New Habits for Old People

photo of old woman with lined face wearing a black cloak in a desert landscape

Welcome to the over-65 crowd. Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

I’m an old person, at least according to the US government’s National Institutes of Health, which defines “elderly” as 65 and older. That’s the demographic button I click in those  market research polls that turn up everywhere from online media subscriptions to banking apps.

It’s possible nonetheless that I’ll be breathing for quite a while yet. Previous generations in my family have tended toward long lives, and my parents lived into their 90s. From now on, even if I have decades ahead of me, I’ll still be clicking that “65 and older” button. Market research consigns us all to the same bin, as though nothing’s going to change besides the inevitable decline. I believe it’s less straightforward than that. Take qi, for instance.

What’s qi got to do with it?

A practitioner of Chinese medicine once explained to me the theoretical framework for the two kinds of qi we each receive and expend:

  • Lifetime qi – endowed at birth, it runs out by definition at the moment of our death.
  • Daily qi – renewed each day, we can choose how we use it, and whether we support it, and our choices may vary from one day to the next.

I enjoy this framework, and have used it to ignore the question of when my lifetime qi will run out. That’s not entirely up to me. A wayward bus, or a global epidemic, or a hate crime can take me out regardless how hydrated I’ve been keeping myself. Instead, with daily qi, I can take action.

Working on a chapter I’m contributing to a forthcoming book of essays about how to complete creative projects, I saw more than ever the importance of coming to terms with the daily qi allocation – deciding how to apply it to the tasks that matter.

We’re not too old to change

Brain research demonstrates that our neurological preference is for unexamined living. Habit is efficient, consuming less energy and protecting us from the dangerous unknown. The brain is stoutly behind the notion that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Because of this default neurological preference, it’s hard to change our habitual ways of being. Change can happen, though. And it may happen more easily if we’re changing in the direction of a better life. I consider my father’s example.

My dad retired from his professorship as early as possible, in his mid-60s. It had taken him a long time to secure continuous employment in his field, and after twenty years he was over it, eager to put a stop to life in an institution. His valedictory speech to students and faculty began with a statement on the central importance of happiness to a useful life.

I believe in felicity – happiness. Happiness is a great joy. People have different ways of being happy. I am happy planning our six acres in North Carolina so that lots of wild animals will enjoy them with us; our neighbor’s boy is happy hunting them out with a gun at his shoulder. Some wonderful people are happy in service, giving themselves and giving themselves until their bodies wear out to give no more, and some are willing to say after a 20-year tenure, “God bless this house,” and go on. […] Happiness is a spigot waiting to be turned on. ~ James Carley, 1 June 1973

He walked the talk. Soon after retirement, he relocated to southern Appalachia where the cost of living was low and the mountains were old. He established a concert series and founded a community choir, began making art again, wrote more music, co-founded a publishing imprint, took up dancing at the community center, and put in a productive organic vegetable garden. His reinvention was astonishingly prodigious. For the first ten years or more of his retirement, his health and happiness visibly improved. And he lived, generally in good health, for 34 more years. I sensed that he’d been saving up all that energy for a time when he could put it to better use.

Reducing demand on daily qi

Even he, with all that renewed energy, needed to pare down his commitments. He withdrew from voluntary obligations to organizations that proved more frustrating than fulfilling. He declined many invitations and disengaged from unsatisfying relationships. He arranged to donate a collection of objects he’d been accumulating for decades. I remember asking him at the time if something was wrong. Had he received some bad medical news? He assured me that everything was fine. I was skeptical then; now that I’m closer to his age at the time, I think I understand. There’s only so much daily qi available.

Not all of us will make such cataclysmic changes, or want to. I admire my father for committing to establishing new routines, and doing what it took to make them happen. Some of his choices were harmful to others, and I can’t endorse all his decisions. But when I need a role model for the possibilities of changing course and habits, even when – gasp! –  ‘elderly,’ I need look no further.

Now get off my lawn. I just got a good idea and it’s time to go write for a while.


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