Sunday, June 17, 2012

The 11 Rules of Aging Gracefully - Words of Wisdom from My Dad

(Hanging with the family @ Lone Eagle Grill, Lake Tahoe)
Happy Father's Day to all you Dads out there!

For your reading pleasure, here are some words of wisdom on aging gracefully from a speech written by my Dad, Dr. Larry Dunlap. I've always appreciated his wit and insight, and it's wonderful to have a great relationship with him ("good relationship with father" turns out to be the most cited link to personal happiness and fulfillment, according to a Pew Research study in 2007 - see #5 in this insightful quiz about fatherhood). He had a fascinating perspective after coming back from Palm Springs - not the usual fare from the guy who can still crank out a sub-4 hour marathon at age 70. Good stuff.

Enjoy! And Happy Father's Day, Dad!

The 11 Rules of Aging Gracefully - A Speech by Dr. Larry Dunlap

Why would I risk boring you with a speech about aging?  Well, for one thing, although I may have beat you all to it, you will get there sooner or later.  I just returned from Palm Springs which makes one think of the aging process.  Walk down the street, and it feels like everyone there is either retirement age or an illegal Mexican immigrant.  Here I am a member of the group optimistically called the “young old” and not to distant from the next group the “old old” which we all know is followed closely by the “dead old”.  I now fit in when in Palm Springs.  I am very aware of a certain loss of flexibility and elasticity, a forgetfulness and lack of retention and an unfamiliar wrinkled face that stares back at me from the mirror every morning.  People hold doors for me now.  When I stumble I am offered a solicitous “Are you okay?” instead of being offered a hand and immediately being pulled back to my feet.  Younger women respond with alarm more often than pleasure when I volunteer my attention.  Younger and younger grandchildren are able to elude me while playing tag.

All these changes come unbidden.  In fact they are deliberately and unsuccessfully fought against.  Occasionally the inevitable can be delayed a few weeks or months through deliberate training and exercise of body or brain, but the inevitable always comes.  Some aspects are predictable and some a total surprise.  Denizens like cancer surface unexpectedly.  Illness, in its myriad form, challenges life itself instead of just the immune system.

What is the best way to meet these challenges that now arise unbidden?  Being the compulsive and studious man that I am, I used some of my time in Palm Springs to develop the 11 rules for aging:                                           

l. When you cannot win a battle, lose gracefully.  I expect to bow out of roofing and tree trimming now and many more things soon.  Ski racing is gone.  I get thrown from moguls rather than jumping over them.  In softball I am happy to hit a slow dribbler that allows me to jog safely to first base.  Home run aspirations are gone.  No matter how much I visualize the perfect swing followed by a long arc of the ball towards the center field fence, it is not going to get there. Take pleasure in little victories.

2. Shut up about it.  All those aches, pains, and misfortunes are just what no one else wants to hear about.  Also don’t tell me now to handle them.  Do you have a cure for arthritis that saved Aunt Ann who couldn’t climb a staircase?  Wonderful – but I don’t want to hear about it. I have tried that already along with forty other remedies.  I’m a doctor, I know what works.  Complaining doesn’t work.  Neither will unbounded optimism. 

3. Develop some pithy aphorisms and use them relentlessly.  This is so friends and relatives can quote you at your funeral.  “A quarter saved is a quarter earned”, I tell my grandchildren.   They think it is grandpa’s wisdom rather than Ben Franklin’s advice, updated for inflation. 

4. If you believe in Heaven, start acting like the kind of person they might let in.  So many people seem to be bitter about the discomforts and sadness of old age.  In reality it is the time one should be polishing the apple for Jesus, Mohammed, or Confucius.  Give away things.  Care for others.  Help the less fortunate.  Donate without expectation of return.

5. If you don’t believe in Heaven do everything recommended in rule #4 anyway.  No specific reason other than humans need to be humane to one another.  People forgot this in the rush for success and accomplishment.  It is time to remember the values that really made life worth living.

6. Stay clean and groomed most of the time.  Old people don’t always smell so good and while they lose hair that they wanted for protection from the sun, they grow hair in other unlikely and sometimes inconvenient places.  Buy a magnifying mirror and attend to details.  Santa Claus scares off small children.  Try not to look like him except perhaps at Christmas.

