On the Joy of Turning 60…

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Emil's 60th birthday party SMMy father died in his mid-fifties. I was in my mid-twenties, and from my point of view back then, he’d lived a good, long life. Having turned 60 a few days ago, I now realize his life had been cut remarkably short.

Turning 60 has had far less of an impact then that Moment, a few years back, when I first realized I’d actually lived longer than had my dad. When that dawned on me, irrationally, emotionally, it shocked me. Not that I’d outlived my father, but that realization brought home to me how young he was when he passed away. I’m thankful that he’d prepared himself for death and it disturbed him less than for many people I’ve watched through the years. He wasn’t prepared for the process of dying, though and that was hard on him and those of us caring for him in his last months.

Birthday decades seem hard for many people. Turning 20 (or especially 21) is very exciting — but after that, the excitement tends to fall away. Turning 30, 40, 50… often people resist having big, celebratory parties thrown for them, wishing instead they could just forget about them. [“Dad? Don’t throw a big party for Mom — and for gosh sakes, don’t say anything about turning sixty! She’d hate you for reminding her…”]

So as people asked in the past few months leading up to my birthday, how old I would be and I said, “Sixty”, often there’d be a quick hesitation and a sharp examination of my facial expression in an obvious attempt to see how badly I felt about passing this societal marker! And even I didn’t really know how I felt about it — not until August 2 rolled around and I actually turned 60… and on that day, I felt lighthearted and filled with a new sense of freedom I hadn’t expected.

It made more sense, though, after I read a little of Gene Cohen’s book, The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Mind. I’d bought the book (at my wife, Shell’s, insistence) a couple of years ago but hadn’t felt any need to open it up and read it until I turned 60! So, last weekend, I picked it up and it explained exactly why I felt excited and free having passed this milestone. As I read, Cohen didn’t really reveal that much to me that was actually new (I’m well-read in areas of aging and psychological development), but he’s gathered together and clarified the material excellently. My point is, reading Cohen’s book lit up in me a lot of “a ha!” moments making me feel right at home with his easily transferable concepts.  With Cohen’s help in focusing my feelings, here’s a little of why I’m so joyful with having turned 60…

Cohen writes,

“The popular view of aging is one of loss, as though the developmental clock begins to run backward from adulthood, eventually arriving back at childhood. Successful aging in this view, means holding on to pre-existing strengths and capacities for as long as possible and slowing what is assumed to be an inexorable decline.” [p.29f, all citations from paperback ed. pub. by Basic Books.]

And,

“As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, many experts still viewed old age as a disease: the mind and body, they believed, naturally fell apart, like the car after many years of use.” [p. xvii]

As I’ve approached my seventh decade of life, I’ve been increasingly aware of how young I am. Not that I’m unaware of some “inexorable decline” as mentioned above, but that in my inner life I’m increasingly delighted with life. I’ll give some specific reasons below in a moment. But first, I have to say that I’m not unaware that society at large perceives a person of my age as having reached that point where I need to spend most of my time trying to hold onto my health, my mental faculties — heck, even my desire to keep living life in general.

But I’m experiencing none of that. Instead, I watch TV shows like E!, look at movies populated by heroes saving the world who all look like children to me, and read OpEd pieces in the newspaper (yes — I still occasionally hold “paper” in my hands and “read” like other old men) which treat old age like a disease. And yet in the face of these popular and persistent pressures, I chuckle, knowing how in a mere two or three decades these same shapers of social opinion will discover for themselves that there’s more to aging than they ever suspected…             😉

But why am I so delighted with being 60? Part of it is that having turned 60 means I’m on my way to becoming older — hence, experiencing even more of the benefits of aging than I’ve garnered now. Some of the technical information Cohen lays out that I didn’t know already comes from his many years of research into the physical development of the aging brain. Cohen points out that if one compares the older brain, physically, to a younger brain, they are distinctly different: the older brain has a far greater “neural density” than a younger brain. [p. 5] “The complex neural architecture of older brains, built over years of experience, practice, and daily living, is a fundamental strength of older adults. And the more complex the [neural] architecture, the more it resists degradation by injury or disease.” [p. 8]

A fallacy of past decades is that, after a certain age, the nerve cells of the brain stop growing and reproducing themselves. Cohen references many research studies which show that this is no longer accepted as true — my aging brain has not lost the ability to learn by forming new synapses, dendrites, and even entirely new brain cells!

