Last month I had the privilege of visiting Thailand with my two youngest grandchildren and their mother Kan, who grew up there and emigrated to the United States as a young woman. It was my first experience of Asia, and the primary purpose of the trip, for me, was to help take care of my grandchildren while their mother had surgery. It was also an opportunity to meet Kan’s family and to get a better sense of the culture in which she was raised.

All of that happened and was a pleasure as well as a daily learning experience – as travel often is – but the unexpected gift was being folded into the gentle flow that is Thai culture and thus seeing the world and myself through a very different lens.

Songkran Festival

Traveling at Seventy-Three

It had been some years since I’d traveled any great distance and had never spent 18 hours getting anywhere before, so some pre-trip anxiety was to be expected. In addition to the usual reservations about flying, I was surprised by how many of my fears were related to age. Having recently published Winter’s Graces (about the gifts of later life), I was bit chagrinned to see that most of my anxiety about going half way around the world had to do with being 73.

Despite being blessed with very good health, I was afraid my body would somehow let me down, or worse, make me a burden rather than an asset. Would I be able to deal with such a long plane ride, adjust to the punishing heat and humidity about which I heard so much, and avoid getting sick from mosquito bites or unfamiliar food? I have never set off on a trip with so many doubts and trepidations, but not one of them came to pass. My organism served me well, and in addition, the long plane rides somehow calmed my anxiety about flying. I relaxed into the mostly turbulent return trip. Flying no longer feels unnatural – that was an unexpected gift.

Honoring Sacredness and Age

Thai culture is an especially reverent one. People bow when they greet one another, hands together in front of the heart – and say some form of Sawadika. The same gesture and word are used to say goodbye and thank you, and to express an apology. I learned that the placement of one’s thumbs when bowing, though subtle, reflects varying degrees of respect.

When greeting a monk or an image of the Buddha – the highest level of respect – the thumbs touch one’s forehead, thus creating the deepest bow. Elders rank next, with thumbs resting on one’s nose. (In greetings between social equals, thumbs touch the chin.) I noticed that monks are seated first on airplanes, for example, and that those who serve them bow in respect as they approach, and leaving, bow and walk away facing the monk, rather than turning their back on him (another expression of respect.)

Older adults are also honored, which was quite an experience for me, coming from a culture that at best ignores older people and considers us rather irrelevant. In Thailand elders are respected; their opinions are sought and valued. Youngers go out of their way to greet, serve, and care for them, making sure they are comfortable and have what they need. I have experienced this kind of respect and care from my daughter-in-law in the US, but had never before been in a place where the honoring of older people seemed to be so deeply embedded in daily social life, in both rural and urban areas.

Toward the end of our stay, my grandchildren, daughter-in-law, and her mother and sister were getting ready to leave Koh Chang (Island of the Elephants) before all of them – along with my son who was flying in that day – headed to the family home in the south. Kan let me know that her mother was concerned – and perplexed – that her daughter would leave me – and elder – alone (without family) on an island where I knew only a few words of the language.

In truth, I was looking forward to some days alone and with Kan’s help, tried to let her mother know that I appreciated her care, that I actually enjoy solitude and traveling on my own, and wanted all of them to have time together as a family (something I get to experience each week, and they only have for a few weeks every two years.)

Because I am the older elder by a few years – and because she is a gracious woman – Kan’s mother nodded with acceptance but asked her daughter to explain to me that I too am family. (Yet another gift, to be so readily and generously included in Kan’s extended family.)

Thai People Celebrate Songkran

Honor and Blessing

The most important festival in Thailand is Songkran, held annually in mid-April at the Thai New Year. The Water Festival is both a purification and a celebration, during which ancestors and elders are particularly honored. Families gather at their elder’s home, offering wreaths and flowers in gratitude and performing a ritual “washing” of the elder. Many then visit temples together, where older monks are similarly honored.

