Think of a "hero" and chances are a war hero comes to mind. Such bravery is shown by a typical average Joe, barely out of high school, driven to often momentary greatness by a hellish set of circumstances far removed from Main Street.
Afterward, our hero returns to take off the fatigues, put on a suit and tie and become an average Joe all over again.
But when you think about it, what's so unheroic about everyday life? What's so mundane about the trials and tribulations of living an average life?
Growing old is certainly a battlefield all its own. Income shrinks. Occupations are snatched away. Bodies deteriorate. Recall fades. Energy wanes. Friends and family move away or die. Where are the medals for all this?
Senior citizens have known a veritable lifetime of hope and fear, affection and loss, wanting and disappointment. They've spent a lifetime looking out at their own version of the world and trying to make sense of it. And in spite of the hardships put in their way, they're still trying.
That's the key - to keep trying. The only thing that really counts is the effort. Now that's a fight worth waging. Heroism isn't reserved for one bright, shining moment of your youth, but deserved by anyone who keeps making such an effort.
For the past 15 years, I've witnessed some of these everyday heroes who have kept on trying. Despite the changes life metes out, these guys still exude physical and mental vitality at a time when they could be expected not to, when the end of the line is closer than it is further.
Since 1984, I've been going to my local YMCA for a morning round of exercise. While I'm a morning person, I've never gone with the same dedication as a few guys twice my age. They were old then, they're older now.
I've made friends with a few seniors, but the oldest of the bunch is Phil, who turns 84 this month. Anyone who holds the cliché image of an octogenarian should stop by at 5:30 on any morning and watch Phil bench-press 120 pounds, and then do 30 reps of arm curls with a bar loaded with 40 pounds.
Phil's all too familiar with that image: After moving out of a long-time apartment, he moved into a complex just for seniors. It's the kind of place that combines independent living and assisted care for those who need it.
"It was like the living dead," he sums up the year. "Those people really needed help." He's since moved out and bought a one-bedroom condo.
Phil got a late start coming regularly to the YMCA - not starting until age 70 and then only after having open heart surgery.
Since I never see Phil past around 6:30 a.m., I was surprised to find out for this column that Phil works two days a week doing odd jobs for a local real estate office. And he even hits the town with his new gal pal, aged 90!
"You'll find dating gets less expensive at my age," he says. "When we go out to dinner, we both usually order one entrée and tell the waiter to bring two plates."
It's easy to see how many of us, regardless of age, would prefer to stay in bed rather than get to a YMCA to exercise at such an ungodly hour. But to show up so early at 84 really hits home to me.
Phil has certainly known his share of setbacks that could keep him under the covers. His wife of 40 years plus died a couple of years ago.
On the very same day, his brother died. And a year after this, his 48-year-old son had a stroke, which leaves him paralyzed on his left side.
"While I have less in life," Phil sums up, "I have enough."
What determines the impact of such life events has more to do with the attitude displayed toward them, rather than the events themselves. It's the difference between viewing growing older as a reward or a punishment.
What To LearnSince heroes are meant to inspire, what can all of us "youngsters" learn from people like Phil? At the recent NAPHCC convention the keynote speaker advised everyone to spend time every day with someone under 25. Gotta think young, right? Sounds
good, but it wouldn't hurt to think old either.
Since the alternative to growing old is dying young, there are probably characteristics of happy, elderly people anyone could adopt at any age. Studies, for example, show that the happiest senior citizens are those who are actively religious, who enjoy close relationships with friends and family, who have sufficient health, income and motivation to enjoy a variety of activities. You don't have to wait until you're old to adopt such traits.
Here are other "older" characteristics to consider:
- Mellow Out: It would be easy to think that your sense of well-being takes a dip as you age. But researchers have never found any discernable relationship between the two. In fact, quite the contrary, senior citizens throughout many countries report just as much happiness and satisfaction as do younger folks.
Obviously, seniors face a growing likelihood of suffering chronic illnesses. Other studies indicate older people often do feel lonelier. But considering this and other reasons why we suppose the elderly must find life less satisfying, researchers have found that the positive satisfactions can balance the sadder side. As our years go by, for example, our feelings mellow. Our highs are less high; our lows are less low. "Compliments provoke less elation and criticisms less despair," says one report, "but become iotas of additional feedback atop a pile of accumulated praise and reproach."
It's as if an older person's emotions are attached to rubber bands that snap them out of extremes.
- Laughter Is The Best Medicine: I don't need to read a research paper to relate this one. All these old guys I exercise with are hilarious.
Humor can offer any of us a sense of perspective that helps to recognize that almost everything can been seen and understood differently. Laughter can create a state of mind that frees you from discouragement, depression, loneliness, rejection and all the other negative emotions that accompany discouragement.
Most doctors are beginning to understand the therapeutic value of laughter, making its benefits sound like those of exercise. "'Hearty' laughter," says one study, "tones the cardiovascular system, exercises the lungs and releases muscle tension."
As we've noted, older people do face higher odds of illness. But I've never heard any of these guys complain about the common aches and pains of say, a cold, that can send younger (and supposedly healthier) people to bed for a day or two.
He who laughs - lasts. I just usually stay away when these guys start talking about prostates.
- Join The Movement Movement: You don't need a column in PM to tell you about getting off your duffs and beginning a regular practice of exercise. A strong body equals a strong spirit.
Clearly, many physical maladies are genetic. If you're dad has high blood pressure, you probably will. But there's plenty of maladies you can control and do something about. While there's any number of fates awaiting us, many of our own habits and behaviors will gladly murder us, too.
- Get A Second Wind: Again, my own "research" suggests that a senior citizen's energy level boils down to the mix of ample optimism to provide hope, a dash of pessimism to prevent complacency and enough realism to know what you can and can't do anything about.
Seniors learn to accept the differences in what they have and don't have. And when the frustrating gap between aspirations and actualities narrows, stress levels decline. Daily hassles diminish as demands lessen. One survey for the National Council on Aging revealed that most elderly people think that others their age have some sort of serious health problem; but when asked about their own health, fewer than one in four report that they have such a problem. "Perceiving themselves better off than others, most elderly people can reason, 'I have a lot to be grateful for,'" said the study.
I think this element of gratitude is what keeps the old guys I know going. Here's how one researcher who is 93 put it "Many of those who have achieved what others call old age have confessed to feeling embarrassingly young, as if such a feeling were something anachronistic, an unexpected freshness. It is the kind of freshness that the long-distance runner experiences when at the peak of fatigue he experiences a second wind that takes him on to the finish line. This kind of freshness is that feeling of unadulterated joy in being alive that the romping child so gloriously feels - perhaps without the physical romping, but with that gaiety of spirit that has enabled one to grow young more effectively and more happily than was ever before possible - the last of life, for which the first was made."