by Peter Kugel

I have a tendency to put things off. It’s called “procrastination” and it’s a problem I’ve had all of my life. Perhaps that’s why I put off thinking about how I would deal with getting old until recently.

Ever since I read War and Peace in high school, I’ve realized that if I lived long enough, I would eventually be old. But I didn’t think that “eventually” would ever become “now.” Then about four years ago, I realized that I was finally old. I hadn’t expected it to happen while I was still so young, but I noticed I was slowing down.

I was teaching computer science at Boston College (BC), and I was having trouble keeping up with changes in my field. My students (who had the pleasant habit of staying young as I grew older) often understood things better than I did which made it seem a bit silly for me to be teaching them. It finally occurred to me that it might be time to retire.

Retiring sounds good until you realize it’s not quite what it’s cracked up to be, especially if you liked working as I did. I worried about getting bored and feeling useless. I recalled a summer my wife and I spent biking in Italy. When we got to the small towns, the central square would usually be filled with old men sitting around and talking. They were so bored with talking to each other that they started talking to us, even though we didn’t speak Italian and they didn’t speak English. There but for the grace of geography, I thought, is my future.

We procrastinators wait for things to get really close before we do anything. When it came time for me to retire, I realized I didn’t know what I would do with my spare time—when all my time would be spare time. I was sure I wasn’t going to sit in Harvard Square waiting for Italian tourists to come by on bicycles.

I don’t play golf or bridge. I don’t fish or do much public service. I still bike, but less than I used to. I go to movies and concerts, read the paper, and do the daily crossword puzzles. I eat and drink. But those things were diversions from my day job. They weren’t things I would be happy doing all day long.

While I was working, I spent most of my time teaching, preparing to teach, grading, talking to students and other faculty members, dealing with “administrivia,” and doing research. Those activities gave my life structure and purpose. I’m the kind of person who needs purpose and structure.

I was lucky, and as I have been so often in my life, I was able to procrastinate. BC couldn’t fire me because I had tenure. But after a while, I knew it was time for me to quit because I felt that I wasn’t doing my job very well.

Although I felt young, I realized that I was getting old. Not elderly yet, but old. So I retired at 75, and now four years later, I’m losing more and more of my capabilities. Neither my body nor my mind works as well as both once did. I used to run, but I had to stop because my knees couldn’t take it. Now I only run when I’m trying to catch a bus.

I keep forgetting people’s names, and where I put my glasses. I can’t stay focused on tasks as well as I once did. I can’t move or think as quickly as I used to. Young people easily pass me on the street even when I am walking as fast as I can. My sense of balance is getting so bad that several months ago, I tripped while I was walking with my wife, and when I grabbed onto her to break my fall, I knocked her over and had to take her to the hospital with a broken hip. I’m so stiff that I have trouble putting my pants on in the morning. I can’t drive at night. I recently got a hearing aid and it looks like I’m going to get my cataracts removed soon.

I don’t know when you start to age, but some of the physical and mental decline starts pretty young. If you’re male, you start losing hair on the top of your head and growing more in your nose and ears. You start wearing glasses. If you’re a runner as I was, you can’t run as fast as some of the people you run with. You can’t understand new ideas as easily as your colleagues do, and you come up with fewer of your own. And when somebody says “hello, Peter” to you in the hallway, all you can say is “hello” because you don’t have the foggiest idea who she is.

I’ve done what I could to postpone the bad effects of aging, and I find myself spending more of my time on maintenance. I stretch most mornings before breakfast, and I exercise on various machines at the gym most weekdays. I try to eat responsibly. I brush my teeth standing on one leg to improve my balance. I floss. I take eye drops for glaucoma. Because I have sleep apnea, I use a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine to improve my sleep. I take vitamin and calcium pills. I take magnesium for my heart. I take nifedipine and hydrochlorothiazide to lower my blood pressure. I take a variety of pills for my Parkinson’s disease. I take flax and I take naps.

The physical decline bothers me, and I will continue to try to slow it down as best I can. Ditto the mental decline. But I can live with both—not that I have much of a choice. What I don’t think I can live with is a life that has no purpose.

I thought about tutoring at local schools, but I had done some volunteer teaching in a school in Boston’s Dorchester, and found it quite discouraging. My students kept falling asleep, partly perhaps because I was boring, but mainly because they had been working at night jobs. When I volunteered to be a docent at the Boston Museum of Science, they didn’t tell me they thought I was too old but they didn’t respond, and I figured it out.

Luckily, I found out about learning in retirement institutes where retired people teach each other or, as they prefer to put it, “study things in groups.” There are quite a few colleges and universities in the Boston area that offer this sort of thing and I ended up choosing Harvard’s, partly because of the name. It sounds good at cocktail parties when people ask me what I do, and after I say: “I’m retired,” I can add: “I’m at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement.” What’s more, the location is convenient. I can get there on my bicycle. And I like the people. Going to classes, meetings, and lunch there helps structure my life, gives it purpose. It lets me learn about things I missed or never understood when I was going to school, and it brings me in contact with people I can listen to and who will listen to me. I’m finding it enjoyable and meaningful.

I find I like not only the learning and chatting, but also the teaching, serving coffee during breaks, and other service kinds of things. In the in the- land-of-the-blind-the-one-eyed-man-is-king tradition: my fading facility with technology makes me an expert and I can help others with their computer problems. I like teaching there and I’m not really bothered by the fact that because the people I teach now are, like me, forgetting where they left their glasses, they are also forgetting what they learn from me.