The images above were both taken at Songkran. The first depicts the honoring of the elder, and second, the elder’s blessing of the young. Together, these two – honor and blessing – help sustain the circle of interdependence between generations that is so palpable in Thai culture. I am grateful to have witnessed and been part of that, even for a short time.

Spring Crocus

In this in-between time when winter and spring are playing their annual game of tag, Nature makes it clear that although her seasons are eternal and somewhat orderly, they can also be mercurial and unpredictable. In northern California, the past two months have brought snow to mountain tops, blue skies alternating with torrential rains and fierce winds, the waxing of sunlight and record lows at night, and spring flowers poking their way through the frosty ground. Winter/Spring is a wild time.

A similar overlap of seasons occurs in human life. In fact, in many of the world’s myth, the old woman is able to shapeshift into a young maiden and back again, as needed. Author Patricia Monaghan observes, “In the flux of seasons we see each one more than once…. Spring, we fancy, comes to us once, goes once, is gone forever. But [people] spiral though life’s seasons like the [natural] world: there are days of growth in youth, in midlife, in age, just as there are losses and cold in each.” 1

While old and young may appear to be opposites, they actually co-exist. With age, we become men and women of all seasons, at home in each, imprisoned by none. As author Madeleine L’Engle discovered, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”

Thai Woman

Current studies in human development suggest that we are  many ages at once, and that chronological age is relatively unimportant. Walter Bortz, a professor at the Stanford School of Medicine, for example, observes, “[Chronological] age is becoming increasingly irrelevant to how we live, what we experience, and who we are becoming.”2 Rather than a singular number measured in years, age is increasingly regarded as multi-dimensional, with chronological, biological, cognitive, social, and psychological dimensions. At any one time, we might be chronologically 77, while our other ages could span decades.

The differences between individuals are more pronounced with age, and the older we get, the less alike we become. People age in widely – and sometimes wildly – different ways. In fact, some gerontologists have described today’s older adults as “chronological non-conformists.” This is heartening news for those of us aging in America and other places where growing old is typically, though mistakenly, viewed as an inevitable slide into decrepitude and misery.

One of the reasons for loss-focused view of aging is that the earliest studies of late life were conducted with elders in hospitals. Decades of more recent research have established that emotional well-being often improves with age and that physical health, cognitive vitality, and passion, commonly thought to atrophy with age, in fact remain accessible.

Physical and Cognitive Vitality

A growing body of late-life research suggests that most of the physical changes once assumed to be part of the aging process are related to how we live, rather than how long ago we were born. Dr. Mike Evans, for example, writes, “The really exciting thing is that we used to think that problems such as reduced cardio-vascular and respiratory function, muscle wasting, and bone loss were just a natural part of aging, but it’s clear now that most are actually the result of inactivity.”3

Most so-called “problems of age” are the consequence of behaviors and attitudes, not chronological age, and can be prevented, delayed, or offset by regular exercise and other health-friendly practices.

There is also mounting evidence that cognitive loss is far less pronounced than previously thought.  Information processing speed does slow somewhat, but long-term memory, crystallized intelligence, and practical intelligence (sometimes called wisdom) often increases. Most heartening: debilitating cognitive decline is not a normal part of getting older. The late-life brain has a far greater capacity for continuing development, resilience, and rewiring than early studies suggested. In fact, as Dr. Gene Cohen observes in The Mature Mind, some changes in the aging brain enhance our capacity for contentment and equanimity. (For more on maintaining cognitive vitality in later life, see Ellen Langer’s Mindfulness and Hansen and Mendius’s Buddha’s Brain.)

