Suppose you’re a really good golfer – scratch player, zero handicap. You take a year off then head back to the course. How do you think you’d do? Would your game suffer from the year of inactivity?
A better question is why would you do it? If you’ve invested the time and effort into something that’s obviously important to you, why would you put it on the shelf and walk away?
One excuse we use is that we’ve gotten older. It’s become more difficult to maintain the same physical intensity that we had in our younger days. Another is that our bodies have changed with age and are no longer capable at 70 of the same heroics that we performed easily at 20. But does that mean we should just quit? Does it mean that not only should we put those things on the shelf, but put ourselves on the shelf – to collect dust – to collect rust – to just fade away in retirement?
I’ve given up golf. I never was a stellar player – just a duffer at best. I didn’t give it up because I wanted to but because of my knees. I can walk forever but I can’t take the twisting of smacking a driver. I could suffer through nine holes and pay for it with a week’s agony. I could try eighteen holes and have to be carried off the course on a stretcher. So do I just sit in front of the TV?
I can’t golf, but I can walk – and I do. I do more walking now than I’d do playing eighteen holes. I used to bike centuries – that’s a hundred miles at one time. Sometimes I’d do two of them in a day. There were weeks I’d log a thousand miles pushing the pedals. I don’t do that anymore but if the weather is permitting, I’m still out roaming the hike and bike trails dodging suicidal squirrels crossing my path. I couldn’t run a marathon again – that’s gotten past my physical limit. But I still jog as much as my knees can stand.
Okay, I’ve learned to contend with some physical limitations. I’m not content with it, but I’ve come to accept that I’m not the near professional level athlete I was in my 20s. BUT – what about the most important aspect of reaching retirement age?
I could live with a walker, I could live with a wheelchair or a scooter, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna give up my mental acuity without the mother of all battles. I don’t have any double blind clinical studies to reference but from my own seven decades of anecdotal experience, the folks whose daily major mental activity is remembering where they put the TV remote – get buried soon after attaining their “golden years” of retirement. That’s if they’re lucky. The unlucky ones become potted plants parked in some skilled nursing facility.
Maybe I’ll end up there, too, but I firmly believe that our mental functions need exercise even more than our muscles. That has been my mantra since I was a kid and began noticing the folks of my grandparent’s generation and how they adapted to aging.
The first thing I do is read – read ceaselessly – no, scratch that because I don’t just read, I study. I give in to evil temptations once in a while and will indulge in a new novel from a favorite author, but for the most part my reading list requires me to not only assimilate the black words on the white page, but think about them – really think about them and their implications. “If Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly had stayed out of Madgeburg would the US even exist?” “Why has every single democracy in history ended up as a dictatorship?” “Was Hawking whistling in the dark about black hole entropy?”
I “cram” every day now more than I ever did for a final during the professional student days. “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks?” Only if the dog decides to sit on his hind side. In retirement you have time as a huge resource. Dust off some of the old college books you barely got through before and learn it now.
I don’t just read, I also write everyday. Sometimes there’s a point, like this essay, but a lot is just for my own amusement. Putting words on paper will stimulate all of those dusty, rusty neurons like few other activities. I’ve been playing keyboards since I was a three year old brat. I play every day and am playing better than I ever did before.
I’m building a “robot caddy” that instead of just carrying golf clubs and following you around, is smart enough to stay out of the lake, not drive into a bunker or a tree, waits patiently beside the greens and tee boxes, and will tell you that the pin is 216 yards away and that the wind is 8 miles per hour from the northeast. (For it’s self-preservation, I’ve decided not to have it snicker when you shank one into the rough. Gotta compromise on some features.)
Your mind is like anything else and breeds on exercise. You use it – or you lose it. Maybe all my mental activities may not prevent me from ending up in an Alzheimer ward, but I’m not going down without a fight. Take note and find ways to keep your mental juices flowing. You’ve got the time – put all those years of mental gymnastics you’ve been through to use. Don’t crawl into the boob tube while your mind withers away.
There are no guarantees, but it’s worth a try because the stakes are so astronomical. If you “use it” maybe you’ll retain it. Don’t use it and I believe that you will definitely “lose it.”