My beloved great-uncle Jack was 90 years old when he died. Although he enjoyed good health for most of his long life, his physical condition and his memory failed in his last few years. The man who valued his independence had to accept help for even the simplest of tasks. Uncle Jack, a lifelong bachelor who mostly lived alone, ended his days eating meals and watching television with the other residents of the Memory Care facility in which he lived. He was a teacher who used to remember practically every student he had in his 30 year career but eventually he couldn’t recall who was on his Christmas list. Uncle Jack was a man who constantly kept busy but, in his last years, he mostly sat in his chair. Watching him was like a torment because it was as if life stripped away all that made him who he was, one piece at a time. All of this is incredibly scary because I have to wonder if this is what is in store for me.
Aging is a serious subject. The prevention and treatment of it is big business. Here in the United States, we spend millions of dollars annually to erase wrinkles and age spots, lift sagging body parts, rejuvenate skin, and replace worn out body parts. Lots of time, money and effort goes into using anti-aging products, drugs and diets, all in an effort to look and feel as young as possible for as long as possible. One of the greatest compliments you can give even a somewhat older person is, “You don’t look your age!” And, as I mentioned elsewhere, I believe it is this desire to stay young forever that is driving the current obsession with vampires. We are afraid to age.
As with most other topics we fear, aging is not something we discuss a lot. Young people cannot imagine it and older people would rather not think about it. While I certainly understand this avoidance, I think it has led us to an unhealthy place. We do not value what we fear and we cannot appreciate role models if we do not look for them. Moreover, we’ve lumped everyone into two categories – young and old – without even acknowledging that there is a middle ground. There are the youth (people in their early 20s and younger) and there are the senior citizens (like my Uncle Jack). But where does that leave the people my age (if you must know: 45)?
Aging is a process, not a destination, but you’d never know that from how we treat it. Younger people have places in which they gather to meet (aka schools and clubs) while senior citizens – those who have “arrived” at elderly – get their own centers. Middle aged folks are left with places that aren’t really age-exclusive, places like bars, restaurants and health clubs. Both students and senior citizens get discounts because they are special groups; people my age do not. We venerate the young, shunt the seniors off on their own and have no idea what to do with those of us who are neither one nor the other.
The aging process is so disjointed that we find ourselves in a place where AARP (originally standing for American Association of Retired Persons), arguably THE group for older Americans, doesn’t quite know how to market itself. Their target population is people who are 50 and older but they don’t really want to remind them of their age either. So, they changed their acronym into their official name and rebranded Modern Maturity as AARP The Magazine. Few of the cover models for the magazine – all well known celebrities – have grey hair or even look like they’re old enough to qualify for membership. While that may be the point (“This is not your grandparent’s AARP!”), what it says to me is that we have no idea how aging looks and we sure don’t know how it feels.
So we have whole generations who step into the future with great trepidation because we do not know what is in store for us. Sure, we can tell you about the negative physical process of aging – the diseases and physical breakdowns – and what we need to prevent aging but we cannot tell you how to grieve for and accept our gradual limitations or even what there is to celebrate about getting older. Instead, we turn to age-related humor (the tired “over the hill” yukfests), willful denial, and “whistling in the dark” (the use of distraction to cover up fear) because we don’t know what else to do.
What should we do? I have some suggestions for how to deal positively with the aging process but they probably will not be eagerly welcomed because they involve directly confronting both the ingrained messages about aging and the fear of what it will bring. Our culture encourages us to halt the aging process and put it off as long as we can. We shouldn’t. Instead of giving into that fear, why not celebrate us as we are today? While I agree that we should try to be healthy, why not stop buying all the anti-aging products and surgeries and just accept with joy the wrinkles, age spots, and other evidence of age?
Make no mistake, it will be difficult but if we can change our perspective, it will be worth it. When I look at pictures of my 20 year old self, I am tempted to grieve the loss of the fresh-faced appearance I no longer have. However, when I do, I remind myself that the “glow of youth” look was erased by the creation of new relationships and the maintenance of old ones, grief from the death of loved ones, years of training and experience in my chosen profession, the pain of physical injuries, the joys and hardships of having a child, and the myriad pleasures of music, books, entertainment and intimacy. In other words, I no longer look young because I’ve had a life. I cannot be unhappy about that.
Similarly, I think that we should start talking about age with people who are the same age and older than we are. Psychological research shows that people do better when we know what to expect. Consequently, we need to find out what older people’s experiences are and how they dealt with them. It used to be that extended families lived close by so that the aging of elders was something we all saw, heard and felt. With too many of today’s families being geographically distant, this shared process may be lost. Thus, we need to put more of an effort into talking with both our peers and those who are older than ourselves. Perhaps they can confirm what Betty Friedan said about getting older: “Aging is not ‘lost youth’ but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”
Uncle Jack and I used to talk about aging quite a bit. On his bad days, he seemed confused about why he was where he was and how he got there. On good days, he provided some gentle humor. When asked if something was a part of being old, he said genially, “I’ll let you know.” Then there were the days when he was wistful. When I joked about wanting my youth back, he whispered, “I wish I were middle-aged.” That brought me up short, reminding me that regardless of my future, I must appreciate today.
It also reminded me of Robin, a friend of mine who was 20 years old when she died in a car accident. She’s been dead for 25 years. The bloom will never be off the rose for Robin; she will be forever young because she never got the chance to develop new hobbies, finish her college education, experience a long-term committed partnership, have children or find a vocation she loved. So whenever I think of Robin and of Uncle Jack, being 45 doesn’t seem so bad.