Lifelong Passion

Studies also reveal that regular sexual enjoyment is the norm for healthy elders with partners, and that physical intimacy often becomes more satisfying with age.4 In their extensive study of sexuality in later life, Starr and Weiner note, “As a 72-year-old woman explained, speaking for many of our respondents, ‘Sex is so much more relaxed . . . I know my body better and we know each other better. Sex is unhurried and the best in our lives.’”5

In the majority of tribal and village cultures, sexual activity among elders is expected and tends to occur regularly until very late in life. According to Winn and Newton who studied elders’ sexual behavior in 106 indigenous cultures, women in very late life typically have greater interest in sex than very old men and often have younger men as partners.6

In industrialized countries, longitudinal evidence indicates that most healthy, older married couples report continued, regular sexual enjoyment. The primary reasons for a lack of sexual activity among celibate elders are the lack of a partner (especially for women) and poor health, rather than chronological age or a lack of interest in sex.7

Late-life passion can, of course, take many forms, and sexual activity is only one of them. Many artists and scientists are engaged in some of their most passionate work in the last decades of life or begin new creative endeavors.

As psychologist Dean Simonton points out, “Empirical research actually suggests that creative productivity can undergo a substantial renaissance in the final years, especially toward life’s close. . . .Some time after the late sixties a resurgence in output often appears . . . (contradicting) the supposed inevitability of the downhill slide.”8

 

Endnotes

1Monaghan, Patricia, Seasons of the Witch, 3-4.

2Bortz, Walter, MD. We Live Too Short and Die Too Long, 199.

3Evans, Mike, MD. Quoted in Allison, Malorye, ”Improving the Odds,” Harvard Health Letter 16, no. 4  (February 1991): 3-6.

4Elias, Marilyn. “Late-Life Love,” Harvard Health Letter 18, no.1 (November 1992): 1-3.

5Starr and Weiner, Sex and Sexuality, 11.

6Winn and Newton, “Sexuality in Aging,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 11, no.4 (August 1982): 283-98.

7Starr and Weiner, 13-14, 47-50, and 161-83.

8Simonton, Dean. “Creative Productivity Through the Adult Years,” Generations 15, no. 2, (Spring 1991): 13-16.

I’m taking some time off to enjoy being with family, friends, and Mother Nature during the Holydays. Returning sometime in January.

Blessings, Susan

Winter Sunset

The Winter Solstice arrives tomorrow, the shortest day and longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. Since ancient times human beings have honored the sun at its lowest ebb and celebrated the lengthening of days and the diminishment of darkness that immediately follow.

old antern

The sun and the element of fire play leading roles in a variety of winter celebrations around the world – among the Hopi and the Celts, for example, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and in Egypt, Japan, and elsewhere. The lighting of bonfires, torches, lanterns, and candles when the sun is at its weakest is thought to be both a ritual of encouragement for the sun and an expression of hope for its return.

Winter Solstice

Hopeful candles glow
in depths of darkness, herald
sun’s welcome return.

May your holydays, regardless of tradition, be blessed with spaciousness, slowness, savoring, and stillness. And may our hopes for a kinder and more peaceful world be realized.

One of the complaints I sometimes hear about aging is that it slows us down. It’s true that we process information a bit more slowly as we age and move at a somewhat slower pace. But overall it seems to me that slowing down is much more a gift than a loss – one that is especially welcome during the winter holidays (originally holy days) that tend to leave us feeling more dazed than holy (whole). Slowing down and its faithful partner, Paring Down, are inclinations in later life that enhance the quality of life as well as buffering us against the frenzy of the Holidaze.

Sipping Tea

Slowing Down Enhances Health and Well-Being

The pace of life at this time of year can be overwhelming, dizzying, and numbing. Doing too much and rushing around in an effort to get it all done is stressful, which can raise the amount of cortisol in the body to unhealthy levels that are associated with high blood pressure, compromised immune functioning, depression, cognitive difficulties, loss of emotional control, fatigue, and a host of other ills.

On the other hand, slowing down lowers stress and blood pressure, enhances decision making and other cognitive functions, and restores emotional equilibrium. In allowing ourselves to experience the present – rather than rushing toward the future – we become more attentive to what is happening around and within us and savor it: to taste the apple we are eating, to be moved by the music we are hearing, or to enjoy the glee of children as they climb trees or wade through puddles after a rain shower. Even so-called ordinary moments become extraordinary when we move slowly enough to notice and enjoy them.

