I was looking for something to make me smile and laugh out loud on a lazy hot summer day, and decided that Steven Petrow’s new book, Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old: A Highly Judgmental, Unapologetically Honest Accounting of All the Things Our Elders Are Doing Wrong was my ticket.
Ostensibly, Petrow, 64, mined the lessons he gleaned from his aging parents for material, but in truth, he serves up much more than those.
Petrow writes essays for the Washington Post and New York Times on aging, health, and civility, and in full disclosure is someone I know from my board work as a fellow alum at Duke University.
What I discovered is a more than a few pieces of advice when it comes to tackling aging issues that resonated with me and I trust will with you, too.
Petrow sets the stage by stating that by “writing these promises down, I hoped to ensure that I remember (and stick to) them. By sharing them in this book, I hope others may come to a greater awareness of the choices we make once we begin to think of ourselves as ‘old’.”
He writes: “Am I . . . old? It’s certainly a question very much on my mind these days. It’s also on the minds of a great many of the seventy million Baby Boomers, now that we’re all fifty-five plus.”
His bottom line is that it basically depends on our mental and physical health. He cites former President Jimmy Carter’s explanation in his book, The Virtues of Aging. Carter wrote, “The correct answer is that each of us is old when we think we are–when we accept an attitude of dormancy, dependence on others, a substantial limitation on our physical and mental activity…This is not tied very closely to how many years we’ve lived.”
In one chapter, Petrow takes us with him on a surfing lesson when he was 60 and his awareness of the insidious fear spurred perhaps unconsciously by age.
I could relate because I still jump my horse around courses of jumps in competition, and, after a lifetime of doing this, I now get surprised by sudden flashes of fear seconds before my horse is set to leave the ground.
“Turns out that in surfing, as in life, fear of falling can actually lead to more falls,” Petrow writes. His instructor pointed out to him that his aging body wasn’t really the impediment. “It was my attitude, my fear.” The instructor added: “Hesitation is totally the enemy. If you’re not fully committed, you’re history.” Surfing well, his instructor told Petrow is: “like not thinking. You’re just in the moment.”
His niece, Jessie, who is with him says: “There’s an element of risk each time you get up because there’s always a chance that you’ll fall. But do you have the trust, the willingness to take the leap, when you don’t know the specified conditions each time?”
Petrow watches Jessie surf. She keeps her eyes “on the prize, which on the board means looking straight ahead to the shore,” he writes. “I couldn’t help but think of the many times distraction had undermined me, personally and professionally, by tempting my focus away from the goal.”
Finally, his sage instructor reminds him. “Don’t let fear get in the way of living your dreams. It will handicap you,” he said. “Usually, fear holds you back and creates anxiety.”
I needed to be prompted by those surfing tips, even though it’s not an activity that has ever appealed to me. Those are universal life instructions in my mind. My guess is each of you has something in your life that you can relate that feeling to.
Petrow pens about the importance of having younger friends. He recalls how a woman who he was a younger follower of for more than 20 years once told him: “having younger friends opens your world up. They broaden your perspective.”
He digs in. “She also understood, intuitively, that close friendships in old age were a strong predictor of increased longevity and, yes, greater happiness,” he writes.
And here’s the nut of it that speaks loudly to me. His younger friends have “hopes, dreams, and goals that my older friends just don’t have the energy for,” he continues.
That’s the fountain of youth for certain.
Another line of commentary Petrow doles out that I find timely is the importance of being gentle and compassionate with our aging parents. It’s the suggestion that it’s OK to lie sometimes.
I know this one cold. My 91-year-old mom has dementia, and, at times, thinks she’s in her early 20s and just graduating from college. This was a very happy time in her life. Instead of correcting her, which, of course, is a natural instinct, I’ve learned to go along with her.
As Petrow writes: “You don’t make eyes to people around you. You don’t snicker. You don’t joke.”
He overcomes his “natural aversion to lying” and is “respectful of the ‘other’ realities in which my loved ones live,” he writes. “It doesn’t hurt anyone, and it helps them a lot to join them briefly in their imagined world. I hope others will visit me, too, should I take a similar trip.”
Finally, in a chapter entitled: “I Won’t Stop Believing in Magic,” Petrow emphasizes the joy of becoming a kid again. “Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I chose to look at the world through the eyes of a child,” he writes. “For instance, growing up, I had sense of wonder that knew no bounds…I believed in the unknown and the unknowable—even the impossible. In time, I grew up, and became a ‘bah humbug’ kind of fellow…Somewhere along the way I’d lost my sense of wonder.”
For me, this one is fresh. My husband and I recently added a yellow Labrador puppy, Elly, to our home. And oh boy, has this reminded me of the sheer wonder of seeing a butterfly floating by for the first time, as she gleefully bounds toward it, or the tinkling sound of water dripping off a tin roof in a rainstorm, as she tilts her head in curiosity, or the beauty of simply getting down on the ground and playing along with her and a squeaky stuffed animal…with abandon.
Sheer delight. And, yes, laughter.
Kerry Hannon is an expert and strategist on work and jobs, entrepreneurship, personal finance and retirement. Kerry is the author of more than a dozen books, including Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home, Never Too Old To Get Rich: The Entrepreneurs Guide To Starting a Business Mid-Life, Great Jobs for Everyone 50+, and Money Confidence. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.