I’m not sure why the beginning of a new year makes one want to look back. But I’m clearly not alone in the overpowering urge to do so. Reading blogs and news sites over the long New Year’s weekend yielded a trove of “lessons learned in 2017” presented by reporters, politicians, scientists and others.
Perhaps putting the year just finished in perspective is an important mental exercise in order to move cleanly into whatever 2018 will bring. I love journalism because it affords me access to people and ideas that I might not normally encounter. My job expects me to seek answers to questions — and I have a lot of them.
Last year, I found answers to questions I didn’t even know enough to ask, which gifted me two totally unexpected lessons I plan to apply to the rest of my life, both learned while reporting on stories that have nothing to do with each other. I learned one from an octogenarian and the other with the help of a teenager.
2017 is the year I realized I had no plans for how to grow old. I have been cruising toward it without giving it much thought, which is probably what most people do. But after spending a fair amount of time with two older women who are aging in very different ways, I am very serious about being part of a more diverse community of friends. Former Utah first lady Norma Matheson has deliberately cultivated and cared for friendships that span ages and interests, and she is consequently more involved and engaged than most people in their 50s and 60s, much less their late 80s, which is her age. She serves on a board. She belongs to book clubs. And she goes places frequently with friends, whose various ages span at least 40 years.
As I looked at how she has applied years of observation and aging research to growing old, I could see her life is very nearly a blueprint for healthy aging. I want in. Both science and heart guide how she’s managed to age well, and I hope to take the lessons and craft a life that’s robust and flexible as I accumulate years.
Reporting the story convinced me the kind of old age one has is less about one’s health than about one’s communities: the ones that help you as you face challenges, as adult children have typically done for elderly parents throughout history, and the community you build as you move toward old age, hopefully with an array of friends of different ages and interests with whom you continue to play.
The other story that changed my thinking involved a teenage girl who is a great example of fighting on when life is painful and progress seems slow. Brielle Frear was hit by a car, nearly died and has endured multiple surgeries and setbacks over a lengthy recovery. She never will be entirely restored; she is deaf in one ear now, for instance. Her bones and muscles ache. Her sense of security is more fragile.
I think the story I wrote about pedestrian safety, which featured her, is among the most important of my entire career, although it certainly didn’t draw the greatest number of readers. It’s a hard sell, I think, trying to convince people that there’s a lot we don’t know or understand about walking safely or sharing the road with pedestrians. Yet the body count from pedestrian-vehicle crashes continues to mount. As the title said, “What you think you know about crossing the street might kill you.” Watching the pain endured by Brielle and others who care about her makes it clear we should do anything possible, as drivers and walkers, to make travel safer, because everyone loses in a crash. Reporting the story and talking to accident investigation experts changed both how I walk and how I drive.
Now I’m looking forward to the lessons of 2018.