The advantage of this continued neural development in the aging brain over that of younger adults is fairly simple: this neural complexity is similar to using high-bandwidth optical cables capable of carrying Internet signals swiftly over vast distances. “The practical upshot of this ongoing [neural] construction is better coordination between the brain’s many modules, more effective integration of the brain’s hemispheres, and more efficient signal transmission throughout the brain, all of which support the more flexible and nuanced thinking characterized by [more advanced cognition] and wisdom in the second half of life.” [p. 36]

One of the amazing results (especially for men!) is that whereas in youth, insufficient neural networking between the left and right hemispheres of the brain hinders inter-communication, in the aging brain, neural growth “hard-wires” increasing connections between these two hemispheres. Brain scans show that when, for example, “young adults retrieve a specific word from memory, they usually use mostly the left side of their brain. Older adults doing the same task, however, often use both hemispheres. This [integration] has been found with other tasks too, such as facial recognition, working memory, and certain types of perception.” [p.20]

The brain has been “wired” by life-experiences, also — and the mature brain is greatly advantaged by this neural development. In comparison to my daughter or son, I may, for example, have more trouble “finding” a word (“tip-of-the-tongue” experience) — but due to my experiences in life, my overall vocabulary is vast in comparison to theirs. And when it comes to practical problem solving, my brain has been hard-wired through my life-experiences to be able to compare a current problem to dozens or even hundreds of similar problems and their solutions in my past — allowing me to arrive at practical solutions more rapidly and effectively.

Would I give up these mental advantages merely in exchange for youthful vigor? Never.

Cohen points out another physical change in the make-up of the aging brain that has remarkable advantages — brain scans of the region of the brain known as the “amygdalae” show that with advancing age, their activity is reduced. This is important because the amygdalae control a person’s emotional response to the continuous sensory information streaming in from our eyes, ears, noses, etc. If there’s a potential threat (say, a darker shadow in an already dark alley off to one side in the night), the amygdalae immediately fire off volleys of impulses that can launch us into action even before the signals have been fully processed and interpreted by our conscious mind.

The more sensitive the amygdalae, the more a person reacts without conscious thinking — startling easily, lifting one’s fists in hot-tempered anger, or being overcome in a frightening situation… Other people — whose amygdalae are less sensitive — are considered “cooler heads” in crisis, rational, unreactive, and unemotional. But the younger a person, the less control there is over these instant, unconscious reactions stimulated by one’s amygdalae.

But brain scans have shown that in the aging brain, activity in the amygdalae decreases with age — especially in response to negative emotions such as fear, anger, and hatred! As a natural result of this decrease in activity, studies have shown that older people experience less intense negative emotions, they pay less attention to negative signals than positive ones, and they’re less likely to remember negative events then positive ones. In short, older people are usually call her in the face of life’s challenges.

To me the Key Factor is that this increased “calm” is not the result of merely experience and learning, but a fundamental change in brain structure and function. If I were not older, I would not be experiencing this change in this fashion! (Would I give up this increased emotional control merely in exchange for youthful vigor? Never!)

But now I come to the heart of why I’m joyful at turning 60 — and well on the road to growing yet older! These physical changes that Cohen catalogs are exciting and encouraging, but here are some of the characteristics of my life that I’ve noticed and I love.

First, I feel free. Over the last few years, I’ve increasingly experienced a new feeling of freedom, self-confidence, and liberation from social constraints that allows for me to explore areas of thought and behavior that previously did not seem available or open to me. This is largely due to having met and married my wife, Shell, a decade ago — but after reading Cohen, I recognize that normal development of the aging mind is a large part of the delightfully new changes as well. These changes have affected me socially, spiritually, politically, financially — and in ways, I suppose, I haven’t even realized.

  • Financially, I’m freer to spend money on something I want simply because I want it without having to somehow rationalize it.
  • Politically, though I grew up within a very strong and unyielding political framework, now I’m neither pro or con that framework — seeing socio-political issues within a larger context of life’s experiences and (especially) spiritual perspectives.
  • Spiritually, I was also raised in an even more rigid and inflexible framework than politically — one tied to condemnation and Hell were one to forsake its tenets… but today, my thoughts are free from those bondages and the ideas and principles I choose to hold rise out of a life full of reflection, experience, and studies instead of another person’s dogma.
  • Socially, if I want to wear a Red Hat, I feel damn well free to do so! Even more so, no longer do I feel trapped by the expectations of others as to whether I must “attend this” or “like that” or “smile for so-and-so”… I’ve accepted that I am who I am and am quite satisfied with me — and in any social circumstances in which I find myself I remain, happily, myself without any need to pretend or pose for another.

