Look for the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Paul Potaka, principal at Nelson Central School, deals with the challenges of ageing much the same way he deals with challenges at his school.

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By Mike Milstein

Paul Potaka, principal at Nelson Central School, deals with the challenges of ageing much the same way he deals with challenges at his school. "You learn that it is temporary. Get through it. Look for the light at the end of the tunnel."

Paul is conscious about his ageing. "I recently lost a dear friend and celebrated the birth of a grandchild. I also attended a conference last July. The presenter held up a piece of tape and cut half of it off, saying "for many of you, this half may be what is left of your life." He continued to cut off pieces of tape, asking "what are you going to do about it?" These kinds of things make me think about my own mortality. Sometimes it's just things that happen to me every day. There are constant reminders out there."

Paul stays active so he can live a full and positive life. "Every day I'm reminded that I'm not 25 anymore. I also think a lot about my own family background. Many from my parents' generation weren't particularly healthy in their 40s and 50s. They were old at 50, ancient at 60, and if they reached 70, wow!"

Paul doesn't want that happen to him. "I work on staying fit. If I don't, it doesn't auger well for the future. He has been fortunate enough to have older friends who take care of themselves. I've gotten glimpses of their actions. I look at where I am now and how I might want to prepare for the future. They are good role models for me."

He is candid about being fearful about the future occasionally. "That's part of life and living. But it's easier when you have a framework within which to think. Whatever situation you are faced with, someone has probably faced it before and overcome it. So, why can't I? I look at things as little problems that I may trip over but, if I do, I'll think about how to handle it differently the next time."

The ultimate challenge is, of course, death. "As a child, death was around me all the time. It wasn't hidden. It reminded me of my own vulnerability. Aunties and uncles died. I was taught to remember my own mortality. Death is one thing you can't do anything about."

Paul has a positive attitude about ageing. He focuses on healthy role models, whether they be positive people that he knows, biographies of positive people, or seminars that promote well being. He also refuses to dwell on negativity. "If you see a negative situation, stay away from it if you can. If you are in a negative situation, get out of it. Living positively is the only way to go!"

Paul, a newly-minted Ph.D, still has years to go in his leadership career, but he does think about retirement. He watches the experiences of some of his older friends: "Some have retired but others haven't. I used to think about retiring at a specific age. Now I know I could fit either model. So, I'll work as long as I'm enjoying what I'm doing. That's the intermediate years."

"Beyond that? I still have time to think about it. If I'm not working, I'll have to be doing something else. I haven't worked it all out." Part of him wants to go home to the community he grew up in and make a contribution. Another part wants to "find a beach in Australia. I don't have to decide now. I just need to think about the possibilities. I also want to keep my partner's thoughts in mind. We talk about what is important to us, what we value. We try to live by the principles we agree on."

Note: This article was published in The Leader, Nelson, NZ. It summarizes an interview aired on Nelson’s Fresh FM that was conducted by Annie Henry for the Conscious Ageing Network (CAN), which is sponsored by Age Concern, Nelson. If you want to share your thoughts with CAN or wish to know when interviews will be aired, send an email to agewell@xtra.co.nz.