By JENNY PRUITT CLEVELAND
“The trouble is that old age is not interesting until one gets there, a foreign country with an unknown language to the young, and even to the middle-aged. I wish now that I had found out more about it.” So said May Sarton’s seventy-six-year-old narrator in As We Are Now.”
Most of us think of old age as a destination. “Someday I’m going to be there,” we think, “but not today.”
Not today. That’s my dad’s mantra.
He’s a 72-year-old family physician with no plans to retire any time soon. He has this theory: When the brain realizes that the mind and body are no longer relevant, when there are no signals of importance, no anxiety or stress, no pressure to get up and get something done, the brain starts turning off switches. “Oh, we’re done here. No need to keep working so hard to keep up.”
“It depends on which switches get turned off first to determine what kills the poor bloke who gave up and decided to retire in a rocking chair,” my dad says.
The pituitary gland in the brain, he explains, secretes hormones that travel distantly in the body to certain organs to either stimulate those organs to function or to tell them to shut down. Examples include the thyroid gland, adrenal glands, and mammary glands. Just above the pituitary gland is the hypothalamus, brain tissue with nerve connections that go into and control the pituitary. An example of the brain turning off switches is the new mom who is so nervous and frightened that her hypothalamus overrides the pituitary gland and she is unable to make milk for breast feeding.
Plenty of studies (such as this one) line up with my dad’s theory that retirement is associated with a decline in health. Other studies, though, have shown an associated improvement in health or little effect on health. He’s witnessed that, as well as many exceptions to the rule, in his practice.
He has young, working patients who are already retired, disengaged, checked out. He has 87-year-old patients with no purpose in life except to wake up and watch westerns, which they continue to enjoy. He has patients whose self-worth is so caught up in their work that they continue to work in spite of the harm it is causing them.
“I recommend retirement to some patients, but always with strong recommendations to find something else important and fulfilling.”
That – always engaging in something important and fulfilling – is the secret to still feeling 21 inside, no matter our age. It’s what stimulates our brains to produce feel-good hormones, to keep good housekeeping of our millions of brain cells and to maintain good interconnections between them.
One patient was able to feel relevant again only after her doting family finally wore themselves out doing everything for her and admitted her to a nursing home. The nurses “made” her pull up her own covers, feed herself, sit up by herself – until she recovered to the point of walking around to check on other residents. When her family told her it was time to go home, she refused. “No, I’m staying,” she said. She found relevance again, thanks to “pushy” nurses.
Doctor’s Orders for the Unretired
1) Every day, continue to focus on the positives of your life and work. This will keep you engaged with people and purposes that matter most to you.
2) Every day, figure out how best to be rid of negativity. This will draw you to eliminate choices, habits, and circumstances that will certainly catch up with you (i.e. make you feel old).
3) Every once in a while, figure out how to have enough time off to recharge the batteries of the brain so that work remains enjoyable.
4) And finally, keep working (whether you get paid for it or not) until one day someone says, “I think she just died. And she looks so peaceful with that pleasant smile on her face.” That’s my dad’s goal.
Jenny Pruitt Cleveland is a Content Creator in Nashville, Tenn. She swims, bikes, and runs a lot. In former lives she’s been a middle school teacher, magazine reporter and editor, cycling tour guide, and underwater photographer.