I feel free.

Second, I’ve accumulated a repertoire of strategies for dealing with daily life — no matter how troublesome it may become — gathered from a lifetime of experiences. It’s as if I have at hand a mental “treasury” into which I’ve stored all the successes and failures of the past six decades of living in a world filled with challenges and difficulties: no matter what I face today, I’ve faced some semblance of it in the past — and I can quickly and calmly form a plan of action that has a reasonable chance to succeed.

One of my greatest strategies is that I’ve learned the value of waiting. (Is that due partly to less active amygdalae?) In the past, if I got a notice that a bill payment hadn’t processed properly, especially on a weekend, I’d have been terribly anxious until businesses next opened and felt nauseated until I could have found out what had caused the non-payment. Now, if I get an email notifying me of the same situation, I “note it” mentally and quit thinking about it. I mentally “put it on hold” knowing that, in fact, until I can communicate with whoever understands the problem, I don’t actually know the situation. I’ve learned to wait — calmly. Why? Because in sixty years, I’ve never yet had a similar situation that I haven’t been able to sort out successfully, one way or another.

Or I get a text from the Boss that says uncharacteristically, “Meet me Mon AM ASAP in my office.” Am I being called on the carpet? Am I possibly going to lose my job? Be demoted? Be rewarded for something having worked out unexpectedly well or chewed out for something having gone ass over teakettle in fear somebody’s pinned some blame on me that was their fault? In earlier years, I’d have lost sleep over it; I’d have had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach over it. But now, I shelve any emotional response, choosing to simply wait, knowing that until I can talk to my boss, I don’t really know anything. He might even be pranking me! There’s no telling what’s going to take place on Monday morning, but life’s experiences have equipped me to wait until I can suss out the real situation, and wait calmly. [“Ass over tea-kettle”? You see? Being 60 allows me to use all sorts of obsolete and archaic expressions which leave my kids saying, “wassadeal poppabear…?”]

Growing old is hot. Never trade it for anything!

Third, instead of some sort of a “mid-life crisis”, I’m experiencing a mid-life renewal. Some of my friends (both in the flesh and many online) view our lives now as the beginning of a quest. Based on our being able to review where we’ve been and  what we’ve learned (and what we’ve unlearned!) and what in life has value that’s truly lasted, our lives are breaking new ground, probing for deeper understanding, and finding satisfying answers to mysteries that previously puzzled or even distressed us. Cohen calls this the “Liberation Phase” — “a time when we feel the desire to experiment, innovate, and free ourselves from earlier inhibitions or limitations.” [p.xviii]

There’s a new boldness I’m experiencing as I grow older, and (in Cohen’s words) my friends and I are feeling down to the roots of what motivates us the thought: If Not Now, Then WHEN?

And I’m overjoyed to sense the freedom to pursue these desires! Didn’t I have the freedom to do so when I was younger? In my 30s, say? Or my 40s? And the truth is that I really did, but between my busyness with keeping the old ball rolling with bills, career, kids and what-not, I didn’t really ever think this way. And with the light that Cohen shines on the neural development of the aging brain, I understand now that I’m better equipped today than I was in earlier decades for these mental pursuits.

Last, and more specifically, I’m experiencing the reward of a maturing synergy of cognition, emotional intelligence, judgment, social skills, life experience, and mature consciousness. Not because of any choice or decision on my part, but because of the nature of the mature brain, these elements are becoming optimally integrated and form the basis for my continual thought-life on a daily basis. Whereas, when I was young, action was a delight — now thinking has become exhilarating.

And not “thinking” as an end in itself. In Cohen’s scheme of the Four Developmental Stages of the Mature Life, in the third stage, he affirms that several developmental imperatives commonly emerge. These include things such as to learn how to live well, to feel whole, to live life to the fullest right to the end… But one of the imperatives that he includes on his list, speaks to me the most and that is, “To give to others — one’s family and one’s community.”

This is the imperative that drives my delight in thinking today — I think, not to affirm my own existence (!), but to pull together, prepare, and present various principles of wisdom which can enable others to live life more effectively and enjoyably. I think and therefore I give.

This is why, in turning 60, (to adapt some lyrics from an “old” Carpenter tune) I find a new song in my heart!

Now that the evening’s come,
I smile,
So much of life ahead
I’ve found a place where there’s room to grow —
And yes, I’ve only just begun…

Yours Truly,
Emil Swift (EmDog)

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