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Hope, health keys to growing older

By DOUGLAS SPANGLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001


When my wife and I contemplated early retirement, there was little doubt that the Tampa Bay area was our first choice in Florida and that Florida was our first choice among the handful of states we contemplated moving to.

Now, five years later and still not at the "normal" retirement age and in good health, I can say that I have not regretted for a minute my decision to call it quits early. During these five years, I feel I have come to some conclusions about this time of life. Here they are:

1. Probably the most unhappy older group I have seen are those who long to be as they once were, rather than as they are now. Those who compare themselves with the way they were 20 years ago are engaging in an exercise certain to keep them in an unhappy state. Striving to be happy with who and what you are right now is essential to happiness when one gets older.

2. It is a joke to hear people talk of how tough getting older is. Little children in cancer wards have no such worries. In a TV interview toward the end of his life, John Wayne teared up and said he had decided that every day was beautiful even when the weather was lousy. Someone in a TV show recently responded to a young man's query as to "who would want to be 89?" The response: "Someone who is 88."

3. If there was one gift that could be given to everyone, regardless of age, it would be the realization that health is nearly the only thing that matters in life -- and that such an insight could be given without the person getting ill or nearly losing his life.

4. The one absolute thing people who age well have in common is optimism. Two women were in a store recently talking about a cosmetics company. One of them said that every time the company puts out something good, it was bound to stop making it. But if it puts out a bad product, it would make it forever. The other woman heartily agreed. Similarly, if one lives his life thinking that even when things are good, they are bound to go bad soon, they probably will. If one believes that life is good and strives to make it that way, then life often generally turns out that way.

5. Winston Churchill was talking about life in general when he gave this very short speech: "Never, never, never despair." That certainly can be applied to aging. Hope is and always will be the twin sister of Optimism.

6.The prayer of St. Francis is the best blueprint for growing older. It tells us not to worry about those things we cannot change and worry only about those we can. To wish we were taller, smarter or younger is like wishing the weather were drier, cooler or warmer. All are things we can't do a blessed thing about.

7. When it comes to memory, there are some things we should forget. Those who remember every slight or enemy going back to the third grade or some hateful name their child called them are some of the most unhappy people you could meet. A selective memory that wipes out the names of your enemies and remembers the names of your friends is the best tonic for successful aging one could have. As a Vietnam veteran so articulately put it: "Follow the rule of F.I.D.O. -- Forget It and Drive On." As the title character of Anne of Green Gables puts it: "Tomorrow is brand new with no mistakes."

8. One of the most vexing problems as we grow older is whether we should be open to change or stick to our guns. The French have an expression -- "Nothing is so unchangeable as change" -- and we should take heed of that. There is a volume of evidence that those who are capable of change are much happier than those who resist change. Life is a movie, not a photograph. A photograph is a moment frozen in time that never changes. A movie is something that moves and progresses all of the time, and you don't know the plot in advance.

9. The funniest concept about retirement and aging is that life changes radically when one grows older. People are disappointed to find out that cliques exist and hierarchies develop even among those who are no longer working and who cannot throw their job titles around. Mature age is nothing more than life with slightly older clothes on.

10. We either live and learn -- or we just live. Somewhere along the way, we should gain some wisdom from our experiences. This is a lesson for everyone, regardless of age. Those who were born in 1920, as Tom Brokaw pointed out in his book, went through a Depression starting at the age of 9 and a World War starting at the age of 21. If they can do that, future generations should be able to get through anything. We need the old for their wisdom and the young for their energy; and when we combine the two, we can do nearly anything.

- Douglas Spangler is a writer and former university administrator who lives in Palm Harbor.

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