society, our new aging population?

  • Today in America – approximately 14% of population is over 65.
  • In 1900, average age was 47.
  • Today average age is approximately 76.
  • Not only are more of us living than ever before, more of us are living longer than ever before.
    • Moreover, as boomers age they are seriously altering the age range of the nation.
    • In 2020, people over the age of 65 will increase from 35 million in 1995 to 53 million.
    • In 2026, people over the age of 85 will increase to 9 million from 4.2 million in 1999.
    • And by 2020, senior boomers will make up more than 18% of the U.S. population – the same proportion as in Florida today.
  • The New Category of Old Age
    • 85+ years! “The oldest old!”
    • In 1900 – under 1 million
    • Today – 6 million and counting!
    • Only 11% in nursing homes; 70% take care of themselves.
  • The Dilemma
    • How do we address this growing and diverse demographic group? Part of it is not seeing age or a sentence, a penalty, but a lucky peak.
  • We need to rethink how we view age, and categorize aging
    • In the 1930s, H. L. Mencken lamented that after you’re 40 years old, it’s all over. “The best years are the 40s,” he said. “After that, a person begins to deteriorate. But in their 40s, people are at the zenith of their energy and vitality.” For Mencken, 40 meant middle age, and middle age meant crisis, breakdown and the beginnings of old age and death.
  1. We need to give up the myth about aging
    • Myth I: People over 65 are old.
    • Older people are chronically in poor health.
    • Older minds are not as bright and flexible as younger minds.
    • Older people are undependable and unproductive.
    • Older people are unattractive and sexless.
    • All older people are pretty much the same.
    • All older people lost their passion for life.
  • According to Journalist Gail Sheehy, we need to rethink the new “old age”.
    • We need to rethink our new second adulthood that is really in two parts:
      • 65 to 85
      • 85 to ?
    • According to John Leland, happiness is a choice we make. When you think about it objectively, why is “old age” automatically a curse, and “youth” always a blessing? Every age has its crises. Every age has its problems. Every age has its highs and lows. Personally, I believe that thirteen to thirty are the toughest years of all. Think about it.
      • The end of childhood
      • Puberty
      • Schooling
      • The pursuit of identity
      • Sex
      • Adult status
      • Marriage
      • Kids of your own
      • Mortgages
      • Jobs and careers
    • And, let’s not kid ourselves, the middle years – thirty to sixty – aren’t necessarily all that glorious either.
      • First marriage ends
      • Second marriage, second set of kids, second set of in-laws
      • Kids grow up
      • Tuition payments
      • Second marriage ends
      • Friends move
      • Your place and value in job market change
      • Your body begins to remind you that life is a cumulative injury disease
      • The kids come back
      • Parents die
      • Friends begin to die
      • Kids marry
      • A lot of stuff you used to think was fun isn’t fun anymore
      • Kids move back with their kids
      • The point: youth may be glorious! But it is also painful to endure.
    • Why can’t “old age,” our “second adulthood,” sixty years and counting, be a time when – liberated from the pressures and hang-ups of a youth-oriented society driven by work, status, and success – we find relish in existence and search for a deeper meaning for life? Why can’t maturity represent the highest point in human development? Why can’t “old age” be our “Sabbath days”? Days of rest, reflection, the pursuit of insight and wisdom.
  1.  Scientists call it: Gerotranscendence. Age can give us the change to:
    • To overcome our fear of irrelevance.
    • To let go of our fear of failure.
    • To let go of the tyranny of the dream, the tyranny of false expectations.
    • Be more realistic.
    • To pack away illusion, false hopes, excessive desires.
    • To see that we are not in this alone.
    • Less self concern.
  • Why can’t we see age as healthy growth, as a part of the continuity of life, as an opportunity for wisdom, and not simply as the vestibule to death?
  • Old age offers us the opportunity, in Plato’s words, to put aside “the passions and indiscretions of youth” so that we can:
    • Learn the lesson and walk away from the pain.
    • See beyond unimportant parochial particulars.
    • Let go of some of our self-serving egoism.
    • Transcend pointless power struggles.
    • No longer fear failure.
    • No longer always have to worry about self-aggrandizement.
    • No longer be solely involved in careers, status, and success.
    • Be open to the possibility/reality of change.
    • Be non-threatened by the needs of others.
    • Be open to different life lessons.
    • Give up most of control.
  • Abraham Maslow once suggested that that wisdom was the accumulation of knowledge and experience, and then living long enough to reflect on it, make sense of it, and apply it to oneself and others. Age and wisdom may not necessarily be connected, but age is a necessary condition for the achievement of real wisdom. Maslow is not suggesting that “younger people” cannot be smart, intelligent, or clever, but rather that wisdom and insight require time and fermentation to develop.
  • No matter how Panglossian (Voltaire – Candide); Extreme optimism in face of extreme adversity seems, Leland argues:
    • We can choose the quality of our own aging process.
    • Decide what you want to be when you get old!
    • Search out meaning.
    • When you are old, you are have to make yourself happy. Otherwise, you get older!
    • Don’t just lament what you can’t do! Do what you can!
    • Time is limited, enjoy yourself.
    • Age can equal less stress.
    • Remind yourself: happiness is not what it was, but what is happening right now.
    • Happiness is about living in the moment.
    • Money helps, family helps, support helps – but in the end happiness is a choice.
  • My Personal Bottom Line:
    • What choice do we really have regarding aging?
    • Admit it: every age has its benefits and drawbacks
    • Let go of the “tyranny of the ‘still’” – I “still” can do this! I “still” can do that! Stop clinging desperately to the past!
    • Give up the myth of control. Old age is not a personal affront. It only happens if you’re lucky enough to live long enough.
    • Be grateful! Life is a gift. Gratitude is the most common feeling individuals who are enjoying or at least accepting their old age!
    • Remember: no one is “entitled” or “guaranteed” anything in this life!
    • Say “thank you”, be “thankful”!
  • Three Keys from a 93 year old:
    • Stop complaining!
    • You can’t go back. Let bygones be bygones!
    • Learn something
    • Don’t always stay home
    • Keep hoping
  • “Age” or “aging” is an arbitrary nomenclature, a variable that is subject to the widest cultural interpretations. For example, all of us know people who were young at heart well into their nineties, and others who were cranky oldsters in their teens. My own mother once called me “the oldest, crabbiest man she had ever met.” She did it at my eighth birthday party right after I criticized the quality of the decorations and the party favors – think Frasier!
  • Age and aging are basic facts of life. The psychologist Seymour Littallek warns that we have a personal duty and social obligation to respect and honor the concepts of age and aging in regard to both ourselves and others.
    • A society that does not provide sufficient gratifications for the elderly will be an unhappy society for the young as well as the old. If the old are not gratified, nobody can accept the prospect of age with equanimity…for any society which cannot treat its elderly members decently is doomed to unremitting despair and chaos.
  • Let’s end with Tribune columnist, Eric Zorm’s (a youthful 60 years old) “14-Point Plan to be a Good, Old Man”.



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