Image of Elders
I think they recognize that it takes more effort for older people to stay or get in shape – I hope this is so in order that they don’t wait as long as I did to get started. Surely they know that older people don’t recover from injuries or sedentary periods from any causes as they might have in earlier life. I hope they recognize that as we age we lose flexibility, strength, cardio capacity, speed and power at a faster rate than during previous decades. Maybe our purpose is to serve as a warning to shape up and fly right in the event that should be so fortunate to live so long, despite the price to pay for the privilege.
It seems safe to assume that while 75+ athletes put forth the same efforts they did when they were young, their times slow drastically. I have not noticed any examples of any senior triathlete performing at this stage of life in a way to divest the young from coming to this conclusion. To think otherwise would surely lead to disappointment later in life.
Most of my not dead yet friends have long since retired. They say they are busier now than they have ever been – they don’t see how they got everything done and still worked. They used to talk about sex. Now they dwell on their health, mainly their bowels and bladders. They’re busy with tasks that working people do in their spare time, or on weekends, such as errands, shopping, laundry, etc.
I believe this is an unfortunate lifestyle. It’s not enough to volunteer at an art museum or your favorite charity. You need actual, real problems to solve on a daily basis. Solving them will be gratifying to you and helpful to others. Doing so may cause some stress. Everyone knows that a high level of stress over time is injurious to health but some stress is essential. The things we do that are exciting and even fun contain some level of positive stress, and that is considered beneficial by experts in this area. No stress would be awfully boring.The key is a balance. A good dose of humor helps, as well.
I heard and read that older people sometimes have trouble finding the car keys, or remembering names. Well, maybe that’s not so much as a matter of aging as it is a characteristic of humans who don’t bother to pay enough attention. I haven’t been able to remember names and faces since I was twenty – and sometimes couldn’t find my car keys, either. I don’t think I’m totally around the bend yet, but maybe close. An Alzheimer expert once told me that losing your keys is o.k. but finding them in the freezer is a bad sign.
Older people are simply advanced specimens of the young, that is, we have the same attitudes, emotions and characteristics of our younger selves. Physically, of course, we’re not as adept as when young but in other ways we are just like them, more or less.
It’s hard, impossible actually, to know what anyone of any age does or does not recognize or appreciate about older people. But, most of us senior types have our notions, some sensible and others quite ridiculous. Not sure which category my own notions fit, but here are a few of my opinions, based not on double-blind randomized controlled trials (RCTs) but rather on recollections of how young folks treat me today (as an octogenarian) as contrasted with my best recall of how it was decades ago when my skin was wrinkle-free, my hair curly blond, my gait rapid and my wit rapier-like. (Memories should be self-serving – it’s good for morale and besides, what harm can come of viewing the past with rose-colored memory glasses?)
All of which leads me to think younger folks should know the following about older people:
* We are more different than alike. Polls may show that most of us are sedentary, frail, cranky, computer illiterate, politically conservative, obsessed with bodily functions/ailments and medications, doddering, depressed and boring – and many elders surely are, but many others do not even remotely fit such a profile. Be selective and know that, save for physical appearance, the elder you meet may be more like you than you realize. Unless, of course, you’re cranky and otherwise fit the stereotypes of ancients sketched above.
* Many of us consciously appreciate that while it’s probably better to be young than old, there is no choice in the matter. Therefore, it seems best to focus on the advantages of latter life – greater leisure time, ample financial resources (if so fortunate), better judgment and more wisdom than in earlier times. Everyone in the senior ranks is, without exception, fully aware that she/he is no longer as attractive and desirable as in one’s halcyon days – all that stuff is overrated anyway.
* Some of us are still fun, know some really cool stuff, are skilled at giving advice and have come to appreciate that people want to be loved and treated the way they wish to be treated.
* Seniors are likely to appreciate the value of critical thinking, skepticism and doubt, and to be optimistic about the human spirit. The wise elderly know that character is independent of educational level, wealth, race, gender, sexual preferences, skill set, religion or no religion, talent or cultural group. Character is about the choices you make.
* Many just want to have fun and add value, continue to learn as long as possible and be kind – and be treated accordingly.
* Not everyone over 75 is afraid of dying or is looking forward to it. There’s a nice middle ground, such as can be found in Robert G. Ingersoll’s memorable Lotus Club speech of 1880: I believe that the highest possible philosophy is to enjoy today, not regretting yesterday, not fearing tomorrow.
Many realize older people have rich lifetime experiences that can be shared to inform and inspire others. While time seems limitless when one is young, as time goes on It becomes more important to get the most out of each day. Encouraging words are appreciated at any age. Give that old guy/gal an attaboy (or, to avoid giving gender offense, an attaperson) when you pass him/her in a triathlon or road race, but not otherwise, please.
In our youth-obsessed culture it is no surprise that young people do not value the participation or the contributions of older people. On television, in movies, online and even in print older people simply do not have a presence. In some more traditional societies, particularly Asian cultures, there is more respect for the elders but even there elders are respected for their wisdom, not their current contributions or activities. When I competed in the World Triathlon Championships in Beijing, China in 2010 at age 69, the young Asian girls handing out our race packets were astonished that someone my age was racing. When I asked them if their mothers were athletes they couldn’t stop giggling.
As an older athlete I am amazed at how gobsmacked younger people are that I am still an active competitor. Not only are they shocked at the heavy training schedule I keep but they are even more surprised at the goals I set and the intensity in which I pursue them. Younger people need to understand that older people are as thrilled by winning and devastated by losing as people of any age.
