Debra Lambo M.A. LCSW
The poet James Richardson tells us nothing important in life comes with directions. The phenomenon known as the “longevity revolution” has added additional years to the life span, and these “bonus years” before old age leave us with questions about how to live and make these years matter. Until now the tasks of a healthy human development have been laid out for us, we find work, select a life partner, raise a family. But what do we do with these bonus years? The freedom that comes at this new stage of life, freedom that we may not have experienced before, can be experienced as exhilarating or fill us with dread.
Turning sixty led me to questions about how I want to live the next twenty or thirty years of my life. That question propelled me into a whole new world of the aging industry, a world I did not know existed. There are many books, magazine articles, policy discussions on this subject aimed at the more than 70 million boomers approaching or in retirement, the oldest of whom are now over 70. What I discovered were the many dimensions of aging that were being addressed: health care, healthy living, with its concerns about diet and exercise, how to age positively. What was available felt unsatisfying — the assumption is by staying healthy and finding the right recreation, hobbies, a new career or volunteer opportunity, you will age positively. Yes, good health is important so is financial security. What was missing was one important dimension about aging was any discussion of the finiteness of our lives — our aging bodies will give out one day. This is not a sickness that needs to be cured, but part of the cycle of life. We choose to ignore and deny the subject of death except when discussing costs and end of life decisions.
Denying our own death was what Ernest Becker wrote about in this 1974 Pulitzer Prize book, Denial of Death. I cannot remember how or why I started to read a book about death when I was still only in my thirties, but I had a sense, a hunch, that there was something important here, and it has taken me thirty years to fully grasp what it was. We are all finite creatures and we will die one day. Deciding what is important to us, and our response to that decision will inform how we choose to live our lives from here on. When I turned 60, the awareness that one day I would die led me toward being the person I wanted to be, and the life I wanted to live in my remaining years.