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Creative Aging

By Joseph M. Foley, M.D., ’37

Joseph M. Foley, M.D., ’37Let 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 of others.

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.

 

This 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.

 
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