Slowing Down Clarifies Priorities

The growing awareness of our mortality in later life helps bring our genuine priorities into focus and encourages us to let go of unimportant possessions, commitments, and activities. In a similar way, slowing down brings clarity and supports us in making choices each day that reflect our deepest values. As a result, life becomes more spacious, more meaningful, and more joyful.

In Graceful Simplicity, Jerome Segal notes, “The time we give to things reflects our values. When everything is rushed, then everything has been devalued . . . To live gracefully is to live within flowing rhythms at a human pace . . . There is time to pay respect to the value of what you do, to the worth of those you care for, and to the possessions you own. Gracefulness is not possible when life is frenetic, when we are harried, or suffer from overload, time crunch, and a vast multiplicity of commitments and pressures.”

Snow Walkers

Slowness Engenders Harmony

Moving at a slower pace brings a sense of calm and peacefulness and puts us in harmony with others, while rushing not only robs us of the pleasure of the present, it wreaks havoc on how we treat others. I’ve noticed when driving, for example, that when I’m moving at a human pace, I’m much more aware of pedestrians waiting to cross the street and cars that would like to merge into our lane. But when rushing, I sometimes only see them as I drive past – too late to extend them kindness. Much as I appreciate drivers who wait for me to cross or merge, I sometimes revert to rushing and need to remind myself to slow down for my own and others’ sake.

Slowing Down as the World Speeds Up

Slowing down – like paring down – is a unique process for each of us. Here are a few suggestions that might prove useful in recovering a slower, more human pace:

Take some slow, deep breaths when you find yourself hurrying – and let the exhales last a bit longer than the inhales

Take periodic breaks. It’s paradoxical but true that we actually accomplish more – and do a better job – when we give ourselves time off, rather than plowing through mounds of tasks without a break

Spend time in nature. As cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien points out in her book, The Second Half of Life,
“In our later years, there is a deep desire to simplify our lives and to return to the enjoyment of our childhood explorations of the natural world. We recognize that it feeds our souls. . . . Nature’s rhythm is medium to slow. . . . [and] there are two things we can never do in the fast lane: we can neither deepen our experience nor integrate it, both essential tasks in the second half of life.”

Treat yourself to reading Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness, a fine book about the high cost of chronic hurrying and the benefits of moving through life at a more human pace. It is a personal account of one man’s discovery of what musicians call tempo giusto—“the right speed”—and also a highly readable history of humankind’s relationship to time and the emergence of Slow and other deceleration movements around the world.

Remind yourself to drive slowly (stay in the slow lane though!) We share the road with drivers of all sorts, and slow-moving cars in the passing and fast lanes create stress for faster drivers – which often leads to increased lane changing, (illegal and dangerous) passing on the right, horn honking, or worse.

And remember to eat slowly –- it aids digestion and enhances the enjoyment of one of life’s simplest pleasures

Paring down is a natural inclination as we age, and it can be an ally at this time of year when too-muchness tends to expand exponentially. Several late-life trends move us toward simplification—our physical energy wanes somewhat; the nearness of death and the preciousness of life become more palpable; appearances, achievement, and acquiring tend to lose their appeal; and our capacity for savoring ordinary moments deepens. All of these help us to learn that less really is more – and to live accordingly.

The Art of Relinquishment

In the winter of life, we become more aware that we can no longer do it all. Our energy and our time on this earth are limited, and it becomes necessary to let go of what is no longer meaningful in order to free ourselves to pursue what is. It is no accident that in myths and folktales it is most often the old woman who is called upon to cut away or burn up the superfluous, inauthentic, and unimportant. The inner strength, courage, fierceness, and wisdom that often ripen in later life enable us to discern what is life-giving and what is not, and to allow what must die, to die. The spare winter landscape is Nature’s reminder of the beauty and harmony that letting go of non-essentials brings.

mountains with tree and full moon

Erik and Joan Erikson and coauthor Helen Kivnick observe that paring down in later life leads to greater aliveness. In Vital Involvement in Old Age, they write, “Old age is necessarily a time of relinquishing—of giving up old friends, old roles, earlier work that was once meaningful, and even possessions that belong to a previous stage of life and are now an impediment to . . . resiliency and freedom.”

