Secrets of Successful Aging: Thailand and Beyond
By Pat Jurgens
Getting old is like being dropped in a foreign country. The culture is different, and we don’t know the language or what to expect. Recently, I returned from volunteering in Thailand as a septuagenarian; let me draw some parallels from this experience.
We are, of course, all getting older. It’s the cycle of life. Our joints ache and we don’t recognize ourselves in the mirror. We no longer dance the night away, or burn the candle at both ends. So, how to navigate through this elder passage with grace and still enjoy life? We can learn to adapt to new experiences.
It is How it is
We can’t change the inevitability of life. Children grow up, the furnace has to be replaced, our dog dies, friends move away, illness and injury strike home. But we can adapt. And we can learn to live with magnanimity, a generosity of mind and heart that will transform whatever happens in our lives.
In northern Thailand, village people without education do hard physical labor. Men, women and children alike work long days in the rice fields. Teaching hill tribe preschoolers, I could not lift them out of poverty, or protect them from abuse, or even wash their dirty clothes. But I could teach them songs and games to bring out happy laughter, and offer a kind lap to curl up in.
Do Your Homework
When approaching a new experience, whether it’s a different kind of work, a personal health challenge or a family dilemma, it’s helpful to gather information about it from a variety of sources. The Internet has become a standard approach, but libraries and books are still very much available and can offer in-depth knowledge. TV and other media are viable options. Talking with friends and experts alike can engender questions and help with decision making. Be persistent.
My traveling companion and I met at the library once a week for months, exploring the possibilities of volunteering in Thailand. We researched areas of the country, dozens of volunteer organizations, travel options, health risks and protections and accommodations. We determined we wanted to work with hill tribe people and found the Mirror Foundation in northern Thailand, an organization that provided the structure and support we needed.
Once a decision is made to change doctors, move into a retirement center, or take that dreamed-of “bucket list” trip, it’s time to act. We can’t sit on our thumbs endlessly despairing over the past, our various infirmities or worrying whether things will work out. We can find affirmative energy in moving ahead with plans for grandchildren’s visits, that book that’s still being written or traveling to new destinations.
As for Thailand, we signed up with Mirror Foundation, made our flight and hotel reservations, got immunizations and within a month were flying over the Pacific to Bangkok. Knowing that our accommodations at the Non-Governmental Organization or NGO would be rustic, we treated ourselves to a luxury hotel and several jetlag days of enjoying the sights before starting our volunteer work.
Overwhelmed? Breathe and Relax
There comes a time, when we are immersed in a situation, when all our systems say “whoa!” Everything is new and coming at us too fast to absorb. Too much information, loud noise, too many people. Muscles are tense, heart beats faster and we’re holding our breath. We’re on overload. iPhone and Facebook technology is too intense. Even grocery shopping can be stressful because our favorite foods seem to change locations every week! Everyone’s in a gosh-awful hurry. How to cope?
- Stop in your tracks, sit down if possible and take yourself out of the fray.
- Breathe in, breathe out. Relax. Breathe in, breathe out. Relax. (again)
- Calm yourself by repeating mantras or affirmations.
- Call a friend and vent your frustration.
After a teacher orientation at Mirror Foundation, I was in jetlag and overwhelmed by strange surroundings, new information and 20 volunteers who were 50 years younger, all talking in unfamiliar accents at lightning speed. Retreating to my bunk in the dorm, I wrote in my journal to calm my apprehensions. Sleep refreshed me, and the next morning a solitary walk released the tension.
Sense of Humor
Ah yes, remember the funny bone … and pointing the finger at ourselves. When we forget to turn off the burner on the stove? And can’t find our glasses? It makes us feel stupid, but guess what, it’s just part of life in the slow lane. Silly me. It takes magnanimity to laugh about losing your camera or the night you forgot the symphony. Can’t use these arthritic fingers to tickle the ivory keys any longer? Maybe I can use them to scratch your back instead.
On the trip to Thailand our belongings kept disappearing. First a book, then teaching materials, also a 1,000 baht note. We made a mystery out of it; a ghost was taking our stuff. Sometimes it would inexplicably reappear. “It’s dad,” we’d laugh.
Find the Beauty
Do you have a knee injury that prevents you from downhill skiing? Are you no longer able to drive? Having difficulty navigating the stairs to the basement where the washer is located? Have to give up gardening? Even in discomfort and inconvenience, there is something beneficial. So, now you have more time for quiet pursuits. Perhaps you rediscover a love of music. You learn to accept loving help from others, and may become closer to your grown children.
In Thailand there were cold showers and muddy floors, board-hard beds, and meals of rice with broth and colorless vegetables. These were offset by the smiles of Thai people as they greeted us with a respectful “wai,” beautiful gold temples and monks in saffron robes, and the laughter of village children as they ran and played.
Believe in Serendipity
Perhaps you’ve unexpectedly met an old friend or someone from your hometown while traveling abroad. Or you discover that your doctor went to college with your daughter. There’s an unexplainable energy or force that brings together seemingly unrelated events, people or things. We just have to be open to the possibility and notice.
My traveling friend found an Akha headdress in northern Thailand like one she had wanted to buy in Santa Fe 20 years ago. She’d wondered for years where it came from. I purchased an embroidered shoulder bag from our hill tribe host that on return home turned out to be remarkably similar to a purse I received as a gift in Kunming, China, 20 years ago. Listening to our intuition, we sometimes learn why we are drawn to certain experiences.
Acceptance and Gratitude
The secrets of old age have not yet been told. It’s not all about giving up the things you love to do or dealing with losses and infirmities. The “golden years” are a time of life when we have more freedom to do what we want to do and say what we want to say. When perspective is needed we can offer common sense and even wisdom.
We don’t have to rush around in a dozen different directions, as in our youth; we’ve been there, done that. Now we can slow down and follow our heart’s desire, whether this is writing our memoirs, getting together with friends, practicing Buddhism or learning to play the dulcimer.
Over the years we’ve developed inner resources and found contentment in ourselves. We accept ourselves more fully, feel more deeply and forgive more easily.
In Asia we learned to appreciate the unexpected. One day we were adjusting to food at the foundation, the next day we were going to a hill tribe village and sleeping on the floor. One weekend we stayed at a luxury hotel and ate like queens. The amazing contrasts opened my mind and heart, and heightened my understanding and compassion. I’ll always remember the multicolored lanterns of the night market, bright green rice paddies shimmering in the early morning sun and the smile of a little village boy on his mother’s knee. At this time in my life I feel particularly grateful for such an experience.
Pat Jurgens recently volunteered in northern Thailand teaching English to hilltribe women and children, and novice monks. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org