Every day seems to bring stories about people who have lived long and distinguished lives. We're all getting older, of course, and occupy the aging trenches alongside millions of other people. It's natural to dwell on the obituaries, appreciations and "whatever happened to" stories.
Nelson Mandela recently celebrated perhaps the most intensely scrutinized 95th birthday in recorded history. There cannot possibly be too many celebrations for this man, who deserves to live to 195 should he wish. A short time later, Kate Middleton gave birth to Prince George, likely to be one of the world's most intensely scrutinized new arrivals.
Between these pillars of very old and very young age, billions of people are passing personal milestones all the time. Nearly all of them go unnoticed except for a handful of family and friends. Some gain exposure to broader audiences, either through celebrity or the grace and wit of the person and his or her observations on the human condition.
Oliver Sacks, a New York University professor of neurology and author, recently wrote a widely feted piece in The New York Times about turning 80 years old. "I am looking forward to being 80," he concluded, after presenting the most elegant paragraph about older age I can recall:
"My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one's own life, but others', too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together."
Sacks, by his own admission, is relatively free of chronic and debilitating physical diseases and ailments. He has lived a fabulous life of curiosity and exploration, and been richly rewarded for his efforts. If he soured at becoming an octogenarian, we all would be surprised. Sacks says he looks forward to a continued fruitful life and would like to "die in harness," still working and, presumably, with minimal decline until the very end.
The reality of aging for many people is very different. Even in the relative affluence of the United States, more than half the people past age 85 have at least four chronic diseases, according to Harvard gerontologist and palliative care physician Muriel Gillick. The idea of living a long life and dying after a compressed period of decline is appealing, and even encouraged by the companies and people who flog medical progress and miraculous discoveries. But it's not reality, at least not today, Gillick wrote on her "Life in the End Zone" blog:
"Chronic illness and disability are thus the norm for octogenarians, at least by the time they reach 85. Remaining vigorous and then dying quickly is simply not the reality for many older individuals. This does not mean that they cannot live life to the fullest, but it does mean that for the majority of octogenarians to stay engaged with life, we need to find ways to enable them to derive meaning from their existence."
If you're already 80 or close to it, you likely have a pretty good idea of whether your reality looks like that of Oliver Sacks or Muriel Gillick. If that chapter of your life has not yet come into focus, perhaps you should set aside a few moments to consider what those years might be like for you, and especially what you might do today to raise the odds that your later years will be as good as you can possibly make them.
In the end, celebrating life should be something we do each and every day. And it doesn't need to be based on monumental accomplishments. John McPhee, a staff writer for The New Yorker for a mere 48 years, puts words on paper so solidly that his creations will last longer than most of the skyscrapers erected during his lifetime. Since capturing the essence of a young Bill Bradley when he played basketball for Princeton, in his 1965 book, "A Sense of Where You Are," McPhee has displayed a marvelous grasp of life's proper proportions.
In a recent New Yorker piece, McPhee writes about his addiction to recovering discarded golf balls, using a device called an Orange Trapper. The Trapper has a flexible and extensible shaft that permits him to place it under fences and scoop up stray balls that have not been recovered by golfers. The scene he describes occurred at a posh Gary Player-designed golf course in Princeton, N.J., called Jasna Polana near U.S. Route 206. McPhee had extended the Trapper underneath a fence onto the private grounds of the course:
"I was working that fence near 206 one day, where Jasna Polana has a service gate. Preoccupied by the delicacy of Trapper placement, I was slow to notice a middle-aged, heavyset greenkeeper hurrying on foot toward the gate. He was past the age of running but he was chugging flat out, and this was no place for me. I withdrew the Orange Trapper, collapsed its telescoping shaft, put it into a saddlebag with the day's harvest, jumped onto my bicycle, and headed back upstream, upwoods, and away from 206 at a speed so blazing that I probably could not duplicate it if I were to try to now, but that was years ago, when I was eighty."