How R U Aging?

For a refreshingly optimistic point of view concerning our aging selves, see the late Dr. Gene D. Cohen’s book, “The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain.” Cohen was a popular and highly respected psychiatrist from the 1970s until 2009 when he died too early of prostate cancer at the age of 65. He is best known for his work in the area of positive elder well-being. Through his extensive study in the field of positive aging; his prolific amount of writing, editing, and publishing; and his 35 years of experience as a prominent psychiatrist for older adults, Cohen became widely known as an expert on how creative, intellectually engaged pursuits can ultimately contribute to a rich and rewarding senior life.

While this all sounds rather obvious in many ways, Cohen took this theme and outlined a course of action for the elderly that he found to be the most satisfying and productive.  He based a lot of his work on repeated surveys and interviews he conducted with more than 3,000 older adults over the years of his illustrious career.  From this work, Cohen devised four progressive phases of our elder years.

The first phase, Cohen wrote, happens somewhere between forty and sixty-five, when people “undergo a profound reevaluation, asking themselves ‘Where have I been? Where am I now? Where am I going?’”

Cohen also defined a follow-up phase – or what I like to call a “life plateau” – that often overlaps with one’s reevaluation phase. He called it the “liberation phase.” At this point in our lives “we feel a desire to experiment, innovate, and free ourselves from earlier inhibitions or limitations,” Cohen explained. He succinctly characterized this plateau as a time when we pursue the question of “if not now, when?”

Next is the third plateau, termed the “summing up phase,” which hits in our late sixties and into our seventies and eighties. A typical outcome of this phase includes “a desire to give back – to family, friends, and society.” This is when elders often devote their time to volunteering and philanthropy.

When people get a keen understanding of these three plateaus, they become “powerfully motivated and energized,” Cohen concluded. He referred to this as “developmental intelligence,” which carries into our fourth plateau, called the “encore phase.”

This phase typically starts in our late seventies and grows in importance until we pass. It is “time as a manifestation of our creatively restless brain creating an Inner Push for reflection and a desire for continuation and celebration,” Cohen wrote. Even at this stage of our lives “new perspectives” can develop. Although we are typically set in our ways by now, we are “capable of ‘jumping the tracks,’ in spontaneous and wonderful ways,” he noted.

My Stories
At 63, I find myself mulling through a fairly deep reevaluation/reflection phase that has been over-occupying my thoughts for a good six months now. I’m feeling an Inner Push to do more, not less. I keep asking myself what I truly believe about life. What is my inner spirituality? The “if not now, when” phrase from Cohen’s book keeps coming up. What does my soul say to me? What should I be doing with my life?

In line with this seemingly constant and often annoying consternation I am experiencing, I wrote several essays at this blog that were – unknowingly in hindsight – addressing various aspects of my reevaluation. One of the first blog posts is headlined “Start Up, Wind Up & Start Again,” where I both reminisce and prognosticate on how my life has thus far been quartered as follows: 20 years since birth in Buffalo; 20 years living in a wide variety of places for various periods of time located as far away from Buffalo as Europe to the east and Hawaii to the west; then my 20 years back in Buffalo, to be closer to extended family members, after getting married and raising two children; and now, for perhaps another 20 years in Ann Arbor.

At the conclusion of this essay, I wrote, “Of course, everything is about memories now, unless you decide to continue pushing yourself forward into new living, learning and working experiences. So, I am in a start-up-all-over-again stage that gives me energy to go on. I could stay in my current comfort-zone place, or I could seek new pastures. I chose the latter and continue to peer with squinty eyes into the bright horizon.” Hmmm, am I doddering between reevaluation and liberation? Has the Inner Push already taken a firm hold on me?

The next blog post under this theme was headlined “Operating Outside of Your Default Mode.” This was a feeble and rather inept attempt at deciphering David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech given at Kenyon College in 2005. There are numerous articles analyzing and commenting on Wallace’s renowned speech. The full transcript is freely available online at the Purdue library. In typical Wallace fashion, it is deep and disturbing, while also, in my mind, immensely meaningful.

His emphasis on an altruistic kind of freedom is interesting and good. It involves “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day,” he said in the speech. I think that is the true essence of a life worth living and something to keep at the top of our minds as we age. (Hello new White House administration.)

The next piece was headlined “What Happens When You Reach 60?” This piece is a relatively brief gripe about the media and the cost of higher education; a ray of hope feeling that the next generation will get things right; and a pointer to a recent study by the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics claiming that we’re most satisfied and happiest during two stages of our lives, at the age of 23 and then again at 69. So, I still have a lot to look forward to (smiley face should go here LOL).

Next up was “Don’t Forget to Look Up,” a reminder to check out the night, starlit sky more often. And yes, it is still magnificent; and yes, gazing up into it helps put things into perspective; and, indeed, it’s amazing how such a simple practice can have such a profound influence on your thoughts.

Following this was “Boyhood, Parenthood & More” where I lament the empty-nest syndrome. After that came “Are You a Hippie, Square, or Activist?,” the most read blog post thus far. Here I started out with Cohen’s phases, as I did here, and then jumped into a partial explanation of my personal reevaluation phase, drawing from my adolescent years as a devout hippie during the late sixties and early seventies, how I became a square at midlife, and now an activist in my early senior years. My interest in this Hippie/Square/Activist thematic structure came from reading Bill Thomas’s book, “Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life”.

Next up was my most recent post headlined “Aging, Unretirement & Place,” which, I feel, is the best of the bunch. I tried to tackle this theme of working during your retirement years instead of doing nothing or mostly things that have no real significance or meaning. This is where things get a bit complicated. In future posts I plan on further developing this working-in-your-elder-years theme in much more depth.

Thanks for stopping by. Stay tuned.

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