Growing Old Gracefully, Says Psychologist B.F. Skinner, Means Tailoring Your Life to Fit Your Infirmities

UPDATED 11/28/1983 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/28/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

Every day in every way, Americans are getting older and older. More than 26 million are beyond the age of 65, and by the year 2000 the number is expected to be 35 million. According to the most recent government statistics, a newborn American can expect to live 74.5 years. At 79, behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner is one step ahead of the actuaries and still vigorous. He has produced eight of his 18 books in the past 10 years. His latest volume (with psychologist Margaret Vaughan), Enjoy Old Age: A Program of Self-Management (Norton, $11.95), is an optimistic guide to coping with aging. "It's easier to be young than old," he says, "but I've never feared old age. It has always been a problem to be solved." To that end, Skinner's office-bedroom in the basement of his Cambridge, Mass. home is rigged with a timer to turn off his stereo, a buzzer to alert him to phone calls, and other gadgets to compensate for his failing hearing and eyesight. His daily routine begins when he awakens at 4:40 a.m. to work in his study. At 8:15 he walks nearly two miles to his Harvard University office. He works until noon, then catches a bus home for lunch with his wife, Eve, 72. He spends his afternoons reading, watching television and listening to classical music. "I've been telling myself I have five good years left to get some things done," he says, "and I shall go on saying it until it is no longer true." He discussed his philosophy of aging with Gail Jennes.

How does old age feel?

Someone once said that if you want to know what it feels like, smear dirt on your glasses, stuff cotton in your ears, put on heavy shoes that are too big and wear gloves, then try to spend the day in a normal way. People my age all find it harder to do many of the things we like to do. Even so, we can design a world in which we can behave reasonably well in spite of our deficiencies.

What do you suggest?

If you cannot read, listen to book recordings. If your vision is poor, mark objects with brightly colored labels and carry a pocket flashlight to read menus in dark restaurants. If you don't hear well, turn up the volume of your TV, phonograph or radio—and use headphones to protect your neighbors. You can rig up a light that flashes when the telephone or doorbell rings. If you taste less well, flavor your food. Don't try to change yourself to get rid of bad feelings. Change your world so you'll have better feelings.

Has aging ever depressed you?

No. Depression comes from discouragement at not having anything to do that you do well. The solution is to find something to be successful at.

How do you feel about retirement?

An abrupt stop is a great mistake. I think it's wise to keep your hand on the plough. If you have quit your job, find something like it to do part-time or find substitute activities, such as volunteer work or getting involved in politics. Or join a group that deals with problems of aging or some other cause that interests you. Keep busy; stay involved.

How do you combat forgetfulness?

Write down or record everything. I rigged a tape recorder on the wall behind my bed for ideas I might get in the middle of the night. Keep track of your things. If you hear that it's going to rain, it makes sense to put your umbrella on the door immediately, so you will remember to take it when you go out. Distractions can be disturbing to clear thinking. Earplugs can help drown out noise. To help recall someone's name, mentally review everything you know about that person and then go through the alphabet. If all else fails, recall the amusing story about forgetting your own name when you were asked for it by a clerk. If you are skillful at that sort of thing, forgetting may even be a pleasure.

How does one cope with physical limitations imposed by age?

Do everything you can to make the rest of your life interesting. I've improved my audio equipment so that it's a pleasure now to listen to music. I've deliberately explored new areas of reading, such as historical biographies. I no longer drive, but it has taken me a long time to learn to stop looking straight ahead at the road and to look out the window. Now I'm seeing how the seasons change. When the things you used to do no longer pay off, it is time to start doing something else.

Isn't that easier said than done?

It certainly is. I've had a hard time learning to do it, but it's worth it.

Why is keeping to a schedule so important in old age?

A fairly strict daily routine of meals, exercise, chores and reading gives you a sense of purpose and structure. I am very careful as to how much time I work, and I schedule relaxing activities so I won't try to get in an extra hour of hard thinking, which is too tiring. I read detective novels, and I watch Archie Bunker reruns, the Boston Red Sox, pro football and tennis whenever I can. It is also important to get plenty of rest.

Have you other nonintellectual interests?

My wife and I used to be hooked on The Edge of Night. It was well acted, good fun, and we discussed it with other fans we knew. Soap operas may not be up to the works of Dickens or Thackeray, but their novels came out one episode at a time too. If you tried to do something very serious in every waking hour, you wouldn't last a year.

How do you weather your embarrassing moments?

I've always found life amusing. Once at a buffet dinner I was put in a dark corner with some students. There was an object on the plate, and I cut into it with a knife and fork. It had a crispy crust, but my host's wife was Chinese and I thought it must be a marvelous example of Chinese cooking. So I ate it and found that I had eaten a hard-boiled egg, shell and all. What can you do except make a joke of that?

Are old people boring?

Old people are often boring. They can talk too much about the old days. I think it's a good idea not to talk about personal experiences of more than a decade ago unless you're asked to. Spend part of your time with younger people. Also, old people are more likely to forget they have already told someone their favorite story. In our book, Dr. Vaughan and I suggest asking if you've told it and make it clear you really want to know. Frequently old people are boring when they talk about their illnesses, but the longer you live, the more illnesses you have to talk about. The heroism shown by those who don't complain of pain may be worth emulating. You may find you are not only more highly honored, but more welcomed as good company.

How can old people avoid staleness?

You can deliberately try to change the way you do things. Change your surroundings with new wallpaper or inexpensive art reproductions. Learn something new in an adult education course or by watching educational TV
programs. Revive an old hobby. See different people by going to different places. You may find you become an enthusiastic explorer.

Is it wise to lie about your age?

You must accept the fact that you're old. Then enjoy it. Efforts to look much younger seldom succeed. You will maintain your dignity when you look, act and tell your age. If you turn to a wig or hairpiece, choose one that looks like the hair of a person your age. Teeth make a difference, and orthodontia is not just for adolescents. Arthritis may force you to stoop, but stooping is often a matter of weak muscles. Straighten your shoulders. Maintaining a good figure may prove to be largely a matter of good posture.

When did you face the fact that you were old?

I don't recall when I first called myself old, but I noticed that first hurt one day when passing an attractive woman. At one time there would have been a second look from her. When there was no second look, I realized that I was changing.

Do you fear serious illness or senility?

I don't go into an emotional tizzy, but I would not want to have a crippling disease and be dependent for years on those I love. I have asked my wife and daughters to go as far as they could legally to terminate my life if necessary. And if I am able, I intend to take my own life if I am no longer capable of enjoying it. I'd like to be spared an undignified old age.

What advice do you have for those who are afraid of dying?

What arouses fear is not death itself, but the act of talking and thinking about it, and that can be stopped. We brood about death most when we have nothing else to do. The more reason we have to pay attention to life, the less time we have for attention to death. A properly executed will can give you the satisfaction of knowing your possessions will go to the right people, and you can extend the life of part of yourself by donating any organs that might still be useful. When those things have been done, it is probably better not to think about death.

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