“Older and Wiser!”

Is that what you prefer for yourself as your travel down the Seniors Highway—to be older and wiser? That choice reminds me of a birthday card I saw a few years ago that included the question, “Are you older and wiser—or just older?” Clearly, the process of aging (getting older) may or may not include the process of growing wiser. I also recall another birthday card I bought and gave to a friend who was celebrating a “sixties-range” birthday. The card I purchased for this friend included the following message: “Aging is inevitable; maturing is optional.” In my personal handwritten message I complimented the individual on successfully completing the optional component. The message in that card has prompted within me an assessment of my personal journey. Frankly, I’m all for aging (especially when I consider the alternative) but even more so I want to be maturing as each birthday comes and goes. I wish that maturation and wisdom could be automatic results of the aging process, but such is not the case. Aging is simply a matter of letting nature take its course; maturing requires a great deal of continual commitment and appropriate action.

In a prior article (Part One) we looked at the “A” letter of the word “AGE” in terms of acceptance:  “Accept Your Longevity!” In this article (Part Two) we want to explore the issue of growth suggested by the letter “G” in the word “AGE.” As we age we need to “Grow in Learning.” At what point in life should we stop learning—and growing? Infants who do not grow might be described with the phrase “failure to thrive.”  People in the later years can have a similar problem with a failure to thrive simply by a lifestyle of non-growth. Growth comes with learning, so our challenge is to continue learning. Since we learn in order to grow it makes sense that we would want to grow in our learning! Our commitment is to life-long learning; there is no point in life in which we should stop learning. That commitment certainly includes learning throughout the later years. Time and space do not permit us in this brief article to identify and explore all of the areas of life during our later years in which learning and growth are important. As I consider my own travels along the Seniors Highway I have particular interest in three specific growth areas: wisdom, worth, and wellness. These three areas are vital components to safe and successful travels along the Seniors Highway. I invite you to examine these issues with me in relation to your own personal journey through the later years.

Learning about Wisdom . . .

One important growth area focuses upon the development of personal wisdom. Hopefully, as we learn more about wisdom we will be able to live from day to day in a much wiser way than in the past. The term “wisdom” could be defined or described in many ways, but the description I prefer is “maturity that grows out of personal knowledge plus life experience.” My ultimate goal is maturity; to achieve that goal I need a combination of knowledge and experience. Knowledge without experience is probably no better than experience without knowledge. Jointly, the two possessions can generate wisdom. Experience is more than the mere repetition of the same thing. Perhaps you’ve heard of the job applicant who stated that he had been working for thirty years. The interviewer questioned the applicant, “Do you mean that you’ve had thirty years of experience, or are you saying that you’ve had one year of experience repeated thirty times?” Hopefully, our years of life experience have combined with knowledge to make us much wiser now than we’ve ever been before.

Tragically, too many people stop active learning when they transition onto the Seniors Highway. We might say, “I’ve already learned everything I need to know,” or we could believe the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” As a result of these negative beliefs we wind up being either unwilling to learn or we think we’re unable to learn. In contrast, many other Seniors are eager to learn and they see themselves as being very capable of learning whatever they choose to study. I was very impressed with one 79-year-old gentleman who audited a Psychology course I was teaching. Out of sincere interest (and some curiosity) I asked him why he decided to sign up for this particular course. He replied, “I just wanted to learn more about psychology.” His comments throughout the course added a very positive note to our class discussions. More recently I was amazed and intrigued by an 87-year-old fellow whose example demonstrates the benefits of life-long learning. In recent years his eyesight has been failing and his vision problems have become major hindrances to daily functioning. His niece bought an IPad and taught him how to use the voice recognition and speaking functions to compose and send email messages. Regarding her uncle the niece stated, “He is now 87 and I pray I will be as smart as he is when I get that age.” This gentleman is not an isolated example of learning during the later years. I also recall an older retired fellow who decided to take classical guitar lessons with the same teacher I was using. This older student participated actively in our group sessions and became a better guitarist than most of the younger students, including me. In fact, eventually he and our teacher played classical duet pieces for several community events. Without doubt you also can think of numerous older people you know who have continued to study and learn throughout their later years. We can go to most community Senior Centers and find computer classes and other activities in which older people are learning new ideas and developing new skills.   Based on these examples of solid evidence we must admit, “You CAN teach an ‘old dog’ new tricks!”  

As Seniors we can continue our life-long learning informally (for example, in the comfort of our home) or we can select a more formal setting such as a Senior Center, a college classroom, or individualized professional instruction. In these settings we can learn new skills on musical instruments or we can increase our abilities to enjoy various hobbies. Basically, the only limit we have to continual learning during the later years is the self-generated limit we place on ourselves. Hopefully, we’ll see the value of learning and remove these self-imposed shackles.  

