By SHARON YAMATO
I’ve always been bad at making New Year’s resolutions so I decided to write some 2023 reflections (or confessions?) instead. What prompted these musings was a health scare that forced me to ponder quality-of-life issues in a way I’ve never had to do before.
Let me begin with the fact that I’m 73 and have no children. If my mother were alive, she would be horrified. “You need to have children who will take care of you when you get old,” she would nag. It seemed appropriate for a mother of nine; however, it was just the right thing to say to me, her youngest daughter, to make me want to stay childless forever. As the years passed and I face old age, I’ve decided to reflect again on her words as an indication of what happiness and getting old now means to me.
I recently read an excerpt from a memoir called “Ladyparts” that spelled out rules for middle-age happiness. I had managed to throw cold water on age as a late baby boomer who always felt comforted knowing there was an abundance of us who managed to outlive age statistics, while still considering myself middle-aged. As I turned 70, I continued to run 30 miles a week, added a blue/purple tint to my graying hair, and kept my weight more or less around 140 pounds (though it definitely helps if you never weigh yourself). I went from middle age to old age without even noticing.
Then it happened. A sudden blow of mortality jolted me when my partner of nearly 30 years was struck with an inexplicable illness, forcing me to spend sleepless nights dwelling on such end-of-life thoughts as advance directives, provisions for long-term care, and the sadness that only loneliness brings.
An expert in denial (even as beloved friends or their loved ones were aging and dying around me), I never expected death to creep up on me in my own house. What’s more, I was blindsided when depression suddenly surfaced. I thought I had it all going for me until I remembered no one gets out of here without suffering the pain of loss. How to survive it required me to come up with some necessary rules for old-age happiness.
Coincidentally, in its weekly “Wellness” letter, The N.Y. Times had devised a program called the “7-Day Happiness Challenge” and reported one clear finding, i.e., “Strong relationships are what make for a happy life.” Experts say it’s the quality, not quantity, of those relationships that can help cure depression, protect against stress, and even help with memory loss (one of my current least favorite infirmities).
They encourage developing those never-too-late connections however possible, whether it be talking to the mailman or joining a gym or knitting group. Following a passion can lead to invaluable friendships—just ask anyone like me who belongs to a running group.
However, after hearing from these experts I was still confounded as to what to do if I were to lose the most significant and strongest relationship of my life.
This horrible thought led me to devise rule number one for old-age happiness: surround yourself with good friends. Fortunately, I was able to lean on several of their strong shoulders to seek advice, comfort, and a dry shirt to absorb my tears. It may sound clichéd, but there’s nothing like a friend to remind you that you are not alone. I like to think of it as a mutually satisfying expression of gratitude and love. Sometimes it requires a little extra effort to keep and stay in touch, like an occasional lunch or dinner date or even just a phone call or text message, but there’s no way to measure the soothing results of a real and true friendship.
For whatever reasons (and it may sound very un-JA or contrary to any culture for that matter), I’ve always chosen to surround myself with friends over family. Perhaps it’s because friends don’t carry the same heavy baggage that family members sometimes bring. As much as my mother would argue that one’s children offer the best support, I prefer the kind that doesn’t come with the price tag of duty or obligation.
For my second rule of old-age happiness, I refer to a letter I recently read from a college friend whose partner of 30 years had died just three days before the ball dropped in Times Square in that annual symbolic ritual of throwing off the old and celebrating the hope and joy of a new year. My old-age friend described how his life was now being defined by its losses, and his sadness was transmitted through me by more than his pen but also by my shared thoughts of unimaginable loss.
But rather than end his letter on a note of sadness, he went on to focus on the precious memories that will last forever to comfort him. Those of us who have been touched by irreplaceable loved ones who filled our lives with greatness are indeed fortunate to have any number of cherished memories. Which leads me to the second rule of old-age happiness: to practice gratitude however we can.
Once we overcome the grief of loss, observe gratitude, and gather around our friends, we can then practice the third rule of old-age happiness, and that is to keep smiling and laughing as much as is humanly possible.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.