By Guest Gero-Punk Essayist
This past summer was hard. I’ve entered into autumn feeling worn-out and overwhelmed by life’s struggles. Just being a graduate student is stressful enough, but witnessing the powerplays within my university that are driving out many of the brightest stars, including my mentors, has been heart-wrenching. Other contributors to my depleted state are of my own doing, like taking on another work commitment. Still others I had no control of like the death of a furry family member, and the complicated dying and death of a friend, and helping my mother and visiting aunt navigate health problems and memory issues. In combination, these struggles feel insurmountable and my own response too often is to ignore my own self care.
When I feel overwhelmed like this, I think of my friend Marian’s words: “The best part of aging is meeting the struggles!”
When Marian first said this to me, I didn’t exactly know what she meant.
Marian is 82 and has been my friend and spiritual mentor for almost 20 years. Instead of driving she still walks to most places, she is socially active in church and community, and the last time I went to visit her, she had almost completed a 5000 piece puzzle that was displayed on her dining room table. Even after a stroke, Marian is vibrant and fully engaged in life. She’s a beautiful example of positive, graceful aging. I want to follow her example, but I worry that I’m not making the lifestyle choices now that I will need for my future.
How do I keep from feeling worn-out and overwhelmed while navigating life’s struggles?
One way is to make sure that I am nurturing all parts of myself and giving my future embodied self a foundation of well-being. Taking care of my physical health is a big part of this process. I have had a life-long struggle with obesity. As I reflect on the past 30 years, I am acutely embarrassed to think how long I have talked about wanting to lose weight but have continued my same habits. With the exception of my early twenties, I have been overweight my entire adult life.
Then last fall I had one of those ah-ha moments. I was attending a Gero-Punk Salon where we were encouraged to envision our future older self. (You too can experience this at: Future Older Selves .) We were invited to imagine our future older selves giving our current selves a message. I imagined my older self as a slender, healthy gero-transcendent woman. But to my dismay, my older-self sadly shook her head and told me this vision was a fantasy unless I started making changes now. This was the catalyst that I needed for change and suggestions from mentors and friends have helped me to alter my relationship with food and form a commitment to exercising. It’s been an ongoing process of breaking lifelong habits and recommitting to new ones, but I’m in it for the long run.
Eating healthy and exercising is not a guarantee that I will be able to dodge disease or disability, now or in later life, but I know the lifestyle choices I make today will affect my tomorrow. And, of course, physical wellness is just one aspect of my whole self. Intentional embodied aging requires that I continually develop, nurture, and grow my emotional, cognitive, and spiritual self as well. Friendships and family are critical to my emotional, mental, and spiritual well being. I believe our highest calling is “to love and be loved,” and yet, when I’m feeling worn-out and overwhelmed I tend to pull away from friends and family. During stressful times, I will often cut-back on time with my four-year-old grandson who is my most precious source of love and joy. My habit of pulling away is actually the exact opposite of what I need to be doing and this behavior feeds into my sense of isolation and emotional exhaustion. Here again, I have the opportunity to intentionally create new habits of reaching out to friends and family for support instead of isolating myself.
Intentional embodied aging is a mindset of creating life-long habits that contribute to a holistic well-being plan for the future. Intentionally developing and nurturing mind, body and spirit will increase my chances of becoming a spiritually empowered healthy older adult. I think continued spiritual growth is, for me, the most critical piece in my aging process because my body and mind may decline in later life, but my spirit doesn’t have to. In fact, many cultures believe that our spirits flame even brighter in Elderhood. I’m not talking about religion, though religion often is a spiritual vehicle, but what I mean by spirituality is anything that transcends a person beyond themselves. Developing my soul seems crucial to me and I have personally experienced transcendence through being present in nature, through love and the interconnectedness of humans and other creatures, through art and creativity, and through my own relationship with the divine.
I believe that a strong spiritual foundation will serve me well in later life. Such a foundation has certainly served my friend Marian well. Marian has reminded me that a life worth living isn’t granted, but requires embracing life’s struggles with grace and inner strength that comes from intentional work toward embodiment. It’s a lesson that I aspire to remind myself of often.
Cyndi McKee is a grandmother, wife, and graduate student