Last week a participant in one of the online reading groups I belong to asked me a question, “Jack, as an older man, what is your advice on successfully growing old?” I am 61 and will share my thoughts on this topic in more detail in a later post. But when faced with this question, my thoughts first went to the three people who inspired me and gave me a model for successfully growing old. All three I met and knew in my 30’s. Much of my philosophy on aging well grew from my interactions with these three individuals. They have all died now and all remain in my heart.
Merton Gill was a psychoanalyst and professor at the University of Illinois Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry. Merton’s role in the department was to conduct seminars with senior residents on psychodynamic concepts as they played out in our psychotherapy sessions with patients. Since most of us residents did not work with Merton until our final year of residency, when we’d see him around the department the years before we got to know him, he exuded an aura of mystery and distant sagehood. This reputation was enhanced by the look of his office door or, more correctly, his office doors. To maintain strict confidentiality for the psychoanalytic clients he saw privately, he had installed a double door, one opening outward and the other inward. Also, the outside surface of the outer door was padded, to further hinder sound transmission. Merton could have been conducting psychoanalysis or torture inside and no one would have heard evidence of either.
When I did finally interact with Merton, he lived up to expectations: he looked and acted the role of the sage. And, of course, his deep knowledge gave him the ability to resolve many conundrums we regularly faced working with patients. It’s safe to say we all looked up to him.
One incident I particularly relish. For months, Merton had been sharing with us his approach to psychotherapy, one based on his psychoanalytic methods, of avoiding during therapy sessions with patients’ strong displays of emotions, overt empathizing, and advice giving. As part of the seminar series, we each had to present audio recordings of our therapy sessions with patients. Towards the end, we seminar participants requested that Merton share with us one of his recordings. Merton complied and, lo and behold, there he was in the therapy session softly cooing and consoling the patient and then, horror of horrors, giving advice! Boy, we let him have it. Everything he told us over these months, we discovered was, let’s just say, exaggerated. He did admit he was engaging in the very behaviors he warned us against. Through the discussions that ensued, we came to a mutual understanding: patients do need warmth, consolation, and advice, but all in the right measure. We learned a lot from Merton and, I dare say, he learned something from us.
In the summer of 1994, I completed my residency and moved to the Washington DC area. That November, Merton died at age 80.
In July 1994 my wife and I moved to the Washington DC area. I had applied for and gotten a position as a ‘senior staff fellow’ at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the institutes of the NIH. Unlike all other labs and sections of the NIA, which were in Baltimore, the lab I worked with was at the main NIH campus in Bethesda, MD. There I met Edwin Weinstein, a behavioral neurologist with a corpus of work on hemi-neglect and denial of illness. He also wrote historical studies on US presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Woodrow Wilson.
I met Edwin on our research unit. It was very much like a geriatric psychiatric unit except that instead of patients it was filled with research subjects. Most were older people impaired by various degrees of dementia. Some, such as those with frontotemporal dementia, were a staff challenge because of their disinhibited and at times disruptive behavior.
At the time I knew Edwin he was 86-88 years old. He came in every week to interview, examine, and assess subjects. He would attend our lab’s grand rounds and was in rotation for presenting his work. Edwin was not necessarily a man ‘young-for-his-age.’ He was stooped and walked slowly. But he retained a brightness to his eyes and enjoyed chatting with everyone and remained ‘in-the-thick-of-things,’ carrying on his academic and research studies as he had done for decades.
I left my position to return home to Chicago in 1997. Edwin died in 1998, aged 89. He suffered a stroke that summer and died six weeks later.
I met Inez Crofts when my wife and I moved back from the Washington DC area back to Chicago in 1997. Inez was a singing teacher and my friend and mentor Phil Janacek introduced me to her. I wanted to learn to sing. Well, despite Inez’s best efforts, my singing remained where it began: atrocious. The good news is that I enjoyed learning and practicing singing despite the dismal results and, even more so, getting to know Inez.
Inez was a woman in her early 80’s when I knew her. She worked out of her home, a beautiful place in Riverside, IL. Her children and grandchildren were grown, and her husband had died years earlier. She was always – as in every single time – glamorous. She dressed to the nines every day and looked like the piano accompanist at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. She saw students in her music room seven days a week. In hindsight, the ‘every day of the week’ approach was important because every day she had a reason to get up, dress up, and interact with people.
Inez was easy-going, knowing that none of us were stars in the making. She wanted us to get better at the craft and feel good about it. She took her time, frequently gossiping about what she learned about other students and then, to reciprocate, asked us to share some gossip with her. She was never mean spirited and never shared highly personal, embarrassing, or potentially damaging information about anyone. She was like the local newspaper’s gossip columnist.
What I learned from Inez is the importance of making every day important. Each day has its calling, its measure of work that must be done to make that day a success. That measure didn’t need to be too high, but it could not be nothing. Inez spent – I would guess – between three and five hours a day with students. That was her fill, and we were all happy to have our slice of time with her that week.
I miss her. And if that’s not a sign of success, I don’t know what is. Inez died in 2010 at the age of 93, about a decade after I moved away and ended my lessons with her. Rest in peace, Inez.
My Philosophy of Life for Old Age
The lessons I learned, that continue to resonate, and that I have incorporated as my philosophy are these:
- I will work until I am felled by disease or death. To die in the saddle is my ideal. Of course, this does not mean that the number of hours I work or the nature of the work I do will not change – they already have – but that I will continue to work on whatever it is that I find most compelling at the time.
- I will remain cognitively and emotionally engaged with many groups of people, people that I can learn from and who I can mentor or inspire. It’s always good to be close to people of different generations. A cross-generational pollination of ideas and ideals is good.
- I will maintain, as far as I am able, a structure and focus to each day I have. I desire to look at the close of each day and to believe that I have spent it well – not perfectly, but well enough.
- I will continue to read, think, and write. Whatever topic engages me, this is my calling.
“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” ― Gabriel García Márquez
“I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.” ― Albert Einstein
“Just ’cause there’s snow on the roof doesn’t mean there’s not a fire inside.” ― Bonnie Hunt
“Use all this life to make yourself a great writer, thoughtful and kind, slowly, surely over the years.” ― T.K. Naliaka
“I wouldn’t be young again even if it were possible, but I am not going to pretend that growing old is all sweetness and light.”― Ruth Rendell
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