What Are the Secrets to Aging Well?

Dr. Sherwin Nuland, author and professor of surgery at Yale Medical School, explains how the quality of our last decades remains within our control and that aging, in and of itself, is an art.

Guests:

Dr. Sherwin Nuland, professor of surgery at Yale Medical School; author of The Art of Aging and How We Die

Excerpt: 'The Art of Aging'

Art of Aging

So gradual a progression is the onset of our aging that we one day find it to be fully upon us. In its own unhurried way, age soundlessly and with persistence treads ever closer behind us on slippered feet, catches up, and finally blends itself into us—all while we are still denying its nearness. It enters at last into the depths of one's being, not only to occupy them but to become their very essence. In time, we not only acknowledge aging's presence within us, but come to know it as well as we knew—and still covet—the exuberant youth that once dwelt there. And then, finally, we try to reconcile ourselves to the inescapable certainty that we are now included among the elderly. Realizing how much of our dreams we must concede to that unalterable truth, we should not only watch our horizons come closer but allow them to do precisely that.

If we are wise, we draw them in until their limits can be seen; we confine them to the possible. And so, the coming closer can be good, if by means of that closeness—that limiting of expectations—we begin to see those vistas more clearly, more realistically, and as more finite than ever before. For aging can be the gift that establishes the boundaries of our lives, which previously knew far fewer confines and brooked far fewer restrictions. Everything within those boundaries becomes thus more precious than it was before: love, learning, family, work, health, and even the lessened time itself. We cherish them more, as the urgency increases to use them well.

Many are the uses of the newly recognized limits. Among their advantages is that our welcoming acceptance of them adds to the value, adds to our appreciation, adds to our ability to savor—adds to every pleasure that falls within them. The good is easier now to see; it is closer to the touch and the taking, if we are only willing to look truthfully at it there and gather it up from amid the cares that may surround it. There is much to savor during this time, magnified and given more meaning and intensity by the very finitude within which it is granted to us.

Aging has the power to concentrate not only our minds but our energies, too, because it tells us that all is no longer possible, and the richness must be more fully extracted from the lessened but nevertheless still-abundant store that remains. From here on, we must play only to our strengths. Some of the more meaningful of those strengths may be not at all less than they once were. The later decades of a life become the time for our capabilities to find an unscattered focus, and in this way increase the force of their concentrated worth. Even as age licks our joints and lessens our acuities, it brings with it the promise that there can in fact be something more, something good, if we are but willing to reach out and take hold of it. It is in the willingness and the will that the secret lies, not the secret to lengthening a life but to rewarding it for having been well used. For aging is an art. The years between its first intimations and the time of the ultimate letting go of all earthly things can—if the readiness and resolve are there—be the real harvest of our lives.

It is the purpose of this book to tell of human aging and its rewards—and also of its discontents. And the book has as its purpose as well to tell of how best to prepare for the changes that inevitably demand accommodation, demand a shift in focus, and demand a realistic assessment of goals and directions, which may be new or may be a rearrangement of the trajectory of a lifetime. We do this at every stage of life without noticing the new pattern to which we are becoming attuned, whether it be in adolescence, the twenties, or middle age. Though the changes may be more obvious as we approach our sixties and seventies, they are, in fact, only a continuation of everything that has come before. For becoming what is known as elderly is simply entering another developmental phase of life. Like all others, it has its bodily changes, its deep concerns, and its good reasons for hope and optimism.

Excerpted from The Art of Aging: A Doctor's Prescription for Well-Being by Sherwin B. Nuland. Copyright (c) 2007. Published courtesy of The Random House Publishing Group.

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