By Joseph M. Foley, M.D., ’37
us consider aging.
Growing old means that in many ways we will be diminished. Our reaction times
slow down. We don’t answer the doorbell or get to the ringing telephone
as fast as we used to. Even after our cataracts are fixed, the print is too small
and the light either too bright or too dim. Your grown children ask not too subtly
whether you feel comfortable (translate to safe) driving your car. Even if we
stay in good condition, even if we stopped smoking years ago, the second or third
flight of stairs gets to be too much. Strange aches and pains turn up in strange
parts of your body. The great Dr. Irvine Page of the Cleveland Clinic described
a new syndrome when he hit his late 70s: “If it works, it hurts; if it
don’t hurt, it ain’t gonna work.”
Growing old also means falling behind, not being able to keep up with the changing
world. Watching Jeopardy and hearing about songs and singers and musicians and
actors totally unknown to you. Nobody wants to write letters anymore; they find
it curious that you don’t have your own Web page. There are new customs
you don’t really know what to do about so you gulp and do nothing or you
do something stupid, and whatever you do, you feel guilty.
Sex has become casual to the point of being commonplace. Your kids stop going
to church; what’s more, they want to be sure you know how good it feels
to be liberated from the opiate of the people.
You go to too many funerals and memorial services. You wonder how long you’re
going to last, what will get you in the end, and what they’ll remember
you for after you’ve gone. You worry, but only briefly, about the mess
you’ll leave behind. If you live a long time, will there be enough money
for you not to be a burden? Will a depression wipe out your pension fund? Will
God forgive your sins? Will you have life everlasting?
Am I being too gloomy? Have I discouraged those of you who are expecting to grow
old? Is old age all sorrow and regret? Is there anything good to be said about
it? The answer is a very loud YES, INDEED!!!
There’s the bright morning when the sun rises to shine warm upon your stiff
old bones. There’s the rainy day when you can stay indoors by the fire
and read good books and sort out your memories of days gone by and plan for the
days to come. After a night of snow you can walk in the crisp air, see the newly
designed landscape and marvel at the animal tracks in the fresh snow.
You have learned that old memories can be wonderful, but you’ve also learned
that you can’t be content with the old ones; there’s a world of new
ones to be made. You can get to know your family better; it’s amazing how
much you didn’t know even about your spouse of 50 years. You have accepted
who you are, and how far you’ve gone, and what you’ve accomplished
in life. Oh, sure, you screwed up some things along the way but you accept that
there is nothing you can do but ask forgiveness.
It’s wonderful to remember the things that brought joy in your youth and
how, for so many years, you were too busy to enjoy them, and how you now can
reclaim some of them. Oh, no longer will you slide head first into second base,
or go out for the long pass from scrimmage, but you can have the vicarious thrill
of watching others do it. You can listen at leisure to the music you loved, again
through modern technological miracles. You can sing along with “Stardust” and “Smoke
Gets In Your Eyes” and “Beer Barrel Polka” and even “You
Can Roll a Silver Dollar Right Along the Ground.” You can visit art museums
and take advantage of the education they provide. You can take courses at the “Y” or
the local high school or the university, with no worry about your homework being
checked. You can get together with people and take long or short trips, or learn
to draw or paint, or do Tai-Chi.
You’re a nicer person than you used to be. You’ve learned that everybody
has a right to kindness and courtesy from you. You’ve learned that there
are no old people who don’t have some sorrows above and beyond their physical
pain and discomfort.
So much for aging, but what about “creative”? What do we mean by “creative”?
I think it means making something additional out of who we are, drawing on our
backgrounds and our life experiences to increase our own worth and the worth
Let me give you some examples of people who, in advanced age, have acted in what
I would regard as creative ways. Winston Churchill was an old man when Fate summoned
him to call out the best, first in his own countrymen, and then in all those
in the free world, in the face of one of the greatest of all threats to civilization.
He brought the experience of previous triumphs and previous defeats to give leadership
when many thought the cause was lost. Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in prison,
emerged an old man of vigor and courage, to the world’s astonishment, free
of resentment and the need for revenge, and set South Africa on the road to a
peaceful emergence from apartheid and its horrors. Irving Berlin gave us memorable
music into his 90s, George Burns made us laugh when he was 100.
Yet, not all the creative things are on such a grand scale. Amy and Bob, in their
60s, adopted the small children of their heroin-addicted daughter, and now in
their mid-70s are raising teenagers. Charlie has taken over the care of his wife
with moderately advanced Alzheimer’s disease. He takes her to the Day Center,
where he helps with the other patients as well, playing the piano, singing songs,
and telling dreadful jokes. Dora has bad rheumatoid arthritis, but she volunteers
with our Intergenerational Center, and is available on the phone in the afternoon
so that latchkey kids can call her and chat and tell her their troubles, their
fears and their joys. Frank learned about computers in his late 60s; now in his
mid-70 he runs the computer program for disadvantaged children in a parochial
school. Genevieve has had a stroke, but blind people come by her home and she
reads to them. You get the point: not only the famous are doing very creative
things. Little people are creative, as are the others, in having the will and
finding the way to enhance their own lives and the lives of others.
The common thread here is doing for and with others. In the last several decades,
our world has seen an unhappy swing toward autonomy and rights and away from
community and responsibilities. We are social animals. Each one of us is a part
of every other. Debasing one person debases us all; ennobling one person ennobles
us all. There will be many details to fill out in the concept and practice of
Creative Aging but at its best it is the effort of aged persons to do for themselves
and for others in such a way that Love, and Peace, and Joy will increase in the
people of our world and in the lives of those who are left after we have gone.
is an abridgement of an address that Dr. Foley delivered to the class of 1937
last year. Dr. Joseph Foley ’37 is Professor of Neurology Emeritus at
Case Western Reserve University.