Updated: May 4
What comes to mind when you hear the word “aging”? For me, it always had this heavier feel to it, like something I wanted to avoid thinking about. And yet as I look around at my grandmother, parents, and inlaws, I realize how blessed I am to have these remarkable examples of vibrant, active seniors in my own family.
Like most people, I took for granted this fearless certainty about life and health well into my thirties and even forties. I felt like I could count on my body to put up with a lot - from sleepless nights on call to pregnancy, childbirth, and then more sleepless nights. I never worried about the swelling in my knee while training for marathons, nor even that chronic back and neck pain from too much time on the computer.
It wasn’t until I had to do that second internship at the age of 48 that I realized that there might be a limit to how much wear and tear my body could take. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I barely survived too much stress and too little sleep that year.
And now I’m so grateful for the support of family and friends that got me through that year. It’s funny that I was so certain I’d make it through then, but now I see how fragile my health actually was.
We fear uncertain health as we age, but actually certainty is always an illusion. We want to believe we will always be healthy, but we could get hit by a bus tomorrow. As I have seen with my own family members, the question is not whether or not health problems will befall us - of course they will. The better question to ask is how we bounce back.
An ounce of prevention
I tell the story of my colleague and mentor Angela in the article Too Late. She chose to prioritize work, telling herself that she would look after her health after retirement. But ironically fell ill within a year of early retirement, after a career of serving those who took care of the sick.
Dementia is the most feared health condition of our generation. There are no known cures nor even proven treatments to date. Strokes and neurodegenerative brain disorders rob us of our speech, our mobility, our memories, our dignity and even sometimes our very identity.
What a gift it is to be free from the fear of aging
And yet we are only beginning to realize how fragile our brains are. Robust brain health is built on a foundation of excellent physical health and mental health. In my article Brain Care = Self Care, I discuss how our brains are the most valuable and powerful assets that we possess, and so they deserve to be taken care of to the best of our ability.
I have learned with coaching that I don’t fear aging as such, but rather I fear the anticipated loss along the way. I don’t want to lose my strength, mobility, or independence. I don’t want to be an object of disgust or pity. I don’t want to lose my memory, personality or creativity.
But I’ve come to see that when I make aging itself the thing to avoid or fear, then I’m actually giving myself only two choices: I can either die or face these things I don’t want. Since when did life get so binary?
What if I could choose to maintain my strength and mobility with strength training and staying active? I know that exercise also protects my brain, as does nourishing my body and heart with healthy foods, and getting plenty of restful sleep. I can train my brain to stay sharp by engaging in purposeful cognitively challenging work, connecting with friends, and by practicing mindfulness and creativity.
I know I can’t prevent certain losses, like loved ones or even places - but I can grieve them and preserve their legacies as best I can. And whatever comes my way in terms of health challenges, I know that I can trust myself to figure it out.
Because I’m clear that my most important Compelling Whys are my own children and their children. I take care of myself and mom my brain so that I won’t burden them with my care or disability in future. And what a gift it is to be free from the fear of aging.