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I’m 72, and This Is How I Want to Spend My Remaining Years

A bucket list for a better rest-of-life.

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Jin Xia
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Over the past few decades, women have been living longer. In 1984, a woman’s life expectancy was 78 and now it is upward of 81. May I just say: Thanks, but no thanks?

Although I am genetically predisposed to living deep into my 90s (the women in my family regularly bury multiple life partners before we pass ourselves), I can unequivocally say that for me, longevity is not a goal to which I aspire. I don’t want to live long as much as I want to live well. So, here’s my bucket list of sorts, the things I think will help me live well in my remaining years:

Stop wasting my time stupid-fighting.

Do you have any idea how much energy we expend disagreeing with internet strangers, screaming at the cable company, or fighting with our significant others over the right way to load the dishwasher? It’s the stupid stuff that wears us down.

The act of getting angry in and of itself triggers bodily responses that aren’t healthy for us: blood pressure spikes, faster heart beats, and brain changes that contribute to anxiety and depression, according to a 2020 study in Harvard Health Publishing. Draw your line about what’s fight-worthy and what’s not. Stupid-fighting, as I like to call it, just doesn’t matter.

Quit worrying so much.

Worrying is just a feeble attempt to control what we can’t control. It keeps you up at night and devours hours of your day. And for what? Your worry has zero impact on anything.

“Worrying is one of the most futile or purposeless things that people can do,” writes psychologist Elyssa Barbash in the January 2019 Psychology Today. She adds, “Worry is something people do to feel as though they are being productive when really they’re only creating more distress for themselves.”

Let’s face it: Worrying is more than just a joy-suck, it’s also a killer. It’s a poison that dangerously raises our blood pressure and can lead to strokes and heart attacks. We can’t rewrite the past, nor can we shape the future through worrying about it.

Be kinder.

Being nice has somehow become less cool than behaving badly. Admit it, we live in very polarized times. We are a divided country, hate has come out of the closet, and it’s become the norm to freely hurl insults at one another. And we don’t just stop at name-calling. It seems that we have given up on even trying to get along and instead act out our frustrations and disagreements hatefully.

So, what do we do about it? I want to be kinder to people. As a rule, I’ve always been a giver and not much of a taker. I think that means I’m headed in the right direction. In a 2006 study, the National Institutes of Health found that when people gave to charities, it activated regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust, creating a “warm glow” effect. Now, who couldn’t stand a little more warm-glowing?

Open my heart wider.

I remarried last year when I was 71. My new husband and I were both widowed and had concluded that we didn’t want our lives to end when we lost our spouses. We found each other. And for that, I am eternally grateful. I’m not afraid of being alone. I know how to fly solo but made the conscious choice not to. Perhaps I suffer from the Noah’s Ark syndrome; I believe we are all happier if we share our lives with someone, or someones. 

At our ages, Charlie and I realize that our forever is a lot shorter than it once was. And because of that knowledge, we try not to take what we have for granted. We wake up each day grateful for our good health, our solidly launched kids, and that we have created a home filled with laughter. But we also know that one day, one of us will be left behind.

To avoid being the lonely last one standing in my friends’ circle, I know I need to make some new friends — admittedly harder to do when you are older. COVID’s two years of isolation and a move to a new community has also made this tougher for me, but I do hike with a woman I met on a local board and I’m pals with a fellow campaigner in our city council election. I always stop to talk to fellow dog walkers (canines willing) and am contemplating a yoga-on-standup-paddleboard class because I like being around younger people willing to fish me out of the water. Good friends are good for your health. They increase your sense of belonging and purpose and are there for you when you process life’s traumas and celebrations.

Talk less, listen more.

I talk over people all the time at the dinner table, on phone calls, at parties and online. Kate Murphy, author of You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters wrote in a 2020 New York Times piece that people who do that are trying to define themselves and shape their narrative of how they want others to see them. I’m going to try to do better. The truth is, nobody has ever learned anything from hearing themselves speak. And there’s still a lot of stuff I need to learn.

Stop fearing death.

I have kept a now-yellowed copy of the October 2014 issue of The Atlantic, in which Ezekiel J. Emanuel wrote a story titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” Emanuel made the argument that you, your family and, heck, even society at large would all benefit greatly if we allowed nature to take its course swiftly and promptly. He said by 75, he would have made all the professional contributions he was going to make, and his grandchildren would be old enough to remember him. While 75 seemed far enough away from where I sat at the time, my takeaway from the article was that there was no need to allow the medical world to torture you in the very end in its efforts to prolong your life. That is, if that’s your choice.

Now, with 75 peering around the corner at me, I don’t feel ready to die. But when my body or my mind fail me and I can no longer live as I want to, I don’t want to be afraid to let go. It really isn’t death I fear; it’s the idea of a painful death perpetuated under the guise of prolonging life that, like Emanuel, I want to avoid.

Ann Brenoff is a prize-winning journalist who worked as a senior writer and editor on staff at the Los Angeles Times and HuffPost. She is the author of “Caregivers Are Mad as Hell!: Rants From the Wife of the Very Sick Man in Room 5029.”

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