Photo: Kate Ter Haar/CC
Call it unrealistic optimism, but my game plan for growing old gracefully is to stay as immature as possible. I don't mean that I'll hang on to my weakness for stupid jokes or certain video games (although I'm not ruling out puns and Mario Kart at age 80, if I can still manage them). No, I mean I hope to stay in a constant state of becoming rather than deterioration.
I know I have some bad habits that may have to go if I want to stick with this plan. One of them is my penchant for late nights. My somewhat irregular meal times might also find themselves falling into line like clockwork chimes.
Because as I get older, I find that my body recovers more slowly from the habits grown over a lifetime. There's that little bit of memory slippage after a very late night or a long sleepless flight. There's the extra poundage left behind after a couple of days of inattentive grazing outside my usual boundaries.
My late grandmother Helen, one of my life's great role models in many ways, came to visit me in France when she was 89. From her first day, in spite of jet lag, she was up, freshly showered and dressed at 8 a.m., ready for her breakfast, she insisted on a long walk in the afternoon, and bedtime by 10 p.m. We plied her with fine cheeses and wine, and only got her to succumb to a bit of cheese here and a glass of wine there after reminding her that, after all, she was in France and it would be a crime not to sample the local wares. Why was she so adamantly determined to stick to her routine?
She explained: After a certain point and especially after retirement, many people just stop noticing everyday things that once seemed easy to track. Times of day, for example. An excess of body odor. For that matter, clean clothing. Just how often that wine glass had been refilled. Small but important issues of personal hygiene, like toe nails or dry skin.
"It's not just a matter of how other people see you. It's a matter of self-respect, and of health. I don't think any of it will make me live longer, but it will make me live better, for longer."
She had a list of daily rules that, for this rebel of routine, seemed daunting:
- Up by 8:00 a.m.
- A daily shower.
- Fresh underwear every day, fresh shirt every other day, fresh bedding once a week. No exceptions.
(Okay, admittedly, these first three are basic, straightforward, and included in my current scheduling. The goal is to keep it that way.)
- A healthy but varied breakfast, lunch and dinner at regular hours -- portions measured; small, healthy snacks allowed; no skipping meals; no dinner after 7 p.m.) (I'm close on this one. Kind of close. Not really that close. I never measure. I snack. I skip meals.)
- No booze except on special occasions. (Yeah. Sure.)
- A daily walk. Two if possible. (Hers were up to four miles long. Hm. I may need to get a dog, after all.)
- Always a book in progress, as well as the daily newspaper. (Reading runs in the family. I can't promise to finish the books, though.)
- Daily phone calls with family. Regular phone calls and correspondence with friends. Making friends with the neighbors. (Yeah, okay, I should write to friends more. And family. You can't make me make friends with my awful neighbors, though.)
- External activities. In her case, she joined a bridge club because it was easy to get to, even though she wasn't a great fan of card games. (I'm trying to picture myself joining a bridge club. I can't. I'm not a joiner. Maybe I can start a gardening club that meets at my place. In my garden. To do my gardening while I snack. Or a geriatric Mario Kart club?)
She had others, too many to list here. She said she'd seen too many friends slide into a lack of awareness, who allowed for ever more self-neglect, who became a little more dependent on others for reminders as the decades went by. For herself, she was determined to age with curiosity, with independence, in good health, without decrepitude. And in a clean shirt, with clean socks.
I wish I could say I inherited her strict discipline, but life has shown me that in many ways I take after my other grandmother, the one who kept odd hours and drifted into loopy solitude once she was in her 80s. She always lived by her own cuckoo clock and as she aged, it showed.
Pam was the generous, beautiful woman whose final residence in an assisted living facility was directly preceded by blowing up her own kitchen when she tried to light a cigarette on a gas stove without a flame ... then lighting a match in frustration. Cigarette smoking did indeed almost kill her, but in the most unexpected way. She was the funny, sharp, independent woman who spent her final 10 years depending on the kindness of family and strangers alike as she spiraled further into an everyday jumble of activities over which she had little control or memory.
Will making new habits for old age prevent demise? I can't be certain -- but it sure can't hurt. So my goal is to keep learning, just like a young person does. Those quirky habits that are so easily forgiven by youth catch up with us later in life.
To be fair, my grandmother Helen did change a couple of her strict rules after her sojourn in France. After a talk with her doctor, and her cardiologist, and getting some lab work done, she allowed herself a small glass of red wine with dinner. Only one. And she matched it, every so often, with some French cheese. Just a nibble. She admitted that it was an improvement, and that she'd never felt better.
After all, life is to be enjoyed, and some rules are meant to be broken.