Guest Commentary: How does it feel to be 80?


Dr. Theresa del Tufo is an organizational consultant and an author, and has been a resident of Dover for more than 50 years. She just completed writing a collection of poems and is working on her seventh book on how to survive and thrive during tough times. She is the primary author of the 2021 book, “Women Powered! A New Paradigm of Influence and Equity.”

How does it feel to be 80? I whispered to myself that “it’s really no different as when I was 40.” I am still searching, learning and growing. Although, when I glanced at my reflection, I saw this old me, and I screamed in disbelief, then quietly murmured, “Certainly, that cannot be me!”

Recently, my son and his wife hosted a celebration of my 80th birthday by inviting family and friends, some of whom came all the way from California. It was an afternoon replete with joy, fun and magic. The healing energy of collective joy radiated through every cell of my body so that I almost felt intoxicated with life. The nerve endings in my hands and feet sizzled, like the sensation I experience whenever I am sipping a glass of red wine. I savored its swoony and heady charm. I told myself to burn this beautiful memory in my conscious brain.

Much like watching a happy event on film, the happy segment flickered and was replaced by instant fear and apprehension. A loved one had a freak accident — she turned around quickly, fell on the floor and hit her head and thighs. She was in severe pain, as she was wheeled out and taken to the nearest hospital.

Duality of life

The Buddhists teach us about the duality of life — that is, every aspect of life is created from a balanced interplay between two seemingly opposite and competing forces. They do not cancel each other out because they are complementary and are part of the same state. For example, there is no death without life or happiness without pain. This duality is influenced by the up-and-down rhythm of life. Today, you’re happy; next week, you’re miserable. The pendulum of life swings back and forth, much like the steady beat of a metronome.

Pleasure and pain can coexist

As I get older, it seems that the pace of change from one opposite state to another is more frequent, and the contrast feels more extreme. I experienced the boundless joy and exhilaration of family love, loving connections with friends and the simmering positive energy generated by the crowd. The next moment, there was all-consuming fear and trembling at the sight of a loved one in excruciating pain. From this breathtaking blending of joy and pain in almost a single, infinite moment, I learned that two seemingly opposite emotions can coexist in an elegant and singular moment in time. Maybe this strategy can help me tame the wall of old age by focusing on moments of joy and positive energy, while holding the negative side in a state of suspension and subconscious acknowledgement.

Flying a plane, while building it

My son and I planned a couple of months ago to visit a facility for older adults near his home. This arrangement could allow us to spend more time together and allay his concerns about my safety and health. The one-bedroom that I feel I can reasonably afford looks pretty and welcoming, but the size just bothered me. I felt like I must surgically alter my freedom and expansive life to survive in this cramped-up space. It is much like stuffing all my life’s possessions in my pocketbook and re-creating my identity out of these vital few mementos of things past.

I started the process of retirement planning quite a while back in my 70s. Planning for old age is not an exciting endeavor; it is marbled with apprehension, distaste and fear. Besides, the 80s just came unannounced, like an uninvited guest. Now, I am creating a life plan, while I am living it. It is much like flying a plane, while I am building it. It is both exciting and terrifying.

Muscle memory

I have lived and flourished in other countries and places before. I lived in the Philippines until I was 23 years old. I gave up all my possessions and loving connections when I moved to Dover to start a new life. I crammed all my material possessions in a monster piece of luggage on my way to my new home, halfway around the world. I also worked and lived in Japan as an exchange administrator and had an amazing time learning the language, the culture and the cuisine, and exploring exotic places. I also explored living in Hawaii, where I learned that home is where my sons live.

It should not be this hard to make a choice, I reassured myself. It is in your muscle memory — it’s much like riding a bike; you can successfully do it again. What is unique about this final chapter is that there are so many unknowns. Old age and death are unlike any other life transitions, where you have a one-way ticket on a jet plane to eternity — destination, unknown; departure and arrival time, unknown.

Creating new pathways

In her book, “Pathfinders” (1981), renowned journalist Gail Sheehy presents “creative, original, and expansive ways to effectively overcome the crises of adult life by drawing on one’s own inner resources” and “finding your own path to well-being.” She remarks that pathfinders are individuals who refuse to surrender to life’s assaults and misfortunes, and reveres them as life heroes. She reports that pathfinders navigate life’s malicious streak by developing three qualities — control, confidence and courage, which can neutralize life’s challenges.

Clinical psychologist Tara Brach advises us in her book, “Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness” (2021), that “when we remember this basic goodness of our Being, we open to happiness, peace, and freedom.” In addition to harnessing my inner resources of resilience and courage, I trust in the infinite goodness of life, in the gold within me and my network of family and friends — my beloved community — who love and value me. It is this sacred circle of protection that will sustain me with enduring support, love and warmth during the fragile moments of old age and transition, as I glide through the final frontier.

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