Psychologist Robert Peck describes later life as a time of progressively letting go of limiting dimensions of our identity, beginning with the roles we have played in our families and careers. As we release our attachment to social standing and past accomplishments, we are free to discover and develop dimensions of ourselves beyond the borders of familiar roles.

Similarly, as we learn to work with and accept the limitations and losses of our aging body, we recognize that there is more to us than our physicality. Finally, says Peck, we transcend the ego, the limited sense of a personal, isolated self. This surrendering brings a sense of kinship with other people and species, and at the same time helps us come to terms with our mortality.

The fear of death typically wanes in the winter of life, and many have noted the paradox that befriending death brings us more fully into life. As Duane Elgin explains in his book Voluntary Simplicity, “Death, then, is an uncompromising friend that brings us back to the reality of life. . . . In consciously honoring the fact of our physical death, we are thereby empowered to penetrate through the social pretense, ostentation, and confusion that normally obscure our sense of what is truly significant. An awareness of death is an ally for infusing our lives with a sense of immediacy, perspective, and proportion.”

Child & Grandfather in snow

Savoring and Delight

As we simplify our life, relinquishing the nonessential and focusing on what matters most, we renew our acquaintance with the wonder, delight, and timelessness of early childhood. We become recipients of one of the sweetest gifts of later life: savoring.

In her late-life memoir, The Measure of My Days, Florida Scott-Maxwell describes the delight she experienced savoring ordinary moments in the winter of her life. “Now each extra day is a gift. An extra day in which I may gain some new understanding, see a beauty, feel love, or know the richness of watching my youngest great grandson express his every like and dislike with force and sweetness. . . . Who knows, it may matter deeply how we end so mysterious a thing as living . . . I’ve taken a long time to feel it as very truth: The last years may matter most.”

Paring Down as the World Gears Up

Simplifying is an ongoing process requiring flexibility, ingenuity, permission to change our mind, and the willingness to keep experimenting. Social visionary Duane Elgin explains, “This [simple] way of life is not a static condition to be achieved, but an ever-changing balance that must be continuously and consciously made real. . . . How we simplify is a very personal affair. . . . We each know where our lives are unnecessarily complicated. We are all painfully aware of the clutter and pretense that weigh upon us and make our passage through the world more cumbersome and awkward.”

At his time of year simplifying can free us from the burden of too-muchness and help us to rediscover the joys of paring down and savoring. Although we must each find our own way toward simplicity, here are a few suggestions that might prove useful for the winter holidays or for later life in general:

Keep to-do lists short and focused (limited to 2-3 high-priority items for that day only.)

Pay attention to your body, emotions, and dreams and take breaks when you need them – enjoy a walk in nature, share a cup of tea with a friend, take a nap if you’re tired.

Notice and savor “chance” encounters with other people and with animals and other creatures that happen to cross your path. All are potential messengers. (Jamie Sams’ Medicine Cards and Animal Speak by Ted Andrews are excellent resources for better understanding Nature’s inhabitants and what each has to teach us.)

Keep gift giving simple (less is more) and heart-centered. Rather than buying material gifts, consider making them, or sharing an experience, like treating a friend to a lunchtime visit or taking a walk together at the coast or in the woods.)

Follow the joy. I’ve found joy to be a remarkably accurate guide in helping me discern what matters most at present and what I need to relinquish. Joy is blessing in itself and is highly contagious. What better gift to give ourselves, our loved ones, and the strangers we meet?

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