To grow old or not to grow old?

(I took this photo, at his request, of a man I befriended in Costa Rica a number of years ago. He said, in Spanish, “Wait, I need to put on my makeup first!”

I don’t know if it’s the fact that the tenth anniversary of my thirtieth birthday is looming. Or if it’s the fact that I have spent an unusual number of weeks the past few months in independent or assisted living facilities with aging relatives, but I have been thinking A LOT about aging recently.

I do so many things to keep myself young and healthy, and I write about them and recommend others to follow some of my advice to stay healthy. But then, the cynical part of me, says, “What’s the point?”  I will get older, I will get wrinkles, I may get sick and ultimately, I will die.  Spoiler alert: we all will. I can’t actually stop that process.

So why do I do yoga? Why do I drink lemon water every morning? Why am I a vegetarian? Why do I worry about belly fat? Is it simply vanity? Sure, I’m still trying to catch a husband (lol), but lots of people in happy relationships don’t do these things. Certainly true love sees beyond a few flaws. So why?

Oil of Olay used to say in their commercials, “Why grow old gracefully?” I always thought that was an odd thing to say. What would you prefer? Wake up one morning with wrinkles and drooping breasts out of the blue? I think the only way to grow old is gracefully, but Oil of Olay was talking only of our exterior. What about what’s going on inside?

I’m 39, so my parents are both 70-ish. I got both my genes and my passion for health and fitness from them. They are both amazing in their level of health and how young they look, but they work for it. They both exercise regularly and generally take care of themselves. At the same time, I have friends my age who have parents who have died. In some cases, the parents were overweight, smoked or just had generally unhealthy lifestyles, and in these moments, I am grateful my parents have taken care of themselves. In other cases when cancer seemed to get them for no reason, I am just thankful that my parents are lucky.

So, seeing your children and grandchildren grow up…or in my case your nieces and nephews…is certainly one reason to stay healthy. My parents went to Italy a year ago, and they have plans to travel more. This is possible because they are healthy, and I have no desire to stop travelling due to poor health.

So, family and life experiences? Are those reasons to stay healthy? Live longer and be able to do things while living? I certainly think that is part of it. There is a woman who lives where my grandmother lives. She is a glamorous 99. A local hot air balloon company will offer her a free ride at 100–that is something worth holding out for!

Something I have realized looking around while spending time with my grandmother and uncle recently in their respective assisted living facilities this summer is that old age can be painful, and diseases and illnesses can be awful at any age; chronic pain can be debilitating. Depression is common among people suffering from any of these things because the physical body failing us can be devastating to our quality of life. And most annoyingly, sometimes, there is nothing we can or could have do about it.

I have a family member who has Parkinson’s, which has wrecked havoc on his quality of life. While his mind is still generally sharp and his personality is still intact, eating and drinking are slow and messy processes. After multiple falls, he has finally agreed to use a walker, so he shuffles down the hall pushing this reluctantly in front of him. His larger than life personality endeared him to everyone he met, but now the handsome, vibrant, stylish man I knew up until nine years ago has been replaced by a frail, hunched over man who needs assistance for tasks the rest of us take being able to do for granted.

Meanwhile, I have another family member who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while only in his sixties. This has been devastating for everyone he is close to. While his body was still healthy, his mind failed. That happened to my grandfather as well. He lived to be almost 90, but his death was a blessing because we didn’t think his strong heart and lungs would ever quit. Meanwhile, his mind was gone.

And no one knows what causes Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, so how can I possibly prevent a similar fate from happening to me?

Maybe none of it matters, and I should just start smoking, stop practicing yoga and start eating chocolate cake three times a day.

Then I see people with lung disease. I see what cancer does. I see the horrible effects of diabetes, and I realize, that is not the solution. We KNOW the cause of some illnesses and we know we can prevent them or at least reduce our chances of getting them.

So instead, I find inspiration. My 89-year-old grandmother uses a walker, but she is incredibly mobile, her mind is sharp and her sense of humor is totally intact. She can still kick my butt at any card game you can name, remembers how to play them all and can score faster and more accurately than my feeble math brain can manage. What did she do right? Or was it just luck of the gene draw? I told her about my plan to start eating and drinking whatever I want when I get older, and she cautioned me, “Okay, but be careful. Nobody likes and old drunk!” She is not wrong.

I saw a fabulous 60-Minutes on ageing a while back. They basically reported that not drinking too much alcohol, drinking moderate coffee and lots of water, not smoking, doing moderate exercise and eating a good diet could prolong life, but more than that, seemed to improve the quality of life during those latter years.

My grandfather, who lived to be nearly 90, only moved into a nursing home right at the very end of his life when he had Alzheimer’s. He resisted before because when his sons took him to look at one, he declared, “I don’t want to live here. It’s full of old people!” At 88, strong as an ox and with a perfect heart, he didn’t see himself as “old.”

Maybe age is in our head.

I joke that I want to live to be 100, but I want to live to be a 100-year-old woman who can still hold Warrior I, argue politics with my conservative family members (unless, heaven help me, I become one!), enjoy the beach and remember my grand-nieces’ and nephews’ names. Will daily wheat grass help me to achieve this?

I join some of my uncle’s friends for dinner once a week. The youngest of them is 90 and the oldest is 96. They are a crack up. Aside from somewhat failing hearing, they are in perfect health. They are funny, love to talk about politics (they’re all Hillary supporters!), still golf and are always good for a story. I look at them in awe.

Almost ten years ago, I was waitressing and the week of my thirtieth birthday, a woman at my table said to me, “Your thirties are great. You know everything you didn’t know in your twenties and your body hasn’t gone to shit yet!” She was right. And you know what, my body still hasn’t gone to shit nor will it for as long as I have anything to say about it!

I won’t live forever, and I can’t prevent getting certain ailments, but my future is at least partially in my hands, and I can keep my body as young and healthy as is in my power. I will grow old gracefully…and very, very slowly if I can help it. I am not going to be one of these people who accepts old age as a limitation, and I have plenty of people older than me to look to for inspiration.

So, I will continue to eat healthily, exercise and do all I can to keep my human in great condition, so that I live for a lot longer, but more than that, so that hopefully the latter years of my life are not filled with pain, illness, hospital beds and nurses due to conditions I could have prevented. I will sacrifice a few vices now in exchange for a lifetime of high quality of life. I’m just trying to be a happy human who isn’t as young as she used to be, but sure as hell isn’t old!

(This also appears on the Huffington Post Contributor page)

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