Aging (and how to be good while doing it)

My recent trip to the annual International City-County Management Association (ICMA) Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, gave me the opportunity to visit my very senior aunts in Dayton, Ohio.  My mother’s two surviving sisters are well over 80 years old, and neither is in good health.  They can no longer walk and are highly dependent on others for comfort and survival.  In contrast, I ran into an old friend and mentor in Milwaukee who is older than either of my aunts but remains independent and vital.

I have reached the age where I think about my own aging and what I can do to retain my independence or, in short, be the person I want to be for as long as possible.  I also know that I have limited control over a number of things that will influence who I will be in days to come.  My friend Charlie is a retired city manager whose example gives me some hope.

Charlie is over 90 now, and I have known him since he was about 65.  He served as the city manager in three cities and retired from a one-year federal assignment just before I met him.  In retirement, Charlie served as a “Range Rider” for ICMA  for about 25 years before finally giving up his second career a couple of years ago.  Range Riders provide support to city and county managers by keeping them connected to their peers and offering the benefit of their experience in the profession.  Charlie started the program in Oregon and built it up to the point where there are now about five Range Riders in the state.  Throughout the years I’ve known him, Charlie has stayed active physically and mentally.  I remember going on a hike with him about 15 years ago and he led the way from beginning to end.  He is also careful about what and how much he eats.

Charlie’s other attributes include a great sense of humor, high integrity, curiosity, and tolerance.  Change does not seem to threaten him, and I do not ever recall him yearning for the good old days.  Like many of us, Charlie has a wealth of stories from his past that he’s not shy about sharing; but his stories inform and entertain without condemning the present or predicting doom in the future.

The September 5 edition of The New Yorker poses some interesting questions about our progress through life in a biographical article entitled “How to be Good.”  The author describes some thoughts of Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit in the following passage:

“A self, it seems, is not all or nothing but the sort of thing that there can be more of or less of.  When, in the process of a zygote’s cellular self-multiplication, does a person start to exist?  Or when does a person, descending into dementia or coma, cease to be?  There is no simple answer–it is a matter of degrees.”

I believe we can influence the rate or degree of our descent by following the good example of people like Charlie, who pay attention to the importance of both body and spirit.  The New Yorker article eloquently summarizes Parfit’s views on how our beliefs matter to the legacy we leave:

“He sees that we have the ability to make the future much better than the past, or much worse, and he knows that he will not live to discover which turns out to be the case.  He knows that the way we act toward future generations will be partly determined by our beliefs about what matters in life, and whether we believe that anything matters at all.  This is why he continues to try so desperately to prove that there is such a thing as moral truth.”

I have no aspirations to prove the existence of moral truth, probably because I already believe in it and its source.  I do aspire to a life that provides service to others while imposing minimal burdens on those who matter most to me.  Aging seems much more agreeable if I can live with the hope of achieving that goal.