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Celebrating birthdays instead of dreading them

Published March 19. 2011 09:00AM

I just went to birthday party that was more than an observance of the day of someone's birth.

The party was a glorious celebration of life.

When some people in our kayak club realized so many members were turning 70, they decided a party was in order.

I looked around at the nine celebrants and thought about how vibrant and active each one is. In addition to paddling kayaks for miles each week, they bike long distances, have a lot of varied interests, and are a rather hearty bunch.

I watched Jean, one of the 70th birthday celebrants, compete in a kayak race under adverse conditions. Winds were gusting and there was a small craft advisory.

Trust me, a kayak is a small craft. Nothing moves it except muscle power and it's especially hard when you're paddling against the wind.

Some of the contestants dropped out but Jean kept going. She wasn't pleased with her performance last year and was determined to finish the course.

I was waiting for the racers at the finish line when a sheriff's deputy came to tell us Jean was in trouble and the rescue boat couldn't reach her.

When members of the club took off to rescue Jean, they were surprised when she waved them away. She wanted to finish the race on her own. And she did, winning a gold medal in the process.

That kind of perseverance and spunk is fairly typical of the 70th birthday celebrants.

"You think of 70 as being old. We're not it!" said my friend Joe who will turn 70 this week. "Years ago, when I pictured life at 70, I didn't think someone that age would be enjoying all the fun and activity I now have," he said.

Will Rogers once said many people go through life lying about their age until they get to the point where they start bragging about it.

The birthday celebrants weren't exactly bragging about being 70. Mostly, they expressed surprise that all of a sudden they need so many candles on their birthday cake.

"And I guess we're surprised that we're in such good shape," said one woman. "Seventy is the new 40," she proclaimed.

I think she's right in that people are aging better than they did decades ago. Improved advances in medicine and a better adherence to a healthy lifestyle might account for some of it.

My friend Ron thinks it all has to do with one's attitude.

"Age is an attitude," he said. "It's not so much how old you are as much as it is how you regard age. It's just a number."

Coincidentally, I just attended a seminar on aging where the messages of the day could be summarized in Ron's four words: Age is an attitude.

"The first quality of aging gracefully is transforming your attitude," said motivational speaker Marilyn Bowman.

"Attitude is the mother of all your actions. Change your attitude and you change your whole life," she emphasized.

She noted there was once a time when older people were revered. That's not true today. "Younger people sometimes scorn or fear older people, acting like they think age is a disease that might be contagious," she said.

Few of us would deny we are a youth oriented society.

The motivational speaker said some things such as firm, healthy bodies are often taken from us when we age, but other blessings are given to us.

"Body development is replaced with character development. We become less judgmental, more compassionate, and more forgiving. We have learned what is important and what is not."

What it takes to age gracefully, Bowman believes, is to accept the changes in life that come as we age and to live in the present instead of the past.

One of the positive characteristics of aging, she said, is that we begin to search for more meaning in how we spend our time.

My friend and mentor, Father Arthur Lee, said he has observed people go through stages once they retire.

First, they want to try new things and do the kinds of things they never had time for. So they travel, learn new skills, and get new hobbies.

"Then the pattern shifts and retirees move into a new phase where relationships take on primary importance. At this stage people want to build better relationships with those they love. They want to heal past hurts and improve their relationship with God and with others."

Then the pattern shifts again. "At this point people try to figure out how they can make this world a better place for having been here. They think about their legacy and how they will be remembered."

It's at this stage, he believes, that many begin to search for meaning and lead more purposeful lives.

Both Father Lee and Marilyn believe each person has unique gifts. And as we age, we have more opportunities and often more desire to use those gifts to help others or to make the world a better place.

What I find relevant is that the spiritual benefits of aging, as discussed by Father Lee and Marilyn Bowman, and the fun and leisure benefits as epitomized by the kayak club, are two sides of the same coin.

Just as a coin keeps its worth when it is no longer shiny and bright, this thing we call aging teaches us that every stage of life is equally worthwhile.

As the classic movie says, "It's a Wonderful Life."

No wonder the 70th birthday celebrants are still smiling.

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