What have you gained as you have aged?

Independent Living and Realities of Aging

AN ONGOING SERIES WITH CHAPLAIN HOWARD EARLE

Independent Living residents of Beacon Hill at Eastgate meet every week with Chaplain Howard Earle to discuss the realities of aging. Every week during this class, “Nobody Asked Me,” they discuss new topics. This week, the topic is “Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?”

Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?

One of our most memorable family milestones was when we decided to add a dog to our already lively, hectic family. I’ll never forget watching my oldest daughter who was about five years old at the time shed tears over her excitement when we brought home Samson. As a puppy, of course he was the cutest thing and captured our hearts. The kids loved to play with him and try to teach him tricks. A dog that performs tricks on demand is wonderful, but the most critical trick is to not pee in the house. That was the one trick Samson never seemed to master. Fast forward twelve years and guess what: Samson still tends to hit his spot on occasion.

I’ve heard it said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. At 12+ years of age, Samson is considered a senior-aged dog and I wonder if he can learn the “trick” of only peeing outside. Learning new tricks in old age came up in a recent Nobody Asked Me group. We started our discussion answering two questions: How has aging changed you physically? And, how has aging changed your perspectives? There was no problem answering the first question. Even I could contribute because I’m feeling the effects of age on my body. We chuckled about the changes of our hair color, the amount of hair we have, our aches, and decline in energy level. But the second question took a little more introspection. I ran across a quote by George McGovern, Democratic nominee for president in 1972. McGovern would lose to the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon in an election that wasn’t even close. Decades later, in his eighties, McGovern said, “Right now, I think I’d be a better president than I would have thirty-six years ago. I’ve learned more about the importance of working across party lines …As I’ve gotten a little older, I’ve found I can work with a broader range of people and be comfortable about it.” Even after reading the quote again as I type, I think about the weight of such a statement. What would bring him to such self-awareness after all those years?

McGovern spoke those words during an interview with a psychiatrist named Marc E. Agronin, MD, of the Miami Jewish Health Systems. Agronin sums McGovern’s musings as wisdom that he has acquired as he’s aged. Our perspective question mentioned earlier was our way of arriving at wisdom and its relationship to aging. We all used McGovern’s quote and thought who or what could we be better at now than we were 40 years ago. Most of us without hesitation felt like we would be better parents. But the question invoked a lot of thought. Besides your grey hair and stiff joints, consider what else you’ve gained as you’ve aged. Tolerance, acceptance, and empathy were the most common responses as we all pondered. Maybe you thought you just mellowed out as you’ve gotten older. But maybe a better explanation is that the years of living and experience have made you wiser. The Roman Philosopher Marcus Cicero said, “Knowledge, wisdom, the accrued influence is the crowning glory of old age.”

A classic argument in medicine is that the brain and cognitive activity declines with age. But there’s also research that says the brain CAN grow nerve connections and physically re-sculpt itself later in life. Consider it a paradox. The brain loses capacity while at the same time gaining wisdom. Maybe you can’t recall what you had for dinner last night or you have to write down everything that’s important, but you have evolved, arguably for the better, as you’ve aged. You see the world differently now and the only way you could arrive at such vision is by living. Growing old is also one of your gifts to the world. You possess insight and perspective that is not easily visible through youthful ambition and hedonistic pursuits. So, yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks!

Join the conversation every Monday at 2:00 p.m. in the Vistas Lounge and Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. in the Chapel.   

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Beacon Hill at Eastgate is a distinctive, not-for-profit retirement community located in Grand Rapids’ desirable Eastgate neighborhood.

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