Getting the Most Out of Old Age

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The initial wave of reader response to our question “Is a long life really worth it?” was overwhelming “meh, not so much.” But since then, many sexagenarians, septuagenarians, octogenarians, and nonagenarians have emailed more enthusiastic outlooks on old age. Here’s Jim:

A thought-provoking discussion, but it really misses the key point. I turn 65 in a couple of months, but I don’t expect to “retire” at 65—or ever. I’m fit and healthy and having the greatest fun of my life at the head of a fast-growing business. In a quarter century, if still alive, I might have to slow down a bit, but there will still be something useful for me to do.

The founding pastor of our church has poor hearing and is almost blind, but a few weeks ago he preached a great sermon to celebrate his 100th birthday. He still contributes in other ways as well.

Not everyone can continue working, but there is a huge need for volunteers in areas that do not require physical agility. Unless totally senile—and that’s something that will never happen to most of us—we all have something to offer.

Maggie is a quarter century older than Jim but has a very similar view:

Life isn’t over because I’m not longer “useful.” I’m 90 and have spent the last decade trying to be okay with not always being the helping hand. Though my greatest joy has come from knowing I have touched another’s life by being helpful, I have to remember that I am still touching people’s lives as long as I am alive. I’m so pleasantly surprised that people want to be around me.

I was pretty grim when I had to stop driving because a slight accident damaged the car beyond repair. My health also gave way and I was briefly hospitalized. It was a big adjustment. But now I am walking, exercising at the gym once a week, taking part in demonstrations, and forgetting about how old I am. I don’t see any other options.

Frank shares Maggie’s age and attitude:

In three weeks I will have my 90th birthday. I am certainly glad I did not die at 75. Since then, I have seen four more grandchildren born, two grandchildren graduate from college, and two from high school. I sold my financial advisory firm to my partners and helped start a new Trust Company, now serving as Regional Director and on their Board. I have had some wonderful trips and been able to enjoy sailing, tennis, and horseback riding up until two years ago. I have recently bought a set of golf clubs and look forward to enjoying a new sport.

Carol frames aging this way:

Everyone has three ages: chronological, biological, and mental. (The most important, by far, is our mental age.) I’m chronologically 81, biologically 65 and mentally 60.

Tony adds some perspective:

Consider this: Well into his 80s, Verdi [the Italian composer] was still at it; ahead were two of his greatest operas, Otello and Falstaff. And Michelangelo was still there, chisel in hand, well into his 80s. Problem is, we think it’s all over—but life, and sometimes ourselves too, always has a surprise in store.

Maureen calls old age “my blessing”:

I will be 70 on my next birthday! I have finally begun to live my truth. I am fortunate in that I have an appreciation for life that never occurred to me in my younger years. I love every sunrise and sunset. I enjoy watching the bunnies, hummingbirds, lizards, and butterflies. My grandchildren enjoy my company. I am my husband’s best friend. I have a deep spiritual connection. I take nothing for granted.

Life for me is beautiful—not because it is perfect, but because it is lovely even in its imperfection. I have made peace with my past and have no fears for my future. I am grateful for every moment! I will stay here on this amazing planet as long as I can.

Another positive outlook comes from Charlie:

Aging is not a sickness or a disease. No one yet has died knowing all there is to know and enjoying everything there is to enjoy! So why not try to be that first?  Optimism, positivism, aggressiveness, regardless of your age, is what it means to be human. Cells may die and energy may lessen. But whatever is left should be used to live and love as fully as possible. We are always and ever in the process of becoming!

Joyce has some tips for healthy living in your eighties:

I read Ezekiel Emanuel’s article [“Why I Hope to Die at 75”] and agree with much of it; I certainly don’t want to have lots of effort made to keep me alive if I should unfortunately end up in a hospital and have no intention of any surgeries.

However, I am 83 and not hoping to die any time soon. I am unusually healthy for my age and do many things to remain so: I take no prescription drugs; I exercise regularly including weight lifting, walking and Tai Chi; I eat well, including fresh vegetable juice every day or so; I have good regular connections with family and close friends; I experience good art forms, including playing the piano, singing, movies, novels (currently my husband, who is 85, and I are watching the fine BBC series Lark Rise to Candleford and reading aloud together Margaret Atwood’s novel Blind Assassin).

Karen is 80 years old and wisely keeps her smartphone at bay:

I go for long walks every day it isn’t raining or unbearably cold. It is my job to keep myself as mobile and as healthy as possible. I don’t wear headphones or keep my phone on when I walk. I want to observe what wonders nature is revealing: sights, sounds, odors. I find the sound of the ocean is restful and restorative. As I near the end of my life, birds, otters, flowers, sunrises and sunsets take on extra meaning for I know I have a limited time in which to enjoy them.

And Nancy shares a great saying:

I am 79 and still teaching college courses—for another year at least, if lucky. Then for as long as I am able, I will continue to volunteer. As a good friend said, “You ought to be all spent up before you go.”