Success Factors and the Aging Process: Reflections about My Life Experiences: Part 2

hellkamp-headshot-2-17David T. Hellkamp, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
Xavier University

In Part 1 of this blog, Dave shared his ideas about identity, financial, and social aspects of contented aging. In Part 2, he discusses physical health, hobbies, intellectual curiosity, and spirituality, and makes his concluding remarks.

Physical Health
Reaching a later stage in life seems synonyms with health concerns. Aches and pains began primarily in my middle sixties and became more of an issue in my seventies. I also experienced minor surgeries, along with the diagnosis and treatments for my cancer.  I am becoming more aware that we start outliving some of our bodies’ organs and organ systems during this stage. The good news is advancements in dentistry and medicine can aid us greatly in dealing with a number of these issues, but not all.

So, thankfully, I have been working for years to prepare my body for the aging process. Such preparation was not by chance. A mentor, 20 years my senior, began preaching to me when I was in my early 40’s to keep my body active as long as I could. From childhood, I was interested in sports. As a young adult, as I previously alluded to, I played pick-up basketball games. That activity continued into my 50’s. I always gave priority to physical activity. In my 60’s, it became more difficult, but I worked a lot in the yard and around the house. Over the past three years, I have given top priority to systematically working out at the gym three times a week. These workouts, which include walking a mile and 14 different weight exercises, have likely made a difference in my endurance, strength, energy level, and physical appearance. Make no mistake, these activities are real work and require great effort at times. As a matter of fact, I occasionally kid with others that the closest I get to “work” these days is “working-out” in the gym! I’m sure being reasonably smart about diet, not smoking, drinking in moderation, and trying to get adequate sleep add to my feelings of reasonable health. Being retired with time to do what I want and maintaining reasonable health is a great combination in this stage of life.

A true hobby is a form of love. The object of this type of love is an activity rather than a person. Common examples for me are reading, games, building things, traveling, watching movies, etc. An important component of a meaningful hobby is the experience of passion you have for that hobby. If no passion exists for the activity, it is not a hobby, just an activity for passing time. Boredom usually sets in fast. For me, volunteering and/or “giving back” are also very important hobbies. I’ve volunteered on not-for-profit Boards, as an example. I have also tried to give back financially to charitable groups that I know firsthand do great work for students and the underserved. Such activities give extra meaning to my life. Time and finances are ways of giving back.

Another hobby is investing, although, technically, the IRS considers it more of a job. Subjectively, I don’t. Actually, I spend little concerted time doing it, but do enjoy reading and learning all I can about those limited investing areas I now know something about. When teaching neophyte doctoral students about clinical or consulting practices, I would strongly advise them to also learn firsthand about their finances and to learn to maintain control over their finances, including investing. I believe some methods of successful investing utilize similar skills that good clinicians employ when they have learned how to diagnose, do interventions, and apply analytics (statistics). However, that is another story for a different forum.

I will not risk boring you with a discussion of my other hobbies. What is perhaps most important for you, the reader, is for you to plan by identifying where your own passions for activities are. After all, if you are currently a student or professional, I assume you have given (or are giving) thought as to what courses and work activities excite you! In that way, you are in the planning or implementing stage of your life work. When you retire from work, you will spend your newly acquired free time doing something. Find your passions and go for it!

Intellectual Curiosity
As an academic in my work life, I was always intellectually curious about many things. I have discovered since I retired, that the subject matter of my intellectual curiosities, in terms of range and depth, has expanded. In retrospect, it was likely that keeping up with the readings related to my coursework, clinical and consulting practices, and related research interests constrained my time to devote to other topics of interest. Now, I have free time to devote in much more depth, to those topics.

In contrast, by expanding my social relationships to new friends and acquaintances, I have become aware there are many older people who don’t appear to have much intellectual curiosity, at least in a similar way. Or, maybe they have just not given it a high priority?  Some are dogmatic in their thinking and seem to prefer a “world view” that is consistent mostly with their past experiences. To be confronted with alternative explanations for their opinions is very threatening, even if empirical evidence to support the opposing opinions is presented. In other words, accepting ambiguity and/or change is or has become very difficult for them to integrate into their own lives. On social and political levels, it plays out in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, and environmental issues, among others. In pointing out these dynamics, my intention is not to open a can of arguments to support or reject any position. Rather, I would suggest that, for me, it is important to maintain an intellectual curiosity in old age, however that plays out. I am always curious about and intrigued by what visionaries say about trends influencing our present and futures. In other words, I am curious about how things appear to be at present and how things might become for our society and globally in the future.

Spirituality includes dealing directly with your values and interests. Values and interests help define your character, choices in life work, relationships, and hobbies. Values and interests also help set the foundation for personal integrity, integration, and direction in one’s life via goal setting. At times, I have found it valuable to reflect on how my life is going. On occasion, I made major and/or minor shifts in areas of my life choices, hopefully, in the best interests of all involved. You can only do the best you can do. Such transitions can be very easy, or risky and stressful, but may need to be made. In the latter instance, they might involve changing vocations to changing marital status. For me, the experience of divorce was a very painful and stressful time of life. I would not recommend anyone marry and have a family until each partner has developed a personal identity beyond the relationship itself, and to have developed a vocational identity. Marriage at a young age is generally highly related to divorce. It certainly was for me.

On a deeper level, spirituality can involve one’s relationship to God or a Higher Being. For maybe the first 60 years of life, I felt comfortable as a “Believer.”  My belief in a Higher Being started to change when I learned about evidence supporting the Big Bang Theory and Theory of Singularity. Intense reading and rereading of Stephen Hawking’s work, A Brief History of Time, along with other work by Hawking and others, induced a profound shakeup of my Belief. Although I was aware of many philosophical, psychological, and theological arguments in support of or against being a Believer, the most powerful evidence for me until that time was the immense feelings of awe I experienced when I looked up at the sky on a clear, dark evening. Seeing the stars and reflecting on the vastness of the universe, I concluded there must be a Higher Being to account for the existence of everything. I will not go further with this line of discussion other than to use it as an example of an issue I am currently trying to resolve for myself; this is a late life spiritual issue for me. Frankly, it took me by surprise. Some family and friends may also be surprised to learn about my spiritual struggles. I have a plan for how to approach this issue. All I can say is: “to be continued…”

Concluding Comments
My original purpose in agreeing to reflect on and share aspects of my life was to help shed some light on how “success” and feelings of “contentment” might evolve and be maintained in the aging process. However, in writing about my experiences, I was forced to organize aspects of my life in a meaningful way to share my life experiences. Perhaps, noticeable to many readers, is the lack of focus on my work achievements and “successes.” For me, work successes were very important during my work life. But, now that I am retired, work successes are very much relegated to the background. I now experience the feelings of contentment about life as much more important and they take precedent over any such work successes.

While writing this blog, I happened to mention to some of my grown children what I had undertaken. I was somewhat surprised that they seemed very interested to read the finished entry. When my daughter “proofed” the draft, she seemed to like it. Maybe other family members will like it, also. If so, maybe these writings will serve as a more lasting memory to my family. Perhaps my comments might serve a more articulate, personal postmortem memory of me for my family, in contrast to periodically traveling to stare at an impersonal tombstone with my name, dates of birth and death, and a brief epitaph. Might a project serve others in a similar way? Time will tell.

In April, Don N. Nicholas, Ph.D., Professor of Counseling Psychology, Social Psychology, and Counseling, and Director of Doctoral Training at Ball State University will share his ideas about successful aging.


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