Zen and the Art of Table Tennis: Navigating my Late-life Crisis

As the baby of the family and perennially one of the youngest kids in my class, I never envisioned looking older. I’m a person who got carded well into my forties. So, the first time a fresh-faced checker asked me if I’d like the senior discount, I was shocked, indignant and a little horrified. Really? Was she blind? I looked to my elder sisters for a dose of common sense. They reassured me. Don’t take it personally. We all look alike to kids in their twenties. I took in their wisdom, but as an added precaution, avoided shopping on Tuesdays for the next year or so.

My sixtieth birthday arrived without fanfare. On that bright morning in early December, I strolled along the Mendocino shore with my dearest companions. Pausing to gaze out at the cloudless sky, the sparkling water, I released a long sigh, chuckling inwardly at my foolishness and vanity. What was I thinking? This arbitrary number held no diabolical power. I counted my blessings, savored every bite of cake, and convinced myself that I was, unequivocally, still me.

A couple weeks later, in the throes of last-minute holiday preparations, it all changed. On my feet one minute — the next minute, gripped by leaden exhaustion, I collapsed into bed. I passed a miserable week in a fog of self-pity, as my fever spiked and my cough deepened, each ragged spasm, a barbed blade to my lungs. While others celebrated the holidays, I cursed my miserable, aching bones. And no, I hadn’t neglected my annual flu shot.

Even after I returned to the land of the living, the cough lingered accompanied by oppressive fatigue. Routine tasks, such as walking around the block or making the bed, left me weak as a newborn kitten. I’m happy to report that I regained my stamina, but this rebound took much longer than expected. Disconcertingly, everything seems to take longer these days. I had to admit I was no longer the baby, nor the youngest, but frequently the eldest person in the room. The full weight of sixty years had descended, hitting me like a slug to the gut. My “still me” theory crumbled, little cracks in the foundation allowing fear and doubt to seep in. Was this it? Had I fallen into the inevitable, irreversible downhill slide?

Unable to shake my funk, I consulted the Internet, finding a broad spectrum of advice, including a label for my melancholia: Late-life Crisis. We’ve all heard of late-life’s better-known cousin, midlife crisis. A comparison of the two crises can by summarized by one salient distinction. In midlife, we may cling to fading youth. In late-life, we must grapple with mortality.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Marc Agronin, WSJ health expert and author of How We Age, observes: “I am seeing increasingly in my geriatric psychiatry practice individuals…wrestling with existential questions that eluded their psyches during middle-aged years of active love, work and play.”

Late-lifers are tasked with confronting illness, bereavement, career loss and the decline of physical and mental abilities. To my dismay I discovered a rather grim mixed-bag in the body of late-life research, including numerous websites, such as deathclock.com claiming to foretell the exact date of one’s death, down to the minute. Morbidly curious, I sampled a few, with various results. Predictions for my continued existence spanned from 19–28 years. With this sobering evidence before me, the catch-phrase “better get cracking” took on a whole new sense of urgency. I continued to probe for answers, my head swimming with questions.

Who fares better in later life?

Why do some thrive while others rapidly decline?

Is there a formula for a living one’s best life?

I cannot pretend to know all the answers (or any answers, for that matter), but poring over respected research, here is what I’ve gleaned thus far. Death is inevitable, but how we live involves choice. Elders who thrive possess many (or all) of the following traits: physical and intellectual fitness, optimism, autonomy, creativity, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose.

Taking stock of my own life, I acknowledged room for improvement. I eat way too much chocolate and probably consume too much red wine. I love gluten and I don’t get enough cardio or strength training. Ultimately, I’m still seeking my higher purpose. However, I realized that one of my favorite activities — table tennis — ticked many boxes.

Health Fitness Revolution, founded by renowned fitness expert, Samir Becic, cites The Top Ten Health Benefits of Ping Pong:

· Playing improves hand-eye coordination and it stimulates mental alertness, concentration and tactical strategy. This makes it the perfect game for young people to sharpen reflexes, and for older people to refine tactics.

· Develops mental acuity. The speed, spin and placement of the ball are crucial in table tennis, and practiced players are highly skilled in both creating and solving puzzles involving these three attributes.

· Improves reflexes. Due to the fast-paced, short-distance nature of the sport, both gross and fine muscle movements are improved. The game is distinguished by bursts of exertion and recovery, leading to fast-twitch muscle development.

· It’s easy on the joints. Have you had knee surgery, back problems, tired of twisting your ankles? Try table tennis. It’s a great way to improve your leg, arm and core strength without overtaxing your joints.

· Burns calories. A 150-pound person can burn 272 calories by playing table tennis for an hour. Considering the fact that the sport is entertaining and addictive, it can be a fun and easy way to burn calories.

· Offers a social outlet. Whether you play in the community center or at home with friends, table tennis offers a great way to bond with other people while you lose weight. Because young and old people can play the game, it can help improve communication and build relationships, irrespective of age. Playing at home with siblings or parents can bring family members closer and enable them to spend more quality time with each other.

· Keeps your brain sharp. Alzheimer’s Weekly reports a clear increase in motor skills and cognitive awareness from playing table tennis, after a series of preliminary clinical studies in Japan found that table tennis markedly increases the flow of blood to the brain, and could possibly even prevent dementia.

· Improves coordination. Following the ping pong ball as it moves quickly toward you, and following its trajectory as your opponent hits it helps improve hand-eye coordination.

· Improves balance. Staying balanced and being able to quickly change direction are key to being successful in a ping pong rally. This is especially important for the elderly.

· Stimulates various different parts of the brain. By anticipating an opponent’s shot, a player uses the prefrontal cortex for strategic planning. The aerobic exercise from the physical activity of the game stimulates the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for allowing us to form and retain long-term facts and events.

The physical, mental and social benefits of table tennis have been well-documented. However, for me, a lively game possesses a quality that is more compelling, enigmatic and harder to define. I often play at my local senior recreation center, (though I prefer Elder Center), meeting up with a group of regulars who share my passion for the game. At a sensory level, I am transported back to childhood, tapping into the joy of play unencumbered by the cynical adult in my head. When I glance around at my pals, ranging in age from late fifties to mid-eighties, I see the essence of the children within. We are back on the playground — riffing, joking, competing — having the time of our lives.

Here is where the “Zen” comes in. In ping pong, I achieve moments of flow. At its essence, flow is a state of calm alertness, complete absorption in a complex and challenging activity that stretches one’s skills. Focused on the task at hand, one may be unaware of the outside world, losing track of time.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, distinguished professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, also known as the architect of flow, has contributed the most extensive, definitive and highly-regarded research on the topic. In short, Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as an optimal state of intrinsic motivation or being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. This resonated with me as I could not imagine any other pastime that would compel me to drive across town as often as possible, just for the fun of it. I highly recommend his Ted Talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow).

Add joie de vivre to late life; make a conscious decision to cultivate flow. Begin by taking stock: Think about activities that bring you joy, perhaps you lose track of time, experiencing a pleasant meld of challenge and ease. Reevaluate your priorities, the shoulds and musts. Free up more time and space to pursue flow. Table tennis is my joy, but moving forward, I hope to discover other ventures leading to flow. It might be making music, singing, dancing, hiking, swimming, painting or sculpting…the possibilities are limitless. No one (including deathclock.com) can predict the quantity of our remaining days. Fortunately, we have choices in navigating the quality of our third act.