As we integrate new learning with what we already know we continue to grow. The application of new learning will improve our day-to-day experiences along the Seniors Highway. Essentially, the resulting wisdom will provide maturity and will promote a safe and successful journey. Perhaps the day will come for each of us when our lifestyle illustrates the truth stated by Job, the wise man of the Scriptures, who wrote, “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding with the length of days.” (Job 12:12) My recent ponderings about the importance of maturity generated a simple poem that I entitled “Maturity.”
           “Our growing old is not alluring
           Unless we focus on maturing;
           So let’s possess a constant yearning
           For growth that comes with daily learning;
           We cannot serve as the adviser
           Until with age we’ve grown much wiser.”

                                                       --Dr. Bill Baker (2013)

Learning about Worth . . .

A second growth area merits our attention during the later years: learning about worth. In our younger years we might envision our old age as a time in which we will be “worth something.” What older man or woman would NOT want to be worth something? The issue of worth raises an important question: what does “worth” mean in reference to the later years? Are we thinking primarily or perhaps totally about financial worth? That line of thought would certainly characterize many older people for whom “worth” is mostly a matter of money. What is my financial worth? How much money do I have in my checking account, my 401(k), or my other savings accounts? How much equity do I have in real estate? How do my assets compare to my liabilities? The bottom line is clearly, “What’s my net financial worth?”

What about you—and me? Specifically, what does “worth” mean to us, and how does our definition affect our journey along the Seniors Highway? We understand that money is essential to daily necessities and responsible living, but let’s not limit our concept of “worth” to mere dollars and cents. We need to consider other assets that really represent the true treasures of life during our later years. We could think of this consideration as an inventory process—taking inventory of our assets or treasures. As I thought about the idea of inventory I began thinking about other words that start with “in” (that is, the letters “i” and “n”), words that capture the treasures of life that transcend money in terms of lasting effect and benefit. So, let’s go beyond “income” and look briefly at several better “IN” words.
Insight:  Purposeful Living 

The first “in” word is “insight.” The term refers among other things to our ability to understand ourselves in regard to purposeful living. That description generates several relevant and interesting questions. Why am I alive? Why am I here?  What is my mission? What do I believe? What are my values? What beliefs and values are really best for me? What motivates me in life? How do I make decisions? Do those decisions represent genuine personal choices in terms of my wants, needs, and values? To what extent do my personal choices relate to my primary purpose in life? How do I discipline myself to stay on track and fulfill my purpose and complete my mission? How can I achieve and maintain purposeful living?

Hopefully we have already dealt with these important questions during our younger years, and now it’s just a matter of staying on course as we complete our journey on the Seniors Highway. However, if these questions have not been explored and resolved, we need to address them now and work hard to improve our level of personal insight. Without insight into our purpose in life we will travel through the later years randomly and reactively. That haphazard and helpless approach to travel reminds me of a navigator’s comment during World War II. According to the story I heard, a military plane was flying a mission, and the pilot asked his navigator for their current location. After a few awkward moments the navigator replied, “I’m sorry, Sir, but I have no clue where we are. However, one thing is for sure—we’re making mighty good time!”  Like the plane we will travel quickly through the later years, either on course in keeping with our life purpose and mission, or else off-course in meaningless circles that inevitable lead to disastrous crashes. We must know both where we are at the current moment and where we are heading. Our insight into the issues of life and the process of daily living is a vital asset that increases our net worth.
Integrity:  Personal Legitimacy

A second “in” word is “integrity.” As senior adults we need to be people of integrity, that is, we value and practice personal legitimacy. In terms of legitimacy I’m not referring to issues of birth but rather issues of life in the later years. If we have legitimacy, we are real; we are genuine—and authentic. We know what our personal values are and we make sure that our lifestyle harmonizes with those values. Our daily behavior is “in sync” with our inner values of truthfulness, honesty, and respectfulness. People do not accuse us of hypocrisy; instead, they applaud us for legitimacy. The eulogy given at our funeral would include the affirmation, “He was definitely a man of integrity!” Our net worth increases significantly when integrity and legitimacy are assets that we have cultivated and maintained.

Influence:  Positive Leadership

The third “in” word is “influence.” Our insight and integrity work together to create a positive influence upon people around us and upon people who outlive us. We want our daily lifestyle to have a helpful impact upon the world around us. Through our example we provide positive leadership for a darkened world that is in desperate need for bright lights of guidance and direction.  Needless to say, our example is hopefully positive but cannot be perfect. We all make mistakes that often make messes and generate misery. These mistakes always undermine our influence, but the positive way we acknowledge and deal with our mistakes can still present a good example of accountability and responsibility. People watch us as we strive to clean up our messes and improve our behavior, and we hope that their lives are improved in meaningful ways.  Good influence is a wonderful asset. Our net worth is greater when the personal example we set is positive and powerful.

