Elder Independence: 50? Welcome to the Rest of Your Life
Senior Vice President for Operations at VNSNY
Posted: September 20, 2010 08:00 AM
When I turned 50 (not too long ago), I felt a marked shift in my life--a real, visceral connection to the process of aging. It wasn't exactly that I felt old, but rather, I saw for the first time the path of aging ahead of me. I understood in a way I hadn't before what my parents went through as they aged, and how I might better help my father with his goals and decisions now that he's in his 70s.
Having a strong sense of yourself and a proactive attitude that guides your decisions is an important part of healthy living. I see this every day working in health care. When we're sick, we have an incredible drive to control our environment. Why some people are more successful at this than others, regardless of illness, is a question that has often intrigued me. Those who know themselves well, and who make decisions and set goals in the context of that knowledge, have more successful recoveries. Much of the work I do is focused on empowering people to live more independently with these precepts in mind.
I sat down recently to talk about the view from 50 with my friend Barbara Hannah Grufferman, author of "The Best of Everything After 50: The Experts' Guide to Style, Sex, Health, Money, and More" (and also a Huffington Post blogger). Her book provides invaluable expertise on most everything about daily life at and after age 50, and is full of concrete suggestions paired with a look down the road at what's next.
From both personal and professional vantage points, Barbara and I have discussed below a few of the critical questions that we feel should be asked by people at age 50 to ensure a path toward healthy aging. We are both goal-oriented people and know we are most satisfied when we can mark measurable achievements.
While our parents at this age might have been slowing down and firming up their retirement plans, Barbara and I--and many like us--are part of the sandwich generation, at once taking care of relatively young children and aging parents. We may go from the sidelines of the soccer field to the emergency room of the hospital, which I believe makes us particularly attuned to ages and stages of life and means we have a special responsibility to keep up our health and our energy levels.
I hope the following excerpts from our recent conversation spark or inspire others toward wellness and longevity as they approach this important milestone in life.
On Turning 50
Barbara Grufferman: For me, my 20s, 30s and 40s seemed like one long continuous decade. I didn't feel any different from one year to the next. I was living my life in the same way, primarily by caring for others--children, husband, employees, friends, mother. I was eating the same way, exercising the same way, wearing the same style clothes and hair.
Only after I turned 50 did I really stop and say, 'Oh, my, things are going to change. I can see it. I can feel it.' My skin, my hair, my weight, my energy level all started to look and feel different. Suddenly, I had all these questions. Where was I going in my career? What was going on with my health, my heart? Was I eating right, taking the right supplements? Taking better care of my kids than of myself? Was I doing all I could to be a healthy, energetic woman after 50? There were lots of questions, lots of changes.
Ilaina Edison: I think that resonates with a lot of people, women especially. When I was turning 50, I realized: this is an entry into adulthood. Now I'm a grownup. Granted, I had many things in my life that had already made me an adult--two children, a responsible career. But 50 really represented an internal change that focused how I thought and experienced life. I realized that I, and no one but me, owned my decisions.
We are, after all, the sum of our decisions to date, and that continues into the future. Accept where you are, and change what you need. If you've spent your life baking in the sun, okay, that's where you are. But start putting on sunscreen and moisturizer today. At 50, you can no longer afford to think, I'm doing this because of so-and-so or such-and-such. Or, because I always have, or, because I can't help it. Recognize what's important to you, your strengths and your priorities. This will make it easier to see the value of your decisions, as well as set and adhere to your goals.
BG: Have the courage to let go of things you don't need, whether that means clutter in your house, bad habits or even friends who no longer enrich your life. It's difficult to work towards your goals if you're encumbered by stuff. I recommend identifying a personal theme for your life at this age and stage. Mine was "simplify my life." For others it might be, "Move out of my comfort zone," or, "It's time to focus more on myself than others," or "Make more money ... be more creative ... give back," what have you. Once you have a theme, it's easier to identify priorities and cut out the things in your life that don't fit with that theme.
