Several years back, while serving on the board of the Vital Aging Network, I helped develop Aging With Gusto, a program designed to help people develop more positive views of aging and live their own lives with gusto.
Research shows that people with more positive views of aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with more negative views. What’s more, people who perceive their elder selves as a burden to others tend to view their lives as less valuable, which in turn increases their risk of depression and social isolation, both of which have proven to be “silent killers” for older adults.
I felt like I was doing pretty well when it came to living with gusto—I was working less and enjoying life more—but then COVID came along and all my gusto got up and went away-o.
So did the me I knew…and liked.
That me juggled a lot of things at once, effortlessly kept track of deadlines, friends’ birthdays and bill due-dates. She walked 10,000 steps a day, volunteered often, went to yoga on Saturday mornings and loved getting together with friends, even if it meant driving across town in rush-hour traffic.
She also traveled. In 2019, she spent February and March in Panama, May in New York City and much of that summer and fall at a rustic fishing resort near the Canadian border. In 2021, she was set to spend March and April with her sister and her family in Los Angeles, but that trip was cut short due to COVID. So were other travel plans.
And now, roughly 18 months later, I’m no longer she.
My hair, which I used to color blonde, is now gray. My face has new wrinkles. My skin, once taut, is now crepe-y. And while I know these changes took time to develop, it feels like these changes occurred practically overnight while I was quarantining due to COVID.
And the changes aren’t just on the surface. Last summer, after walking became so painful I stopped doing it any more than was absolutely necessary, I was told I need hip replacement surgery. With elective surgeries advised against at the time, I’ve put it off, which is why, when friends invited me to walk with them (one of the few things that felt safe enough to do), I declined.
Instead, my friends and I did a few Zoom calls. Then, because looking presentable wasn’t high on our lists, we talked on the phone. Eventually even that got to be too much, in part because many of us were dealing with some big stuff. Not used to being together 24/7, my partner and I were struggling to get along. One of my sisters and her husband almost lost their business. One friend had pancreatic cancer. Another had a husband with a brain tumor and a son who nearly died from alcohol poisoning.
Living through—and aging—during a pandemic has caused so many of us to reprioritize. As a result, rather than traveling and enjoying many of the other out-and-about activities that we enjoyed pre-pandemic—we are busy taking care our relationships, our livelihoods, our health and the health of our loved ones. No one can blame us; it’s the right thing to do.
But the pandemic has made everything more difficult, more urgent, more immediate. And more solitary. In the process of caring for ourselves and our loved ones, we risk isolating ourselves from support we may desperately need. Doing so can be costly: one study says isolation increases the risk of death by 29 percent, another that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
So, I’m working on reclaiming my Aging-with-Gusto mindset by being more proactive in maintaining my own social connections: I’m calling at least one friend or family member each day and sending at least five cards each week. While these are small things, I know from being on the receiving end that they can make a difference. Plus, it’s one thing I can do no matter what is happening with COVID. I call it Gusto Lite, but at least it’s a start.
What are you doing to age with gusto? Please share.