This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.
I will not be scaling the ruins at Machu Picchu. I have no plans to leap out of an airplane tethered to a much younger skydiver. You will not find me bargaining for baubles at a souk.
If you have a bucket list that includes extreme feats and exotic travel, I will happily cheer you on and look forward to a full report when you return. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to find joy in my smaller life.
The positive aging movement usually heaps its highest praise on the “super-geezers,” as anti-ageism advocate Ashton Applewhite has dubbed them, but for most older people the items on their formidable bucket lists are physically or financially impossible.
More important, not everyone is interested in pursuing those kinds of experiences. Some of us are quite content with a life, especially a creative life, enjoyed close to home.
There is an unfortunate misconception that the smaller life is less interesting, less challenging and less meaningful than a life lived large. My personal experience, as well as observations made on my job, prove that is not true.
I had the benefit of being raised by parents who appreciated the smaller life. We were a family of modest means, but I didn’t know that until I was older. As a child, I thought we had everything. As an adult, I’m quite certain that we did.
A lifelong appreciation for the smaller life
I made weekly trips to the library with my mother, who encouraged my interest in reading. My artistic father taught me the basics of drawing and served as our tour guide when went to the mountains for picnics or took mini vacations to nearby towns that had something historically interesting to offer.
We made liberal use of public parks and museums. We gardened and cooked. I was encouraged to learn and to be creative — make music, draw, write — and I don’t remember ever feeling bored. There were adventures everywhere: in my neighborhood, my home and my mind.
Now I’m grateful that my smaller younger life is the perfect model for my smaller older life. I enjoy walking in the neighborhood park and nearby botanical gardens. A visit to a local museum is always stimulating. Online library access provides plenty of reading material.
Thanks to living in Los Angeles, travel that is a manageable distance by car can give me a taste of other cultures in our many diverse neighborhoods. And I delight in being creative: making art, writing and occasionally sitting at my keyboard to play music.
My part-time job as social media manager for the nonprofit EngAGE, Inc. allows me to witness close-to-home adventures in the lives of older residents in the affordable, independent living communities we serve. We deliver inspiring programming to them in the arts, wellness and lifelong learning, and we provide intergenerational opportunities, all on-site at no cost.
While some older people test their limits with hang gliding, our residents test theirs by reciting their newly written poetry in front of a class, or picking up a paintbrush for the first time, or performing for an audience as an actor or a singer in a chorus. That takes courage. It’s also great fun.
A wealth of opportunities
Some residents stretch their intellects by learning English now that they’re far from their homelands. Some try dancing or playing a musical instrument, others explore crafts or take a cooking class that uses food from another culture. There are fitness enthusiasts and devoted gardeners as well as committed mentors to children attending neighborhood schools.
These are all opportunities for personal satisfaction and growth. They are also opportunities to forge friendships and feel a part of a community. That’s no small victory in a society beset by an epidemic of elder loneliness.
In the battle against ageism, older people are often expected to prove our worth by pushing ourselves to show that we can do what younger people can do. There is competitive pressure at all ages, of course, but this is particularly damaging to older adults. It sets up unrealistic goals for most older people who then end up feeling “less than” in a world that is already inclined to make us feel that way. Society then uses our perceived failure to live up to the marathon-running role model to reinforce their ageist assumptions.
On an individual level, the reality is that even the most active person at some point will slow down. We need to accept this and when it affects us, if we are not already enjoying a smaller life, we need to adapt. That may be perceived as a sacrifice, but it’s more useful – and more accurate – to see it simply as a change of focus.
Many people changed their focus when a smaller life was imposed on them by the pandemic. Some completely re-evaluated everything they had been doing and, to their surprise, decided to make major adjustments. They went beyond acceptance to appreciation for their new, smaller lives.
At any age, the smaller life can provide rich experiences, exciting opportunities and meaningful rewards. The scaled down triumphs of the smaller life are no less sweet than the dramatic ones that make headlines. Nurturing a windowsill herb garden from seed to harvest, conquering the chain stitch for an embroidery project, or successfully tackling that intimidating photo editing software are worthy moments to be celebrated.
A smaller life doesn’t require us to drop out of learning or civic engagement. Classes in just about every subject you can imagine are available online. It’s likely that you’ll find a book club at your library. There are community centers and neighborhood organizations that offer opportunities to be informed and active.
Most significantly, a smaller life can allow us to remain youthful – the ultimate mantra for positive aging – just as easily as a life that requires exceptional stamina and a high level of risk tolerance. As far as I can tell, remaining young simply requires having the open, inquisitive mind of a child. You don’t even need to leave your chair to do that.
Here are a few items currently on my calendar: visiting a museum that is presenting an annual show that I never miss, walking in a botanical garden that is offering an abundant display of cherry blossoms, and making a video of the process I’m using to create a new style of drawing.
I’m 75, and I thoroughly enjoy my creative, smaller life.
Cynthia Friedlob is the author of the interactive journal, In Praise of the Smaller Life. She was a writer for animated children’s television for Hanna-Barbera, Marvel, and Jim Henson Productions. She’s been an exhibiting artist for over 30 years and used to sing with a jazz trio in her well-spent youth.
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, ©2023 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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