Old is gold

Ageing need not mean deterioration. There are many options that we, or our parents, can choose even at a late stage in life

Each day, we are bombarded with advertisements for anti-ageing products. Movies, magazines, and television shows portray ageing as a force we must fear and fight. They coerce us to accept that ageing is a process of subtraction, decline and decay. As a consequence of which, we start taking desperate measures to delay, detour, or disguise the inevitable. But what if ageing is only a culturally-constructed myth? What if we can come to realise we don’t have to label ourselves as middle-aged, old or retired? Here are some thoughts to help tap into this period of our lives, to increase our influence, to be more functional and to accomplish more.
Disregard the social prejudice against ageing and embrace it as what makes life worth living. George Bernard Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

However, old age too is often wasted on the old, since few of us get there in the best shape, or harvest the fruit of this precious time. Old age is the period when our experiences, relationships, knowledge and judgment are most refined, since they have been cultivated over a lifetime. This is the time when we should be able to contribute the most to society, while also reaping the biggest rewards from it. Ironically, this is the time when people are expected to withdraw from active life, to retire.
World-renowned filmmaker Clint Eastwood, who recently turned 80, is a fine example of getting better with the passing years. He directed 20 movies and won five Academy Awards after he hit age 65. At a time when many of his contemporaries were retiring, Clint Eastwood just kept getting better and made the most of his age. As with a fine wine or a prized antique, the ageing process makes you better and more valuable.

As you age, the power of your brain increases—exploit it. The late Gene D Cohen, MD, PhD, author of The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain has, through his research, demonstrated that our ability to make good judgments in complex situations actually improves later in life.

Our brains continue to change in response to the activities that we expose it to, in a process called phenotypic plasticity. With right exercise and stimulus in our later years, our brain can grow new neurons and new extended branches of nerve cells, called dendrites. In addition, previously separate parts of the brain can start working together. The result is a stronger brain that is able to solve more complex problems.

As we grow older, our minds also get better at relativistic thinking—coming to the right course of action in complex situations by thinking rationally. We also develop better dialectical thinking—the ability to reach the right conclusion when the evidence might seem contradictory, and we acquire more systematic thinking ability—to separate the forest from the trees.

Wisdom unlike speed is only acquired over time. Middle-aged brains may not react as quickly as those of teenagers playing videogames or operating a flight simulator, but making wise decisions is learnt only over the years. An example of the mature mind’s ability to handle a complex real-life emergency is that of 57-year old Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger III. He made the best of all decisions and executed it perfectly when he decided to ditch his Airbus A-320 jet into the Hudson River in New York after Canadian geese had destroyed both engines. All 150 passengers and the crew of five survived, with no major injuries. Not one passenger on that plane wished that its pilot and crew were younger and less experienced.

The Social Portfolio
Group Efforts Individual Efforts
High Energy
  • Participating in drama, dance, a hiking club, team sports, choir, starting a new career
  • Attending a class or an adult learning program in person, volunteering to help others
  • Involvement in political and advocacy groups, service on boards and committees
  • Landscaping your yard, creating an ornamental garden, building a playhouse
  • Putting together a multi-media presentation involving your own interviews, research and photographu
  • Developing the ultimate walking tour of your town or neghbourhood
Low Energy
  • Hosting a regular game club, book club, discussion group
  • Working on an indoor hobby or craft with children or grandchildren
  • Reading aloud or telling stories to family or friends
  • Creating a funny email newsletter for friends and family
  • Inventing and testing new recipes, taking an online tutorial about something you want to share with others
  • Writing an autobiography or memoirs to share with others

This social portfolio matrix is based on the original model by Gene D Cohen, MD, PhD

Having a sharp brain does not automatically assure a better mind. Dr Cohen recommends that we should build a multi-part portfolio to serve us in our later years. This means that in addition to planning a financial portfolio, we must plan for a balanced social portfolio. Indulge in individual, community or group activities. This helps develop the mind by establishing new relationships and reinforcing older ones. These activities should be broken down between high-energy and low-energy ones [refer The Social Portfolio chart]. Social interaction helps the brain build new neurons and connections.

All activities mentioned in the chart have a social focus. Dr Cohen has advised that you schedule regular activities with the same group of people since meeting the same individuals over time, helps relationships and new interactions to develop, which allows your mind to relate to people in deeper, more complex ways.
We should abandon the labels created by society and await each morning’s dawn as the beginning of our finest day, a day that will guide us to a new summit, which we have climbed a lifetime to see—to enjoy its view.

This was first published in the December 2010 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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