Senior Nation: Growing Old and Loving It by Dodie Theune

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Editor’s Note. Dodie Theune is a resident of Oxford, adjunct faculty member of Temple University, and CEO of Coaching Affiliates. She was the keynote speaker at last week’s Senior Summit for the  Mid-Shore region. We have reprinted her address in its entirety.

Today I hope to encourage you to reimagine how growing old could be different than what we have come to expect. To do that, we need to let go of the old paradigms for aging and create a new vision for our future. No matter where we have been or what we have done or left undone…we can still reimagine our life in what I call “Our Third Act.”

You are never too old to become the person you were meant to be. And that’s what your Third act could be about…becoming the person you were meant to be.

We hear more and more about the “The Graying of America.” The median age of Americans is going up and the population is getting older. We are now the fastest growing segment and that gives us clout in many areas, especially in the voting box. And The Eastern Shore is a perfect example of this phenomenon. In fact, by 2020, we expect that more than 40% of the population of Talbot County will be over age 65!

Today we will take a look at what we can accomplish with this new-found power.

I remember Turning 65. There were a whole lot more candles on the cake. More small lines showed up around my eyes. I remember looking down at my hands and saying, “These are not my hands…These are my mother’s hands.”

I am more than a little stiff now getting up in the morning. I sometimes forget the names of people I know quite well. And I hardly ever remember the titles of books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen. And there are times when I walk into a room and wonder what I was looking for? These are all reminders that I am “gettin’ on in years.”

Turning Sixty Five is a big milestone for us. We send each other funny cards and tell jokes. We celebrate with cake and coffee at work. We have special parties. And we get a kick out of wearing black armbands at 65th birthday parties.

But the truth is that underneath all that playfulness, there is a clear aversion to getting older. And that is not good because when we resist the idea of aging, we are also saying NO to what is possible…saying NO to all that is new and wonderful about this truly unique and special time of life, Our Third Act.

We have, most of us, grown up with what I call the old paradigm of aging, You know what I mean: “Old Age Ain’t No Place for Sissies”, “Getting old is a bitch.” These deep-rooted bromides are what I call: Limiting Beliefs about Aging.

Beliefs are important because they determine our attitudes about everything. And our attitudes are what drives our behavior.

Think about that for a minute.

Limiting beliefs will influence us to have negative and self-defeating attitudes about our future. And since attitudes drive our behavior, we are then more likely to give in to aging, to give up, and to submit to the old expectations about getting old. If that becomes our attitude, we will be guaranteeing that ours will be a future with little if any possibilities.

I’d like to tell you a little bit about my own “growing older” story. I was 70 and teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia when I realized that I needed hearing aids. Mind you, I already had reading glasses. So off I went for the inevitable hearing test. I had to laugh as I remembered my mother saying…first the eyes…then the ears. I am now adding…then the feet!

To tell the truth I hated wearing those hearing aids. The little buds that went inside my ear tickled and I was constantly fussing to see if they were in place. And then one day, I turned on the ignition in my car and my hearing aids buzzed. I said out loud “This is getting ridiculous!”

I can laugh at it now but back then I was really annoyed. It was right around then that we had one of our family dinners. In fact, I think it was Mother’s day. I admit I was complaining more than just a little about those darn hearing aids when one of my daughters came over and put her arm around me and jokingly said, “It’s ok Mom. You’re just getting ‘OLDE’. I was speechless for a moment as I looked at her with amazement and then I said “I’M NOT OLDE… Grandpa…He’s OLDE!!”

So just what is OLDE? Johnny Carson said “Old is 10 years older than you are now.” We like that definition of course because according to Johnnie, we never ever actually get olde, we just age a little more.

My daughter meant well and she probably didn’t realize that what she was actually doing was expressing the old paradigm for aging. You know the one.

It’s often depicted as an Arch. You’re young…you’re middle aged and supposedly at your prime and after that, it is all downhill. We really must change that depiction because it fosters negative thoughts and limiting beliefs.

I prefer to show the life cycle as a straight line to demonstrate a new paradigm for aging: a new vision for “growing old and loving it. ”First there is your younger self…followed by your middle aged and older self … and then you shift into what I am now calling Your Third Act.

We can and should look forward to our Third Act with a curiosity for what could be possible. And anything is possible when you give yourself the opportunity to use your Third Act as a springboard to becoming the person you were meant to be.

When I was 65, It never occurred to me that I would be here with all of you talking about how much I love being 77. I am in the throes of My Third Act and I have not peaked yet! In fact, last winter I spent 30 plus days downhill skiing and I am skiing better than ever. I am truly blessed.

As we age, it is critical that we be authentic. We should tell the truth about ourselves and have some fun doing it. Life is so much easier when we learn to be authentic. Aging actually gives us permission to be who we really are. How refreshing is that?

We can spend time with the people we like especially the ones who make us laugh. And we should definitely find things to laugh about. We can always find something to worry about.

