Birthdays are typically a time for celebration. Until they’re not.
As youngsters, we eagerly anticipate all the trappings that make up our special day: a party with family and friends, decorated cakes, colorful balloons, and gifts! All those wonderful things that make the day so special.
But, as we grow older birthdays can evoke a sense of longing and even sadness. Especially the milestone birthdays. We traverse the nine years between each turn of the decade uneventfully, and then BOOM. You’re the Big 6–0, or wherever you happen to be on the aging continuum.
Big is right; I’m five pounds heavier than I was at 50. Probably because I never pass on a birthday cake (or any cake for that matter.)
Each year, as we add another candle it’s a reminder of time passing. During our twenties and thirties, we’re so busy building a life that time almost stands still. Granted, we’re racing every day from morning till night, to beat deadlines, keep appointments, and get a thousand things done. But, we’re focused on the tasks and not how quickly the calendar pages are turning.
Then one day we wake up and realize everything is slowing down. The family, financial, and work demands decrease significantly as children leave the nest and retirement looms.
This slowing down begins to affect us physically and mentally, too. Presbyopia, a change in the ability of our eyes to focus, begins in the forties. This literally happened to me overnight. One day I was reading Stephen King’s The Stand, completely unaided, and the next day I needed magnifiers.
Balance becomes an issue. Putting on pants while standing suddenly turns into a challenge and “senior moments” occur more often. It’s no wonder we get a little depressed at birthday time, wondering what else may be lost in the upcoming year.
I was naive when purchasing a ceiling fan with a pull chain for my bedroom. The contractor asked why I didn’t get a remote control model, informing me that they didn’t cost much more. He then asked if I really wanted to stand on the bed, in ten years, to turn the fan on and off. Suddenly, I pictured myself trying to put jeans on without falling over. The next day I exchanged the pull chain for the remote style.
But, as young adults we actually look forward to the next decade, thinking about all the exciting opportunities it will bring. We’re confident in our abilities, optimistic about the future, and feel like we have all the time in the world.
And therein lies the problem. Once we reach a certain age there’s a sense that the really good stuff is behind us. All we have to look forward to are frequent doctor visits and senior discounts. We finally have more time for hobbies and interests, but now that precious time is running out.
The real insult is that we begin to resemble our parents, while on the inside we still see and feel like our twenty-something selves.
So, how do we drop the negativity and adopt a happiness mindset about our milestone birthdays? Here are a few suggestions:
Consider the Alternative
First, it’s important to remember that growing old is a privilege not afforded to everyone.
I think of my high school classmates that aren’t around to complain about aches and pains. One guy was killed on a motorcycle a month after graduation. Another died in his thirties. A beloved friend battled cancer, on and off, from middle school through middle age and then passed away shortly after the 35th reunion.
I’ve been extremely fortunate and when I start feeling down about aging, I remember these folks. They missed so many of the joys that only come from growing older, and there are many. Acknowledging those joys on a regular basis reminds us to count our blessings.
Learn From the Past
Understanding who we are today is the first step to learning the lessons from yesterday.
We’re all products of our environments: intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. How we respond to people and life’s many ups and downs ultimately determines what kind of journey we’ll have.
There’s a wealth of experiences, good and bad, that we accumulate over time. The longer we live, the more we gain. But, experience is only useful if we learn from it. We must look back with a critical eye and recognize areas where we fell short.
And forgiveness for past hurts is a necessary component to embracing the future. Holding on to grievances prevents us from successfully moving forward. We must forgive others, as well as ourselves.
An honest commitment to better choices increases our chance for lasting happiness.
Older IS Wiser
If we’re able to learn from the past then we’ll recognize just how accomplished we truly are.
Recognizing the tragedies and triumphs we’ve dealt with in life, and survived, is quite empowering!
We’re better able to sort through our many experiences and relationships and decide which ones to keep and which to throw away. Because not all people and situations are healthy. Some are downright toxic.
As younger people we often don’t see things for what they are; we see them as we want them to be. The very idealism so admirable in youth can be a double-edged sword. Inexperience blinds us to reality and results in decisions based more on fantasy than facts.
Reaching middle-age without a self-assessment on our past lives dooms us to repeat the same mistakes. Growth simply can’t happen. So, take an honest look.
It’s All Relative
Some folks are old at 60, while others are young at 80.
Most 80 year-olds are typical: many no longer drive or travel much beyond their church, grocery store, and the doctor’s office. The world shrinks in proportion to their aging bodies.
But, everyone ages differently, and there are exceptions to the rule. Take Yuichiro Miura for example. In 2013 Miura became the oldest person to climb Mt. Everest, earning him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. While the vast majority of octogenarians are taking the stairs a bit slower, he scaled Mt. Everest!
Another inspiration is Sister Madonna Buder, affectionately known as the Iron Nun. As a Roman Catholic religious sister and a Senior Olympian triathlete, she holds the world record for the oldest woman to ever finish an Ironman Triathlon at the age of 82. Yes, you read that right.
These two amazing people illustrate that age really is just a number. And that number doesn’t automatically define our quality of life. It largely depends on genes, diet, exercise, and attitude; three of which we do have control over.
It’s never too late to make healthy changes that positively impact our well-being. My goals don’t include mountain-climbing or world records. For me, it’s more about feeling well, strengthening muscles, improving balance, and dropping a few pounds.
We know the routine by now. Eat a well-balanced diet, exercise regularly, eliminate bad habits, etc. A few small changes, done consistently, can and do make a difference.
By the time that next milestone birthday comes around, you’ll be happy to celebrate the new and improved version of yourself.
And don’t forget the cake. We deserve to indulge on occasion because life in moderation is a life well-lived. So, enjoy!