A revelation that came to me early on as a coach for all ages, including many youngsters, is that respect comes from being in tune with individual needs. I value the advice and assistance of those much younger, and I believe they respect me for doing so.
I admire the young of today. I don’t think most categorize people people as much as earlier generations, age-wise and otherwise. With respect to their elders, the young seem more interested in the kind of person you are and, as to age, what you have done and can still do.
I didn’t retire until I was 72. During my career, I worked with many young college graduates who turned to me for guidance (I had extensive experience from doing accounting for non-profits; I in turn looked to them for their skills in new technologies.
My running club is composed primarily of middle to college age runners. They don’t pay much attention to age – I feel treated as if I were one of them. They are all supportive of the active elder generations and, I suspect, are also somewhat in awe of us. We can all learn much from the young—they have many great ideas.
Older people, of course, were once young, hence we’ve experienced many of the same issues they have to deal with now. I’ve found young people generally fall into two broad categories.
The first category is the aimless group that looks at you as a deer might peer into headlights or, in the current fashion, a cell phone. The second is an earnest and aspiring group, fascinated by your knowledge and experiences. This group is open to possibilities for integrating another’s life lessons to their own personalities and careers.
I’m fortunate to train with a group that fits the latter category. Many are graduate engineering students at the Colorado School of Mines. After workouts, we assemble at a local coffee shop and enjoy refreshing and thoughtful conversations.
Here are a few facts about older folks:
- Most of us have open minds and want to learn new things, including technology.
- Not all of us have minds set in concrete, stone or superstition. We’re not all moldy oldies immobilized in our ways.
- We enjoy listening and talking with young people – we can learn from each other.
As we age, our taste in music may mellow but we still like to do the same things as when younger. Unfortunately, our minds and bodies become unreliable and it takes a bigger effort to overcome. Standing on the podium is a big reward but how your body feels an hour after the race is over is the benefit.
I have eight grandchildren. Grandchildren range in age from 7 to 26. I could be mistaken, but I think that they think I’m pretty cool – especially around the end of the year when I send checks.
Not sure what they think of other elders – I suspect it depends on the others elders they’ve encountered so far.
Active older folks still have goals and aspirations.We still have things to achieve, things to accomplish. Younger folks may think we just sit on the porch and reminisce about the good old days. Perhaps the sedentary ones do, but active seniors are still pushing to accomplish outcomes that matter to them.
I think when young people see us still being active and loving life, they admire and aspire to be like us. So many times during races younger people go by me and say things like, I hope I’m still doing triathlons when I’m your age or I want to be like you when I grow up. I have a motto which I keep saying I’m going to put on a T-shirt: I aspire to inspire before I expire.
I think we are helping change their image of older folk. Aging slowly and gracefully isn’t easy; it takes a commitment to a healthy and active lifestyle but it’s worth the trouble.
I often note that young people look through me, not consciously to convey disdain but rather owing to disinterest, an absence of curiosity, as if they assume there’s not much of interest to be seen or derived from older folks. I don’t think I’m paranoid about this, for I have heard it expressed by my peers. It’s a rather common perception and no doubt cultural.
When the opportunity presents itself, I go out of my way to demonstrate I’ve still got something to contribute and just may be surprisingly interesting. Sadly, I have learned that youth does not necessarily mean interesting, funny, talented or well informed.
One way I often use to address this cultural gap is with humor. Even if it doesn’t work some of the time (it often does work), it possesses the element of surprise and has opened up some amazing conversations and friendships. Humor led to a positive outcome for Dave and a nice friendship between us. Dave was 20 at the time and worked the front desk at my gym. After some off the cuff humor, he told me that he dropped out of school for lack of funds but was ready to return now. His problem was a lack of responsiveness from Admissions. I advised Dave that to write a check, go to the Admissions office with it and request an audience with the appropriate decision maker. This initiative led to Dave’s prompt readmission. While I’m not a world champion stand up comic, I highly recommend it! All kinds of great relationships could ensue.
Older people didn’t get old by making a deal with Satan or their Heavenly Father. That’s not the way it works. Longevity is more than a three syllable word popular in today’s crossword puzzles and heralded in the pulp magazines at checkout aisles in Safeway. Rather, it’s one of the cornerstones for present doctoral research studies. One researcher, Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, reveals living younger, healthier, and longer takes work. And if sufficiently motivated and willing to act on that, with sufficient exercise, improved nutrition, adequate shut-eye, loving relationships and stress reduction, it’s possible to reverse the aging process, to some extent, for a while.
Until just recently, I regarded my advanced age (88) as just a number, unaccompanied by restrictions, accountability, handicaps, exclusions, consequences or sadness. But of late, I’ve had other thoughts about it.
For one thing, I’m no longer just another entry in the cast of athletic competitors. I’m actually heralded as a result of a number – my age. At times, I feel a bit freakish, wondering if perhaps I’m out of place.
Fortunately, this soon reminds me of my enduring gratitude for being graced with health and longevity. There’s a choice here: I could succumb to the malignant demons of ridicule and the stereotype that elder folks can’t do exceptional things, that we should follow General Douglas MacArthur and just fade away. (Of course, he did nothing of the kind.) I won’t have it. I will continue to show up and race with pride and joy, until I can no longer put one foot in front of the other at an acceptable pace.
At that point, I’ll smile, hug someone who loves me and say to myself, I’ve fought the good fight, I’ve finished the race, I’ve kept the faith.