While I was preparing for this morning, I asked my husband if he could give me an example of a time when we laughed at ourselves. Guess what he said? Every day. We find things to laugh about ourselves and each other ….every single day.

I recently saw a post on facebook of a white haired woman dancing the high step and wearing the most outlandish hat and an equally outlandish red and white polka dot dress with lots of ruffles. The caption read: “It’s better to have a sense of humor than no sense at all”

It is extremely important as we enter our Third Act, to let go of the past. Forgive and forget. Life is too short and we just do not have the time to harbor a grudge. In fact, it is exhausting. I saw a poster recently that said: “The best revenge is to be happy.”

And absolutely…we should have no regrets. What’s the point after all? What’s gone is gone. What’s lost is lost. The past is the past.

Our friends have a really wonderful tradition for letting go of the past. All year long, they write down their regrets and then on New Year’s Eve, they make paper boats out of those lists of regrets and gather with other families at a small lake nearby. They line up the boats at the shoreline and light each one with a match and float the burning boats out into the darkness. And then they are free to celebrate a New Year. They have learned to be in the present by torching the past.

It is also important that while we are learning to be authentic, and letting go of the past, we must also learn to give ourselves permission to reach out and ask for help. Remember, ‘no one ever said that growing older would be easy.’ In fact, it takes a great deal of courage! Much too often, our genes disappoint us as we age and for some of us, the Third Act may become an overwhelming challenge.

We recognize that many of our Talbot County seniors are in need of support and encouragement, especially when they are suffering from pain, or financial distress or grieving for a lost loved one. Facing an uncertain future requires enormous courage.

That is precisely why we are here today at the Second Annual Senior Summit. Talbot Community Connections and the Talbot County Department of Social Services are hoping that by sharing information about the right tools and the assistance that is available, our seniors can approach their Third Act with more confidence and ease. Today is all about learning that Aging in Talbot County need not be scary. We can indeed, grow old and love it.

I launched my Third Act by retiring to St Michaels. I told my friends that I would be taking a year to settle in and that I would be nesting, testing and resting. Anyone who has downsized will understand what having ‘layered furniture’ means. I spent endless days unpacking and running to the thrift shops and rummage sales.

Testing was the most fun. I looked around town for ways that I could match my experience and skills with a need in the community. To fill a gap, if you will. I knew it would certainly be easy to be busy. There are endless possibilities for volunteering. But I was, after all, in my Third Act and I was looking for a way to experience what I saw as a profound new vision for myself…“to grow old and love it.”

That’s when I discovered the Academy of Life Long Learning. When I was a young mother I saw a poster at the library that read: “Live today as if it were your last and seek after knowledge as if you will live forever.”

I absolutely believe that anyone who stops learning will get old while someone who keeps learning will stay young. I have become a great proponent of lifelong learning. Malcolm Boyd, an Episcopal priest and Poet-in-Residence at the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles wrote that “Aging… requires learning. God knows it requires wisdom. It can be an enormous blessing because it serves to sum up a life, lend it character, underscore its motivation. Finally, it prepares the way for leave-taking.”

I AM a life long learner. I finished my undergraduate degree when my children were grown and then went on to earn my Masters in Adult Education. I received my PhD just 7 years ago and it took me more than 5 years to earn that degree.

So, when I discovered the Academy of Life Long Learning. I was really excited . I took several fascinating courses and then came up with the Idea of creating a course about my favorite subject: growing old and loving it. Facilitating that course was an extremely fulfilling experience. Actually it was a joy. I was in my Third Act and doing something I truly loved. And here I am today.

In one of the workshops at the Senior Summit, we will hear a discussion about reimagining your life. It is possible, you know…to reimagine your life …no matter what your current circumstances may be. A technique for reimagining your life is to ask yourself : What will be my life story; What legacy do I want to leave?

When you were younger and busy raising families and building careers, you may have wanted to do more but just didn’t have the time. Now that you have the time, what dream can you follow? And for you younger folks, now is your chance to do what you can with what you’ve got in the direction of your dream and begin to write that story.

The motto for Talbot Community Connections is “Filling the Gap.” What gap can you fill? What can you do to make a difference? You might think about what makes you mad or sad about what’s going on in the world? Is there an organization or group you can support that’s doing work you think is important. Is there one small thing that you can do to make a difference.

My neighbor is passionate about the environment. When she walks through our town, she always stops to pick up cans, and plastic bottles and puts them in the recycle bin. She then started cleaning up the recycle areas in town. In fact she would even bring back trash that wasn’t recyclable and put it in her own trash bin. She was living her passion about the environment. Eventually, she was successful in getting curbside recycle service in St Michaels. Wherever she goes, she makes a difference. Ann Hymes is living proof that small things, done consistently, in strategic places can reap huge results.

Remember: you are never too old to become the person you were meant to be, and it’s never too late to envision yourself acting out your passion in your third act.

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