Aging is Grand!

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When I was 17 I worked as a nanny for a wealthy family in my town. As someone who hadn’t grown up with money, I was initially awestruck by their lifestyle - but quickly found myself questioning whether the life they were leading was the life I wanted. Although there were many things for me to glean from the experience through interactions with each member of the family, from the perspective of thinking about aging, my attention was on the wife/mom of the house. She was in her early 30’s and my friends and I agreed that for someone as (impossibly) old as she was, she looked pretty good. In fact, we wouldn’t mind looking like that when were also that impossibly old. At 17, this was one of the things that mattered most, so she scored points with us on that front. But what else matters in life? At 17 my methodology for evaluating values and life wasn’t particularly well defined, but what was evident to me was that there was a lot of money, a lot of unhappiness, and not a lot of family time spent together. I didn’t know how to connect any of these dots, but it got me thinking…

Now that I am much older than the mom at my nanny job, I have a framework for evaluating life which I have used for many years — that is a way of checking in with myself to make sure I am on track with what is most important for me. In essence, it is the way to evaluate quality of life that I didn’t have all those years ago when I sensed that things weren’t right with my “nanny-family”, but simply didn’t know how to frame. When I have quiet moments to myself- on a long flight or when the family is out- I run through this process. It goes something like this:

1. Write the 6 categories of life on a piece of paper. They are:

  • Faith

  • Family

  • Physical well-being

  • Social life

  • Intellectual challenge

  • Financial health

2. In each category, I write the things that I am trying to achieve and what matters most to me. It can be something tactical and immediate (like call an old friend I haven’t spoken with in a while) or it can be something big that I want to have in my life (make my home a restful haven for my family). The important thing is to get it all down on paper in one spot — a complete brain dump.

3. The third part is to evaluate how I am doing against these objectives. Not necessarily a scientific analysis, but more of a general sense of where I am feeling pretty good in a certain area of my life and whether it is getting enough attention, and where I feel like there are things that I am really missing out on.

I like to look at this visually — using a pie chart. The idea being that if the entire “pie piece” is shaded, then I would be at 100% of where I want to be, and in looking at graph I can see where I am out of balance and need to dedicate more time and effort.

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4. The final thing to do is to create a game plan for what I am going to do to get back into equilibrium — to address some of the things that matter most to me and to make sure that I set aside the time needed to get where I want to be, and “even out” the pie.

I was going through this exercise recently — just a regular check in — and it occurred to me that the way I approach and think about all of these aspects of my life is so different now that I am 53, as compared to when I was 17, all the way even into my 40’s — with the big takeaway that life is way better in my 50’s than it has ever been before.

In a world that idolizes youth and where some people are reluctant to even say how old they are, I realize this may be controversial- but first, a few things about me:

1. I love my birthday. I mean, I really love it. I am one of those people who celebrates the entire month, because after all, it is MY holiday! So I never understood people who lament a birthday. That is like lamenting cake (which again…I don’t get why!).

2. When I was in college (18–20 years old at the time) I worked for a woman who was in her 70’s. Our other colleague was a woman in her 60’s and the three of us became close friends. They convinced me that life for them got REALLY great when they reached their 60’s, and they were wonderful examples for me to think about and approach my older years quite differently.

3. My sister always used to say as we were growing up how much she looked forward to being in her 50’s on the assumption that there would be way less angst about stuff- and she was definitely right!

So looking specifically at the life categories and how they get better over time:

Physical well being: this is the easiest one — because this is the one that most really young people get very twisted up about when they think about aging. As I said stated earlier, I was also 17 and so I know what matters most at that time. The thought process is usually along the lines of “how can you stand to be wrinkled/out of shape/gray haired, and otherwise look so old and unattractive”? Reality is that most young people are hugely self-critical about their appearance and even though they are objectively better looking when they are young, the human race is delightfully resilient in being more self accepting, the older we get. So yes- there are wrinkles and other features of aging that are not going to win any prizes. But the good news is that for some reason (poorer vision, perhaps?) we can be more accepting of it. What also happens is that you really appreciate the actual non-superficial aspects of health. Waking up to legs that work, eyes that see, and having enough vitality to get up and tackle the day brings real joy. In short, physical well being isn’t about looks as much as it is about appreciating the ability to be well.

Faith: At 17, not something I spent any time whatsoever thinking about, but is now, a huge part of my life. Irrespective of what “faith” means to you- possibly religion, but possibly a sense of spiritual connectedness or clarification of values — one of the advantages of aging is really knowing what matters to you and what grounds you. The peace that comes from focusing on deepening the understanding of timeless truths, is something I really appreciate the older I get.

The enjoyment of family, the appreciation of developing lifelong friendships and a social life that is about meaningful relationships are all something that are more and more appreciated with age. As I have grown professionally, I have found the intellectual challenge of work to be more stimulating, and finally, financial health has been something less daunting in these middle years. Part of it is the struggle of making ends meet, as it was when I was a young mother, which has dissipated. But perhaps what’s more important has been the real internalization of the understanding that money truly doesn’t buy happiness. It is true that having enough money to cover necessities is critical to having peace of mind, but more than that, being able to enjoy things like playing a board game with family, going for a walk in the park, or just sitting on the couch catching up with an old friend, are way more entertaining and enriching than spending money on a flashy night on the town.

I could write a lot more about why I love being the age I am, but for now I will just say that I am looking forward to the years ahead- and I also recognize that growing old is in itself a gift that not everyone gets. For now, I choose to appreciate every single day I am given and explore the new challenges that life, and aging, have to offer!!

Jay Gopalakrishnan