IE: That's why I love your book. It helps a reader get organized around setting goals. Where do you start? What should you be concerned about? Who do you enlist to help? Like any major project--and turning 50 is a project; you are the ultimate outcome--setting goals is critical to success.
* Takeaway: Fifty is the new 21, in terms of feeling like an adult. You are more accountable for your decisions, and their stakes are higher. Life feels, for perhaps the first time, short, so take action now. Identify your strengths and priorities, and live--and shed--accordingly.
On Running the New York Marathon
BG: One event in my life really crystallized the now-or-never feeling that can take over around 50. I had never run a day in my life when I impulsively promised my young daughters I would run the marathon, after watching it go by our First Avenue apartment year after year. It was a funny feeling, making a public promise that I was unsure how I would keep, yet at the same time was sure I would.
My plan clicked into place when I read an article by former Olympian Jeff Galloway, who said anyone could run a marathon and had created a detailed running-walking training plan. I talked to him, followed the plan, and, on marathon day--after six hours--crossed the finish line! I am now a runner (with walk breaks). As a maintenance plan, I try to walk at least 10,000 steps a day on days when I'm not running. Long walks with the dog and errands around the city help, but so can climbing stairs to your apartment or workplace, or moving your feet while talking on the phone. (Check out the new iPhone pedometer app.)
IE: I'm a longtime runner, but I finally ran the marathon only after I'd given myself permission not to. Ever since I'd volunteered at the marathon, I knew I wanted to run it, but fear of failure stood in the way, fear that I couldn't complete the necessary two or three hour training runs. Finally I confronted my fears head on. I asked, What can I not do? Can I not run one hour? Two hours? I promised I would try each next training step, and if I couldn't do it, well, at least I would have tried. I gave myself permission to fail in a positive way, recognizing achievements along the way. Don't be afraid to adjust your goals and embrace what you've achieved.
In this case, it turns out I could do all the training runs. And I went on to run four marathons!
* Takeaway: Set goals that are both aspirational--to inspire and motivate you--and achievable. To accomplish the latter, break down your overarching goal into steps (literally, in some cases). Barbara recommends speaking your goal out loud, whether to one trusted friend or everyone who will listen, to help ensure follow-through (or post on a website like stickk.com, which aims for commitment through public proclamation and an online support community).
On the View From 50 to 90
IE: Look at the demographics: When we're older, the number of young people who'll be around is much lower than it is today. I feel like we need to prepare for taking care of ourselves much more than prior generations. We can no longer assume we'll be taken care of when we're older, because of both the dropping birthrate in the developed world and the increased life expectancy (when Social Security was established, in 1935, the average American lifespan was 61.7; now it is 78.2).
Maybe you don't need to make a decision today about when you're 90, but you really should be thinking about what's important to you as your body changes and as your mind changes. Knowing yourself, outlining your priorities and identifying your goals are ways for you to always come back to what matters. They influence not only where you are today but where you're going tomorrow.
BG: I think you do need to be thinking of 90 today. Before, it was a dress rehearsal, but not anymore. It's time to get serious and really think about your health. If you're still smoking, quit smoking. If you never moved your body, start moving your body. If you don't wear sunscreen, what are you thinking? Start today! The list is endless--actually, it's not endless. Listen to your body. If you sense something wrong or different, don't sit on it. I put the health chapter first because health has to come first at this age.
IE: Our generation is much more focused on trying to understand ourselves. I really feel for our parents, who existed in a generation that was told what to do and feel, especially the women. Now that they're in their 70s and 80s, it's hard for them to focus on themselves and identify their goals. We have to make sure they're asking the same questions we just talked about: What are my goals for myself? What is most important to me? The steps they take towards articulating and achieving personal goals may be much smaller than the ones we take.
Then again, there are people like my husband's uncle, who, at age 99, made a major discovery of a John James Audubon drawing--one he was told he would never find. This man is so driven by his goals--at age 99. He reminds me that we're always in a state of becoming.
* Takeaway: As Barbara says, "We live in a state of during. We're never all the way there, or we'd be dead."
Are you nearing, in the midst of, or looking distantly back on turning 50? What is your most important "takeaway" from that time in your life?