Using Your Whole Life

I’ve been enjoying Harry Bernstein’s memoir, the Invisible Wall, which crackles with details of life, and religious prejudices, in the hardscrabble mill town of his youth in Northern England. In a weird way, almost more impressive to me than the book itself are the circumstances of its existence.

Bernstein finished it when he was 93. He published it when he was 96.

“If I had not lived until I was ninety, I would not have been able to write this book,” the author told a New York Times reporter after the book hit the bestseller lists. It could not have been done even ten years earlier. I wasn’t ready.” And then he added this kicker: “God knows what potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive till well into their Nineties.”

Now that is a radical idea in this culture: that really old people still have untapped potential. That not only are they not sitting around decaying, they’re still ripening. It’s not a radical an idea to me, though. Because my pal Olga Kotelko has convinced me it’s true.

Olga turned 95 in March. Like Bernstein, she had a rich and tricky upbringing, from weathering the Depression on a Saskatchewan farm to raising two daughters as a single mom to teaching elementary school for three decades in British Columbia. But it was only post-“retirement” that Olga’s life really got cooking. At age 77 she took up track and field. Competing in 11 events, she re-wrote the “masters track” record books. This spring she graduated to a new category – women aged 95 to 99  — and promptly bagged nine new world records at the world indoor championships in Budapest, bringing her total up over 40. She’s currently experimenting with a new high-jump technique.

People like Harry Bernstein and Olga Kotelko serve a valuable function in the lives of the rest of us. They show us what using a whole life looks like. Their stories exist as a kind of counterpoint to the dire warnings of demographers of how the population is aging at an accelerated rate, which means (we’re told) that a train wreck awaits in our lifetimes.

Last month the US Census Bureau announced that by 2050 fully one-fifth of Americans will be 65 or older. That’s double the proportion of seniors in 1970, when the baby boomers were still young and massing under cover in the TV rooms of suburban households, their eventual needs — their burden — still beyond imagining. Longevity is up; birth rates are down. Those two conditions are quickening the pace of the greying of America. (And hey: if you think these numbers are scary, just be glad you’re not Japanese. By only 2030 the proportion of their population aged 65 and older will be one third.)

The oldsters are going into the liability column. We have a hard time thinking of them as individuals, obsessing instead about the collective dent they’re going to make. When we can puncture the denial and imagine becoming old ourselves, it’s very often fear that floods in — fear and a kind of advance mourning. We are saying goodbye to our life well before it’s actually over. Because those are what the statistics suggest too. We’ll likely become fragile and unsteady, as sarcopenia robs us of muscle mass and osteoporosis makes us vulnerable to shattering if we slip up even once. It’s a coin toss whether we’ll lose our marbles.

But that’s the story the average numbers tell. As individuals, there are things we can do – lifestyle changes involving diet and exercise and risk exposure even cognitive strategies (the stories we tell about ourselves influence what we think and do) – that tip the odds in our favor.

We may never pull off a Third Act as brilliant as Harry’s, or Olga’s. They likely have some genetic protection that we don’t yet fully understand — not to mention the rare ferocious desire to realize those potentials lurking within. But for sure we can be more Harry-like, more Olga-like, if the will is there in us. We can “square the curve” of our decline, as the gerontologists say, so that our final years are productive in whatever way we choose to make them so. Thus do old people become assets and not liabilities – which was their customary place of course, most everywhere but in the contemporary West.

I’m almost embarrassed now about how gloomy I was about aging before I met Olga — before she and I began researching a science book on why she is the way she is — five years ago. I felt acutely what the Germans call torschlusspanik – a fear of gates closing, horizons narrowing to a pinpoint. Clearly my best thoughts, feelings and 10k times were so far behind me even the memories of them were hazy. Soon my options would be limited to whatever the care facility was offering that day. I was not yet fifty.

You can choose that outcome, Olga said — but just be honest that it’s a choice.

And then she laughed. It’s fun to be Olga, right now.

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