That’s OK. I’m forgetting what I learn from them, too.

Curiously, my fellow students show little interest in learning about their own aging. Like me, they seem to prefer waiting ’til later. As a result, the few study groups about aging offered at HILR are surprisingly unpopular. I say surprisingly because aging is the one thing HILR members are all doing, and you’d think they might like to find out more about it.

Last term, another member and I gave a course on the science of aging. Aware of the unpopularity of the subject, my colleague suggested that we call it “Keys to Health and Wellbeing.” (That doesn’t sound much like a course about aging, does it?) But thanks to the sugar coating, it attracted enough people to make a go of it. And, like most teachers, I learned more about what I was teaching than my students did. I learned a bit about why we age, how we age, and how people deal with aging. I found it interesting and occasionally useful.

One of the most important things I learned was the importance of attitude. How you think about what’s happening to you can be as important, or even more important than what’s actually happening. As the standard example goes, it makes a difference whether you look at a glass of water as half empty or half full.

Of course, as with most things, you can overdo it. There’s a particularly sappy version of this “attitude matters” approach to life that says, in effect, you’ll be better off thinking of the glass as half full even when it’s empty. This Pollyannaish version is what most people think of when you tell them that attitude matters, and it’s given the whole idea a bad name. It’s famously satirized in Voltaire’s Candide. Applied to my situation it would mean: “Don’t think about what you’re losing. Think about what’s left and keep smiling.” Say, to yourself: “Today is a great day because my big toe doesn’t hurt.” There are people who can pull that off, but personally it makes me puke.

But there is an “attitude matters” approach that I do like. It’s suggested by a well-known experiment that Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin conducted some years ago in a Connecticut nursing home (Langer, E. and Rodin, J. “The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: a field experiment in an institutional setting.” Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 34 (1976): 191-8.). They divided the residents into two groups. Members of one group were given plants and told that the nurses would take care of the plants and do their best to make the patients happy. Members of the other group were asked to choose a plant they preferred, decide where to put it, and to take care of it themselves.

Eighteen months later, the patients in the second group were healthier and happier than those in the first group. And rather surprisingly, significantly more of them were still alive a year and a half later. It’s hard to say why. But I like to think that their personal begonia (or whatever) gave their lives a purpose.

The world is indifferent to whether you can eat with a spoon when you’re an infant, whether you’re valedictorian at 18 or a vice president of your company by the time you’re 40 or how many pushups you can do when you’re 90. The universe may not care, but the infant, the valedictorian, the vice president and the 90-year-old do, and that’s what matters. The challenge is to try to do your best with the cards you’re holding, and when you get to be my age, to remember that even if you’re not holding a royal flush, you’re still in the game.

I find that it’s helpful to look for challenges rather than problems. And it seems to me that I am facing two basic kinds of challenges now: The first is to slow down the rate at which the bad stuff is happening; the second is to accomplish as much that seems worthwhile to me as I can while I can.

I do things to compensate for the effects of my declining abilities. My memory is failing so I make to-do lists. Unfortunately, I seldom remember to look at them. I always try to put my keys in my front right pants pocket so I’ll know where to find them. When I teach, I use PowerPoint, which I dislike, not to help my audience (although it sometimes does that) but to help me remember what I was going to say. And when I can’t find my glasses I ask my wife to help me look for them. (Fortunately, she’s quite patient.)

I’ve discovered that finding and dealing with the challenges I can still handle interests me more than finding new problems to complain about. I still write scientific papers even though it takes me longer and they’re not as good as they used to be. Luckily, I have some ideas left over from the time when my mind was still bubbling with them. I participate in study groups and from time to time, I lead them. I work on committees. I try to start new things at HILR when I think they’re worth starting.

I find crossword puzzles in The New York Times compelling, particularly toward the end of the week when they get harder. I pull weeds in our garden, which is a challenge when you’re creaky. I cook dinner during the week because my wife still works, and I like to cook.

Many of the challenges I like come from jobs that can’t be finished. An acquaintance of mine wrote a letter to The New York Times in which he suggested that people should take on unfinishable tasks when they retire (Kohl, Herb. “The Lifestyles of the Elderly.” The New York Times. 14 May 2008.). He said that he was learning Chinese landscape painting because he could never become perfect at it. Another friend took up the piano again because he knew he would never become perfect. (He was right.)

It’s an attitude that reminds me of the second part of Goethe’s Faust— the part that nobody ever reads. At the beginning, Dr. Faust made a deal with the devil that if he ever says he’s satisfied with where he is at the moment, the devil could take his soul. He finally says he’s satisfied when he’s building dikes to protect a country like Holland where it’s a constant struggle to keep out the sea. And then, as I recall, all sorts of angels start singing and he’s saved. You can see why nobody ever reads it, but I hope you can see Goethe’s point.

Learning is that way. There’s always more to learn and you can always do a better job of understanding the things you think you already understand. I am involved in lots of unfinishable tasks, and I rather like it.

One of the problems with unfinishable tasks is that you can always start them tomorrow. But my odometer keeps moving forward, I realize that the number of tomorrows I have left to finish them is limited. For someone like me, who procrastinates, the approach of a deadline is good news.

Sort of.


Peter Kugel, a member of HILR since 2005, taught computer science at

Boston College for 35 years.