…is getting old.
We Americans are youth worshippers. We are repulsed by old age and all of its trappings.
Recently, I realized with a start, that, incredulous as it seems, I am approaching my 80th birthday! I had expected to grow old mindfully, gracefully, not to be “struck old.” In her nineties, my mother used to say she “felt 18 inside.” It seemed ridiculous, even
embarrassing then, but to my chagrin, now it’s my turn to feel younger than my years. Friends say I have “aged well” (putting me in mind of a Camembert round) but the benchmarks are there. People rush ahead to open doors for me, offer to walk me across the street, pick up things I drop and, (worst of all) call me “cute.” There’s no escaping it. I look…. I am….well..old.
Which is not all bad. I am grateful to my ancestors for the sturdy genes that allowed me to reach this stage in life, still healthy and somewhat sound of mind. I am blessed in so many ways. I have wonderful friends and neighbors. My husband and I enjoy a very comfortable life in a beautiful community. My family actually likes me.
But getting old is not easy. Aging is a process of letting go, of loss. We outlive friends and family, we lose mobility, it takes concentration to perform tasks that were automatic a few short years ago. Our health, once taken for granted, becomes unpredictable. We spend more time in clinics and more money on medications. We have less energy; we need more rest. It takes regular exercise just to maintain the status quo. We avoid ladders and stairs, give up night driving. We struggle to maintain our independence.
But even with all its obstacles, aging has really never been easier. Our livestyles would have been inconceivable to our grandparents, even our parents. There is a rapidly growing industry devoted to social activities and services for seniors. There are cruises, exercise programs, trips to exotic locations, clubs, sports, educational courses and programs, retirement communities. Treatment for conditions that incapacitated our grandparents are now almost routine; cataracts, joint replacements, heart surgery. Cancer is no longer a death sentence. There is a steady stream of new information on aging in books, and TV.
We should take full advantage of all of these resources. We need to keep active, to take care of our mental and physical health, engage with our communities. But we must also feed our souls. We need to be mindful of who we are and the person we are becoming.
I think the Irish poet Dylan Thomas says it best:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Although at first glance this may sound like a call to arms for a frenzied assault on mortality, I think that is an oversimplification. I believe the poet was challenging us to face our mortality and to live out our best lives courageously and with grace. The journey to the end of life doesn’t have to be; shouldn’t be, a morbid and dreary slog of loneliness loss and pain.
But it’s not easy. The people I know who have aged well have confronted their mortality head on and early on. They planned for it just as one plans for any stage of life, education, career, marriage and children. They expected medical expenses to increase at a time they would be living on fixed incomes. * They were not surprised when sudden life-changing events required a transition to new, more restricted lifestyles. They were aware of the need strong inner resources and for each other. They learned the art of interdependence. Preparing for old age is hard work.
Fortunately there are models for aging well. One in particular stands out for me. She seems to navigate this challenging passage effortlessly. In her 90s, she is alone, but not lonely, busy but not burdened, engaged but not entangled. She takes her appearance as seriously as she did in her 40s. OK, she’s a little vain, but she is still beautiful. You are unlikely to find her on the sofa watching TV; more likely she will be entertaining her great grandchildren, gardening, or volunteering in the local sewing guild. She drives herself to church, does her own shopping and is not much interested in discussing her ailments. Unfailingly cheerful and slow to criticize, she is the first to reach out, expecting, and more often than not, receiving, nothing in return. Although she has outlived two husbands and most of her friends, she is surrounded by people who love her. Her faith is strong and she doesn’t believe in entitlements.
It’s a high bar, but I’m going to give it a shot. After all, old age is simply a season of life for those who live long enough. I am fortunate to be among them.
*According to a 2016 GOBanking Rates survey, 35 percent of all adults in the U.S. had only a few hundred dollars in their savings accounts and 34 percent had zero savings.