Aging in a subject that is trending. And why not. All the boomers are crossing the line between middle-age and becoming seniors. Some seniors, in fact, are crossing the line into joining the elderly. So what is it? One thing for sure, most of our stereotype views of the aging are going to change. Newcomers to the ranks don’t want to be thought as “old.” They don’t want to apply the same stereotypes to themselves that they have used with a degree of comfort over the years. Something’s gotta give and my guess is that it will be the stagnated attitudes that dismiss the elderly as crones and geezers.
The trouble all along has been that we have not had a legion of octogenarians and older souls reporting back on their experience. If we got anything at all it was the same old stories at diner that had everyone else at the table rolling their eyes. That’s not to discount the many who have tried to cast light on the later decades. Most of the time, however, family grandanythngs were not talking about life as they were finding it but as it once was for them. Little was said to make getting older seem adventurous and inviting.
I turned 81 in March, 2020. I never thought I’d live this long, Now I understand a little more about the advanced years. I am in the deep end of the pool and things here are different. In some respects so different I don’t expect my younger friends to understand. Perhaps that’s why oldsters give up on trying to make themselves clear.
Mileposts along the way . . .
Most of life is measured in mileposts. Graduating from school. Getting married. Starting a career. All of the conventional stuff that we set our sites on and celebrate. Once a person retires, however, the landscape flattens out. No more mountains to climb. A few hills perhaps, but any life achievements to rack up in the later years are strictly self-imposed. Our culture stops expecting much from you. The only big event on the horizon nature has in store is death. Dying takes courage, of course, but few of us get a plaque on the wall for it. Unless you had a hand in composing it, you don’t get to read the inscription on your own tombstone.
Our course through life is usually determined by some distant objective. Once you pass age 70, the more distant the better. And therein lies a part of the problem. Your self-esteem and self-worth most of your life has been tied to your position in the family and your community and your achievements. Now you see yourself being gently set aside. You no longer have a job. You see yourself sliding slowly into one who needs to be cared for rather than being the care-giver. You aren’t asked to run errands any more. Family members would rather somebody younger take the wheel if you are going anywhere. Your opinion counts less, and even when it is sought, you can’t help thinking it’s just a courtesy.
One solution, of course, is to set your own goals. Write a book. Go back to school. Start a challenging hobby. Volunteer. Get the hell out of the house. Engage with others. Nurture your sense of humor so you stay viable with younger people. Stay current on the cultural and political dimensions of life. Resources are everywhere. The internet. Wireless streaming of television shows. Keep your skills up to date.
Nature disables us slowly. I try to walk around the town for at least 45 minutes every day. I can count on being overtaken by younger people whose stride is more agile and energetic than my careful pace. I want to shout, “Good for you,” as they pass. “I once ran these hills and looked for the steepest grades just for a challenge.” I don’t, of course, but the thought always jumps to mind. I like to boast that I played full-court basketball until age 58. Then I realize that was 23 years ago, one year longer than the span from my birth through to graduating from college. Trying to stay in shape during those years undeniably contributed to the health I enjoy today.
Happens to everyone . . .
I love theater. I got involved with an amateur theater company. I took a small part, worked very hard a memorizing the few lines, but when it came the performance, I lost it. I went up, the expression actors use for forgetting their lines. My mind went blank. I stared at the other actor on stage with me. Panic set in. I finally sputtered something and got out of the scene. Everyone was kind enough about it. “It happens to everyone,” I was told. What I wanted to say was, “You should have seen me 30 years ago when I had leading roles.” I didn’t, of course, I just realized it was something else that nature swiped when I wasn’t looking.
When I was younger, weekends were devoted to taking care of things around our home. I built a laundry room, I mean all of it. Studding, dry wall, wiring, dors, flooring. Brought the washer and dryer up from the basement all by myself. I worked out five days a week at the YMCA and felt completely capable of just about anything that required strength. Lately, however, mowing the lawn is a chore for the day even with a self-powered mower. Three or four stabs into the soil with my shovel in the garden, and I need to rest for a few minutes before continuing.
All of this is by way of saying that one thing the aging person must learn how to do well is grieve the passing of the vigor of youth. Do it privately. Or with people your age who can trade stories with you and share with authenticity in your feelings. Don’t dwell on it. The difference between grieving and depression is important. Grieving, letting it go with all the painful wrenching that requires so much, is what prevents depression. Depression is hanging on to the hurt. Don’t do that.
Grieving prevents depression . . .
I was walking one afternoon on the track at the local high school. In an adjacent field, the boys’ football team was assembling for practice. One young guy ran out for a pass from a team mate. He got under the ball, tucked it away, and continued to run as if he saw himself in an actual game. Swift. Graceful. Full of himself. I smiled and then realized I had tears in my eyes. I was grieving. That had been me once, in Fantle Park by the swimming pool in my home town. It was okay to witness the passing of that time of my life, to celebrate it, acknowledge the loss, and admire those who are coming along behind on the same path toward the natural end of life. Grieving helped me be happy I had had that experience in my life. Depression would have me missing it and quietly angry about the loss.
Holidays come and go. You will find that they may not be as spirited as they once were. Nostalgia no longer seems worth the energy to indulge it. When you were younger, a certain bitter sweetness went along with looking back on earlier times. Time passes mysteriously. After a while, the analgesic ruminations lose their hold on you. And that’s a good thing. Yearning for times past is a threshold for depression. In fact, your capacity for nostalgia may decrease in direct proportion with the number of years you have lived. Older people don’t need to go there anymore. That might disappoint younger family members. Too bad. With all the decades to look back upon, the magazine for storing memories gets a bit compressed. A level of detachment settles in. Everything is still there, but the older person tends to recall the events without the context and all the details of the entire situation giving rise to them.
For twenty-five years, my wife and I owned a cabin on a peaceful mountainside near the Blue Ridge in North Carolina. It was a wonderful retreat. Quiet. Well away from the noises of the town and highway. I called it our tree house. I recall the time there with a smile. I bring images of sitting on the deck looking out over the trees to mind as an inducement when I meditate. But I don’t miss it. I celebrate the years because I have let them go. So, don’t be alarmed if a sense of detachment from the earlier chapters in your life set in. Above all, don’t think by dwelling on them you will recreate the sense you had at the time or think you will find happiness in doing so. It doesn’t work that way. You need to set aside even the pleasant burdens if you want to be in shape to continue the journey.
When I tapped into this subject initially, I had no idea that it could be as expansive as it is. Given then, I am going to call this post “Chapter One” and plan a follow-up to it in the near future. Stay tuned and thanks for looking in.