Inheritance:  Permanent Legacy
Another “in” word is “inheritance.” The combination of insight, integrity, and influence provides a meaningful legacy that will last far beyond the years we live on this earth. Future generations will benefit from the inheritance they receive from us. The issue of inheritance involves several questions: “What will other people inherit from me when I die? What legacy am I leaving for my family and friends? How permanent or lasting is that legacy?” I’ve heard many people state that they hoped to leave a good sum of money for their children and grandchildren. While money is often a welcomed and useful inheritance, other “assets” are of greater importance. Perhaps the greatest inheritance of all is a legacy of love. When the people we leave behind know that they were loved by us they receive a gift that transcends money. That legacy of love is permanent—and powerful!

In summary, we’ve explored briefly four “in-words” or assets that increase our net worth significantly. Hopefully, we will choose to invest daily in the development of these assets so that they will continue to grow in value. Additionally, we will choose to safeguard carefully our current assets so that the worth we have gained will not somehow be lost.

Learning about Wellness . . .

The third growth area we need to learn about is wellness. The term “wellness” suggests the presence of good health. Older adults prefer to have good health as they travel the Seniors Highway, but too often they restrict their focus to their physical health. Clearly, one’s physical health is important and should be maintained and safeguarded as much as possible. However, the decline of physical health is a co-traveler with us in our journey, and, therefore, the loss of physical health should not come as a surprise to any of us. We need to think about wellness in a larger sense. The term includes physical health but also involves mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health. It is to our advantage to learn as much as possible about these additional features of wellness.

Mental and emotional health is vitally important to a safe and successful journey through the later years. The presence of depression and anxiety represent enemies that steal from us the energy and joy that we value in our day-to-day travels. It is important that we learn to recognize these enemies and keep them from causing collapses or collisions along the highway of life.

Spiritual health is often minimized or ignored completely by senior adults who choose to focus on other types of personal wellness. As a result, they face several features of old age without a spiritual anchor to sustain them. The most obvious feature is death. Without a positive spirituality that is present and active most people facing death do so with great fear and anxiety. In fact, the fear of death is a common cause for depression and anxiety disorders in older adults.  In contrast the spiritually-based person can face death and other challenges of old age with greater courage and confidence. Two scriptures from the Bible are especially relevant in this context. King David understood the importance of spiritual dependence upon God during the later years in life. On one occasion he prayed, “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent. So even to old age and grey hairs, O God, do not forsake me.” (Psa. 71:9, 18) On another occasion the prophet Isaiah revealed a promise that God had made to His people: “Even to your old age I am He, and to grey hairs I will carry you.  I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and I will save.”  (Isa. 46:4)
A life of wellness is certainly a balanced life, one in which good stewardship is practiced and effective safeguards are provided. As the senior adult experiences the decline of physical health he will rely upon other areas of wellness to support and sustain him through the challenges and hardships of the later years. He will use his coping skills and relevant resources to adjust to and deal with the predictable changes that are inherent in old age.
Concluding Thoughts . . .

Learning is essential to success and well-being throughout our journey in life. This fact plays a vital role in our travels along the Seniors Highway. During our later years we must continue to grow in our learning to insure that we keep moving forward in our personal lives and in our human relationships. The three areas of wisdom, worth, and wellness are of particular value to our journey. Our growth in understanding these areas will serve to equip and enable us to travel more effectively toward our destination.

We began our discussion in this article with the question, “Are you older and wiser—or just older?” The reality is that we will get older whether we grow wiser or not. Let’s encourage ourselves to think of learning as a life-long process, an adventure that continues throughout the later years. As we grow in our learning our increased learning in turn generates more growth. Continual growth is our goal; let’s never stop growing, regardless of the passing of years or the decline of the flesh. Perhaps you’ll be stimulated and encouraged by the spiritual admonition given by the apostle Paul to his Christian brethren:  “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (II Cor. 4:18 NIV) When we see the predicted decline in our physical bodies as we travel the Seniors Highway we appreciate and value Paul’s spiritual insight and his practical encouragement. His perspective can help us adjust to and cope with the challenges we face in our journey through the later years.

If you are now (or soon will be) a traveler along the Seniors Highway, I wish for you a safe and successful journey. I hope that the material presented in this short article will make your travels a little better. And I wish you well in all of your relationship journeys.  

VIDEO:  To see a short video of a television interview in which Dr. Baker explores "Aging and Lifelong Learning" please click on the image to the right or click on the title below.

                                "Aging and Lifelong Learning"

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)



           Later Years:  Blog #1202


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