THE GIFT OF AGE

“One life on this earth is all that we get.  Whether it is enough or not enough, and the obvious conclusion would seem to be that at the very least we are fools if we do not live it as fully and bravely and beautifully as we can.” –Frederick Buechner

I am not ashamed to print that I will soon be 54 years old, or perhaps I should say 54 years young.  I’ve already bought myself a little gift.  It sits in wait in a little box.

Age is a gift.  The old adage that “It’s better than the alternative” is so true, but not that simple, because none of have experienced the alternative.  So, while we are here, it behooves each and every one of us to suck all the nectar out of this one life we are given.

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My sister turned 60 last month.  She is well-known by almost every one in her small town of approximately 1100 people, which explains why there were several hundred people at her party.  We tried to make it a surprise, but she’s too perceptive to pull that off.  Plus, about a month before her birthday, she started planning her own party, thinking there was nothing in the works.  When that was thwarted by vague comments from her family, she knew something was brewing.  She didn’t care, just so there would be a celebration, and there was indeed.  She savors every moment of every day, even the not-so-good ones.  She truly knows the gift of age.  I try to keep up with her, and short of planning my own party, I think I do a pretty good job.  We have experienced enough loss within our family to know that in just one second, everything can change.  Therefore, savoring every moment is what we have learned to do. 

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Although I will review some basics later, this is not a lecture on why you should take care of your body as you age, and how to best do it.  I have already written about that.  It is meant to make you think twice before you complain about adding another year to your age.  I shouldn’t lecture, however, because I wasn’t always proud of my age.  So, if you have some work to do before you can shout your age from the mountaintops, I must say I have been there.

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I have worked as a speech-language pathologist since 1994, with the last 21 years spent working with adults.  Many of my patients have had strokes, some have had head injuries, others were diagnosed with brain cancer, or many other diseases/disorders that can cause speech/language/swallow problems.

When I was preparing to turn 40, I was bemoaning the onset of my new decade.  Shortly after my birthday, a patient was sent to me who turned me around, never to complain about my age again.  She was 39 years old, had just given birth to her 6th child, and suffered a massive stroke.  She lost most function on her right side. 

That was a powerful lesson.

Then, ten years later, I celebrated my 50th birthday in grand style, complete with a party.  Several months later, another lesson came my way.  A man who was just a few months younger than me became my patient.  He had an incurable disease, one that slowly took away all function.  He died several months after his 50th birthday. 

Perhaps I needed to be reminded of The Lesson.

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“Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”  –Bette Davis, actress

Perhaps you’ve heard that one before.  I am old enough to have an idea of what it means.  Increased aches and pains, decreased flexibility, a decrease of some functions, loss of energy and general fatigue are the main changes I have noticed.  None have kept me from enjoying life, but I know all these and more are to be expected, even with careful attention to healthy habits.  Given these maladies, I must say they are worth the wisdom I have gathered as I age.  If I could go back to any age, I wouldn’t do it.  Knowing who I am, what I want, how to navigate this crazy world, and how to love nearly everything about it is worth adding another digit to my age.

I look forward to (almost) every minute of every day of yet another trip around the sun.  It is the best gift I get every year. 

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In my work, I am privileged to meet many remarkable patients and their family members who seem to be aging gracefully, welcoming the gift of each new year.  If it feels appropriate, I often ask them if they have any secrets to aging so well.  Their answers typically fall into two categories:

1:  “I stay physically active.”

2:  “I do what I like to do, and I keep my brain busy.”

To me, this translates very simply into this:  Exercise your brain and body.  Given these two broad bits of advice, I would like to add the following tips.  You have likely heard them all before, but they all bear repeating.  Sometimes, hearing the same thing in different words can make a greater impression.

1:  Sleep is vital to good health.  Multiple studies confirm this, as does the fact that with enough sleep, we all feel better.

2:  Drink enough water.  Our bodies—and brains—are made of primarily of water.  As a speech-language pathologist, voice therapy is in my scope of practice.  Hydration is essential to vocal health, as well as overall physical health.  “Enough” water is defined in my profession with this formula:  half of your body weight in ounces daily.

3:  Get regular checkups, and listen to your body.  Find a medical provider you are comfortable with. 

4:  Even simple exercise such as walking daily can make an incredible difference.  Ask anyone who exercises regularly, and they will tell you that without it, their quality of life is compromised. 

5:  Use every tool in the shed to find happiness.  It’s out there, but it may take effort.  If you need to forgive someone to find it, remember that forgiveness isn’t about the other person, it’s about freeing yourself.

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My patients have shown me time and again that life can indeed change in just one moment.  Losses in my life have confirmed this.  If you have the opportunity—and most of us do—get out there and make the most of every day.  Your age makes no difference, except in your mind.

The bonus is this:  your physical health will improve, too.  Studies have shown that optimistic people tend to be healthier. 

Congratulations.  You have just set in motion a positive force, one that will continue to carry you more smoothly as you travel around the sun another time. 

And, whenever your birthday happens to be, Happy Birthday to You. May you have many more.