The Paradox of Aging

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photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’m backing out of the driveway as the TED Radio Hour fills the car midstream, but almost at the beginning of Linda Carstensen’s interview, as I later learn when I re-listen to this segment this morning at home. A professor at Stanford University, she is the founder of the center on longevity there. Her research supports her thesis that as we get older, we get happier. She explains the protocol, how she arrived at this conclusion and what is called “The Paradox of Aging.”

Then she tells the story of two sisters whom she interviewed who were living together in a retirement community and discussing a number of losses—of friends, of significant people in their lives. She replied with her observation that there seemed to be lots of people around with whom they could connect. To which one of the sisters said, “We just don’t have time for those relationships.”

At first Carstensen’s internal reaction was that it seemed their days were filled with time, but as she reflected more deeply she realized, “…she wasn’t talking about time left in the day; she was talking about time left in life , and I realized that, at some point in life we’re never gonna make a new old friend.” THERE ISN’T TIME.

In this blog I have written about some of my important relationships. Just a couple days ago, I wrote about meeting up with a childhood friend. What I didn’t say was that she made time for me in her day, showing up to chat for a few hours later in the afternoon. After she left my husband remarked that it’s funny how well we get along when we’re obviously so very different. She is one of my old friends. She is precious to me and I can’t make another one like her now.

This is certainly true, I realize, about my sisters who number among my old friends. It’s ironic because we had our rocky times in youth, particularly my older sister and me, but now as “our time horizons grow shorter” our friendship means everything to me. I will never share that history with anyone else.

I know we lose people—this is the attrition of mobility and time—but I am comforted by the finding that “Life gets better,” that we accept more, find joy in the right now more easily, feel less pressure from “the burden of the future.” As the segment concludes, Carstensen tells about a young man who approached her following her talk and wanted to know, “How can I get older quicker?” It is, as always, a state of mind, and as the days roll on, that state, that happiness, becomes easier to access—time’s gift.

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