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  • Dan Connors

Advice on Aging from a 90+ year old national treasure

Keep Moving: And Other Truths About Living Well Longer

“I am a child in search of his inner adult, though the truth is that I’m not searching too hard. I don’t recommend anyone doing so. That is the secret, the one people always ask me about when they see me singing and dancing, whistling my way through the grocery store or doing a soft shoe in the checkout line. They say, “Pardon me, Mr. Van Dyke, but you seem so happy. What’s your secret?” What they really want to know is how I have managed to grow old, even very old, without growing up, and the answer is this: I haven’t grown up. I play. I dance with my inner child. Every day.

“Why is it amazing that I don’t act my age? Why should I act my age? Or more to the point, how is someone my age supposed to act? Old age is part fact, part state of mind, part luck, and wholly something best left for other people to ponder, not you or me.” Dick Van Dyke

We are all getting older. Not just as individuals, but as a nation. Thanks to modern medicine, more people over the ages of 60,70,80,90 and above are alive now than ever before, and that segment is expected to grow in the next decades. Old age hits many people differently- some are vibrant and active while others are sickly and cranky. The burden on our healthcare system will be enormous, and the prevalence of loneliness, depression, and cognitive impairment is likely to rise as the nation ages. How can we prepare for this?

I wish more senior citizens could be like Dick Van Dyke. He just celebrated his 98th birthday on national television in a love fest that included celebrities from across the spectrum. Van Dyke's positive, playful attitudes come out in his book, Keep Moving, which is part autobiography and part how-to book for seniors. He wrote this book when he was 89, and is still hanging in there today, thanks to good genes and a positive outlook.

It used to be that once a person reached retirement age of 65 they stayed close to their nuclear family for a few years and quietly passed away. Now that age is almost considered middle age, and retirees often can opt for warmer climates like Florida or Arizona, where they play golf, travel, and start entire new chapters of their lives. Books like this get me to thinking- what is the best way to utilize the last few decades of life? Passing on your experience to future generations, or retreating to retirement communities where you enjoy the fruits of your labors? As your peers start to die, should you start to worry about your own mortality, or treasure each new day just a bit more? So much of life, from childhood on, is jam-packed with goals and activities, that it seems unnatural to spend the final years with nothing to do or look forward to.

Generally I don't care for autobiographies, because they can be self-serving and shallow. But Van Dyke had already written an autobiography in 2011. This is a follow-up book about what it means to be old and how he has navigated that path and kept his spirit alive. Besides being a writer, he also volunteers, acts occasionally, and "keeps moving." I wish that more senior citizens would write about their struggles and what has and hasn't worked for them. There are more seniors coming, and very few of them have the slightest idea how to approach the last decades. Here's another quote:

"Here is the truth: your teens and twenties are your plan A. At fifty, you're assessing whether plan B or plan C or any other plans you hatched actually worked. Your sixties and seventies are an improvisation. There is no blueprint, and quite honestly you spend a lot of time feeling grateful you're still here. If you make it past then you discover a truth and joy that you wish you had known earlier: there is no plan."

Here are some other quotes that show his warmth, wisdom, and humor:

"If ever there was a sign I was old, it was when I was rejected by AARP magazine. They asked whether I would be on the cover, and then I received word that they had changed their mind. They put Michael J Fox on the cover instead. Apparently, at eighty-six, I was too old for AARP. I got over it- immediately, as I do most things."

"as I near ninety and look back over many decades of life experiences, joys and heartaches...I think I have a handle on the stuff that has truly made a difference, in the deeper sense of giving my life definition and meaning. Not surprisingly, it's also the stuff that continues to do so.

  1. Family and friends: I would hate to think I was alone on this rock floating around the solar system. That's why family and friends matter. Period.

  2. Questions. Early on, I wanted to feel that my life mattered, that my existence had meaning, and to do so. I had to figure out what mattered to me and apply myself to it.

  3. Music. For as long as I can remember, music has been a part of my daily life, whether it was playing with the band in school, singing or dancing to make a living, or playing the piano in the early morning, filling the quiet with chords that give, as Plato said, 'soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and everything.'

  4. Books. I love ideas and stories. I always have at least one book going and am on the lookout for the next one. They feed the brain and fuel the imagination.

  5. A Sense of humor. As far as I'm concerned, a sense of humor is the way we make sense out of nonsense."

" If you are young, get used to having old people around. There's only going to be more of us- including you!

If you are middle-aged, don't think about getting old.

If you are already old, congratulations, you now know what I know! There is no finish line. Stay open to whatever happens. Don't be scared of dying. Be more frightened that you haven't finished living. Make living a life achievement.

Keep moving."

Van Dyke includes stories about his brushes with death and medical care, about his brother Jerry who was still alive, and his third wife Arlene who was 42 years younger than him and how they made it work. He concludes with an interview with Carl Reiner, creator of the Dick Van Dyke Show, and interesting tidbits from that decades-old friendship.

A lot of the things that work for younger people don't matter as much to senior citizens. Grades, jobs, possessions, and goals are less important than friends, family, and health- physical, emotional, and mental. It can be a hard transition for some who judged themselves based on exterior benchmarks like looks, money, or geography. Aging and death are a great humbler, and we can all hopefully learn from them while making our final contributions to earth before embarking on the next journey.

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