7. Employ humor in everything you do.  Try to find the funnier side of life.  There is good science behind this; laughter lessens pain both emotional and physical.  Smoke pot if it moves you in the right direction but just occasionally and not all day.  Tools are okay but addiction is not.  The same goes for rich desserts, alcohol, and chocolate.

8. Dress warmly. The really old are never fat.  That should tell us something about longevity right there.  Skin and bones need insulation.  It is hard to be humorous when you are shivering.  Long underwear is okay; just remember it takes longer to pee when you are wearing it. 

9. Stuff leaks.  The seals of old age are not tight.  Expect it.  Prepare for it.  Deal with it.  We are lucky that they make lots of disposable stuff to help us deal with it.  If carrying these in your grocery cart seems embarrassing, just lie and say they are for your grandparents.  Or you can order them discreetly delivered in an unidentifiable cardboard box from

10.  Use the gadgets God gave us.  Hearing aides, magnifiers, talking clocks and computers, motorized wheelchairs...options abound.  If possible, buy the flashiest model available.   Nothing projects “cool” like pinstripes on your walker.  If a gadget will keep you involved, volunteering, active, or just enable you to visit the toilet unassisted, by all means utilize it. 

11. Lastly, some of us will have a feeling of when it is time to say “goodnight” for the last time.  Don’t let your doctors or family talk you out of it.  Modern medicine can frequently prolong life way beyond where it was worth living.  Have a signed will plus a “Directive to Physicians” and make sure the family knows that you don’t want medical miracles extending the life of your body when you brain has already taken its leave.  Letting mother nature take her course is very reasonable when the end is in sight.  If you know you have a terminal disease or condition, never, never, never let yourself be admitted to a hospital associated with a medical school.

These then are the 11 precepts that I hope to follow as my life moves towards the inevitable conclusion we all face.  Life is a terminal disease.  Still, it is an "E ticket" roller coaster ride that should be enjoyed every moment until it comes to a full stop. 


  1. i LOVE this!!! I'm a spritely 30-something and can't wait to take these to my grandfather:) and of course, hope that i have this much levity and clarity and perspective as i walk - nay, run! - through this incredible life.

    thanks for sharing and hi to your dad. Happy Father's Day!

  2. Awesome.

    Thanks for sharing. The last one was unexpected and makes a hell of a lot of sense.

  3. This is a cool list! Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Nice! You are lucky to have such a Father. Andrew

  5. Wonderful speech......... Lots of experience and wisdom. Thank you for sharing that.

  6. I love your dad and have never met either one of you! Awesome advice and something that everybody can learn from.

  7. Thanks for posting your father's musings. As someone who is on the backside of noon I appreciate the wisdom and thoughtful advice. I aspire to age with dignity, grace, generosity of my time and means, and a sense of humor. Your father is a great example...

  8. Great post and list, as I just hit 60 I take words like these to heart.
    Happy Father's day to you and your dad...

  9. your dad is hilarious! I think I would have gotten sick just to be his patient!

    Great thoughts..:)

  10. This is a fantastic list. I can't tell you how often I hear people complain about their aches and pains, and I just think- "Isn't that what is supposed to happen?" It gets a little old after a while! It would be nice if people could just be a little bit more positive about the whole aging process.

    I work with senior citizens every day, helping them cover the out of pocket gaps brought on by government Medicare at So as you can see, I'm surrounded by seniors quite frequently! I love working with them and having the opportunity to hear about their experiences. One thing that I wish I could do better is give them a little advice when they ask for it.

    I will definitely refer my clients and friends to this blog. Feel free to visit our website any time, we'd appreciate some feedback! You have done an excellent job, keep up the good work and thanks for sharing.

  11. Your dad is AWESOME and funny and thoughtful in his advice. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Awesome. Thanks! Searched for your blog after reading the article in the July issue of Trailrunner magazine. Ed

  13. Being an old marathon runner myself, I enjoyed the solid and common sense advice from your Dad about aging, especially the one about getting into heaven--more of us should do that. I've also written on the subject. Check it out on leavingfeararrivingatpeace. Thanks again. Carroll Young


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