Ashland chiropractor John Kalb read many of the books on attaining an active, healthy old age before he decided to put his slant on the subject — "Winning at Aging: Your Game Plan for a Healthy Living."
Yes, it's got chapters on healthful diet, exercise and mental activity — the boilerplate of any such tome — but it proclaims that the real secret for good aging is not life extension or a big portfolio, but a better quality of life, one that comes from inside you and lets you experience and enjoy old age.
"It's a middle path," says Kalb. "You maximize health, of course, but you don't live in denial of aging. You nurture that which improves with age — and what is it? Character and wisdom. I call it creative aging or conscious aging."
Aging Americans often live with "the shadow," which is our mania for affirming youth, beauty and activity. It drives a lot of seniors to get face lifts, put on "gobs of makeup," color their hair and try to look a decade or two younger, all the while denying the reality of aging and not asking how it adds positively to our lives.
"If I identify too strongly with being a young, vital, sexy person, and then aging starts changing my life, I'm going to hit a point of crisis and become an angry, bitter, frustrated person," says Kalb.
From a million magazine articles, books and talk shows, older folks already know how to set up a good eating and workout regimen, though most Americans of every age, notes Kalb, still "gain weight, eat junk food and sit all day at a screen."
Kalb, 62, goes back to square one, using famed psychologist Abraham Maslow's pyramid-shaped "Hierarchy of Needs." Established in 1943, Maslow's hierarchy said we all need — at the bottom level — food, water, air and sex. The middle level contained family, friendship, work and self-esteem. And at the top of the pyramid, if those needs at the base have been met, resides morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving and self-actualization.
"I turn that upside down, starting out by asking: 'Why bother?' 'Why am I here?' 'What's really important?' Then if I find that, I travel down the pyramid in style. What I recommend is to clarify your core values."
Kalb lists 60 values most people have, and he asks patients or students to prioritize them. His top values are freedom, truth and service. For quality aging, he asks himself how he can live those values, so as to "live on purpose."
The unexpected results, he says, are that people who report living "meaningful lives" also test lower for cholesterol, the stress hormone cortisol, and they have lower systemic inflammation, which he calls "the silent killer."
Kalb suggests we "rustproof" our body with antioxidants, "fireproof" it from inflammation, "poisonproof" it from toxic foods and "sugarproof" it from diabetes-causing glycogens — all of which points to a diet low in simple carbohydrates, gluten, dairy, red meat, oil, fruit drinks and manufactured foods.
A good diet for aging, he writes, has rice milk, nut milk, lean meats such as chicken and fish, starches such as rice, millet and buckwheat, breads with quinoa and amaranth, oils such as olive, flax and walnut — and lots of plain, old-fashioned water.
Walking about his well-landscaped yard — all done by himself — Kalb uses it as a lesson, noting that decades ago, he could work on a flagstone walk all day, but now he limits it to a couple of hours.
"Lower the bar. Recalibrate unreasonable expectations about appearance and performance, and accept normal losses," he says.
Many seniors think a high-performance portfolio will remove all the fears, stresses and dangers of aging, which Kalb calls "the money trap."
"We need enough money to live well, but having it is no guarantee of living well. Money gets us above survival mode, but people with a billion are no happier than people with a million. If it gets obsessive, that's a downside to aging and can become like a drug. I call it 'affluenza.' "
In creating a game plan for healthy aging, Kalb notes, keep in mind that "part of us wants to do the right thing, but part of us has inner wounds, secrets and blocks and wants to do self-sabotage. It says, 'I'm not good enough, not worthy and didn't get enough unconditional love.' "
To overcome these dark parts in aging, says Kalb, it's important to sustain health, keep exercising, build friendships and engage in service outside your own world, helping to make a better community and planet.
"It's been proven that we get physiological benefits from having meaning and purpose beyond our own selves."
Ironically, as we move closer to the end of life, the doors open for us to be happier, says Kalb, but to get there, it's necessary to move beyond the glamor of youth and confront the reality of death.
The least happy decade in life is not the 70s or 80s, he says, but the 40s, as we peak out and begin colliding with the spectre of losses — in our beauty, power, importance.
"Confronting death is one of the key values of aging. Death becomes an ally for a better life. If I'm in denial of death, I'm wasting time and trying to fill the void. If I'm at peace with death, I'm free to make each moment the best I can."