Now that I'm fast approaching my 60th birthday, I find myself riveted by any descriptions I run across of the aging process. Not that I consider myself old. But those who are honest with themselves as they approach their seventh decade have to admit that their bodies have begun sending signals that are a good deal different from the ones they were sent in their 40s — to say nothing of those they received in their 20s. In order to interpret these new signals, I pounce on any kind of road map that's offered to me.
That's why I found Kirk Douglas' piece "What Old Age Taught Me" so appealing. It appeared last month as one of the "My Turn" columns in Newsweek magazine and, though it wasn't the most skillfully written of articles, there was an endearing sort of honesty to it — and, at certain moments, a few good pointers for those of us setting out on the next great journey of our lives (a stage a lot of us like to think of as "young old age").
First off, Douglas, the veteran actor who appears to still have unlimited resources of energy, stated that old age is a unique experience in life; you simply have to find the key to how to deal with it.
He then described how, years earlier, he had been at the bedside of his dying mother, "an illiterate Russian peasant." He said he was terrified and could only hold her hand. The last words she said to her son were: "Don't be afraid, it happens to everyone."
"As I got older," wrote the actor, "I became comforted by those words. Death happens to everyone. But I always thought death happens to everyone else."
According to Douglas, depression is the greatest obstacle of old age. You lose friends, you feel lonely; depression sets in. With the actor, depression struck after he had a stroke 12 years ago and his speech was affected.
"The thought that I would never make another movie echoed in my brain," he explained. "I was constantly beset with passivity. I just wanted to lie in bed and do nothing. Fortunately, my wife believes in tough love. When I lay there feeling sorry for myself, Anne would say, 'Get your ass out of bed and work on your speech therapy.' That helped."
As Douglas put it, depression occurs from thinking too much about yourself. Thinking of others is a much better strategy. Not only does it lessen the black moods, but the "satisfaction is priceless."
"My wife and I just finished our campaign to build 400 safe playgrounds for the children of Los Angeles," wrote the actor. "This was sorely needed to replace the decrepit and dangerous play apparatuses that existed. We attended every inauguration — 400 of them. It was gratifying to see the happy, smiling faces of our growing citizens." Douglas then described, briefly, several of the other projects he and his wife have instituted over the last few years.
"But I don't list my projects," he noted, "to declare what a good guy I am. In fact, I am a very selfish guy, because helping others has its rewards. It makes you feel good."