The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)

That is the title of an article in today’s (Sunday) New York Times. It’s by 80-year-old Oliver Sacks. I’m stealing it for this blog cause I, too, feel joyful. I feel joyful more often now than I did in my 20′s or 30′s . . . and most definitely more often than in my 40′s. 40′s can be really hard for women because we’re moving into a momentous, tectonic shift, a hormonal shift that for –not all, but many– women, can feel like we’ve lost ourselves and may never get those selves back. Perimenopause it’s called.

Truth be known, we don’t get those selves back. But the selves we do get back can be better, braver, surer. We care less what others think of us. We tend to be kinder to ourselves. We stress less. We see commonalities between ourselves and others more than differences. We’re more forgiving, less judgmental.

In a few days I will have hand surgery. One of many surgeries i’ve had to replace joints that have become too painful to be endured. Osteoarthritis it’s called. It’s genetic. I’ve grown used to living with a constant level of pain. One can get used to it. I tell you this to show that happiness isn’t the absence of bad things. It’s the rise to prominence of the more important things.

I thought for awhile that I was an aberration. After all, 75 isn’t supposed to be better than 35. To try and understand this phenomenon, I wrote a book called “Prime Time” and in my 3 years of research, I discovered that large studies have been done with 100s of 1000s of people across the age spectrum and the results showed that most people over 50 experience these positive things I am describing. Obviously this isn’t true of all older people. Poverty, depression, a debilitating illness, addictions–these are things that make it hard for a person to feel happy (though, as I wrote in my book, there are people with incurable diseases like ALS who, in the throes of the disease, nonetheless feel they have found their true voice, become who they’re meant to be.)

Depression affects so many people. My own family was riddled with it. I get letters all the time from people who are obviously suffering from depression. Let me say this: treatment for depression has been shown to be 90% effective. Yet only 2 in 5 depressed people ever get help. This is tragic. A major reason for it, besides lack of money for the needed treatment, is that mental illness carries a stigma. We need to help make it okay–wise even–for a person to seek help. And we need to pressure the government and insurance companies to cover all varieties of mental health treatment. It would save employers and the government a lot of money in the long run by avoiding hospitalization, lost work, days, etc.

But back to joy. Where I live it is a beautiful, sunny day. There are 3 very large pine trees that I can see from the kitchen and the porch. Beyond the pines are steep hillsides, too steep, fortunately, to be developed. And they are covered with chaparel, California laurel, mesquite, the shrubs of my childhood that I climbed through and hid in while pretending to be the Lone Ranger. I can watch the sun set behind the mountains to my left and as the sun sinks, all I can see are the mountains, not the homes. They are lost in darkness. It makes me happy to be so close to these things that were my childhood sanctuary. It makes me happy that not everything has been transformed into exotic imported vegetation and that occasionally deer come and visit. It makes me happy that I have used my life, the ups and downs, the successes and failures and tragedies, and tried to learn from them. It makes me happy to know that I still have so much I need to learn. It makes me happy that my son, who turns 40 today, loves me, teaches me, takes me under his strong, gorgeous wing and helps me correct the errors of my ways. This role reversal that can happen when one gets old enough is something I find very moving. I am happy that tonight we will quietly celebrate this important birthday with his father who I was once married to, who I once hated with every ounce of my being and who I now enjoy being with. I am able to understand why we were together and grateful that he was such a good father to our son. Forgiveness is another potential blessing of aging. You have to work at it, though, but it can transform life. What a lot of energy is wasted on bitterness. In my opinion, bitterness and cynicism age you faster than anything. Love and forgiveness are the true secrets to youth.

In the article I just mentioned, the author says “At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60.”

Yes. It makes me happy to remember Los Angeles in the 1930s and 40′s, without freeways, traffic jams and smog. I remember when the San Fernando Valley was blanketed with orchards, homes had corrals and horses behind them and a tomboy like me could always find empty lots to explore and songbirds to listen to and coyote howls to lull me to sleep. That’s what 4 billion fewer people in the world felt like up close and personal.

I hope you all had a fun, happy 4th. Wasn’t it glorious to get a 4-day weekend? I read 2 novels and it was pure nirvana. One of them was “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett. Wow! For the last 6 years I’ve been writing books that required research and that’s all I read. So now, disappearing into a novel is true joy. And because I had cataract surgery, I don’t even need reading glasses anymore.


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