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Wednesday, 07 November 2007

On Fear of Aging and Death

category_bug_journal2.gif It is astonishing and gratifying that readers take the words I write and run with them in new directions in the comments. It has been particularly compelling in the past few days. Monday’s post evolved from comments on Friday’s post and today, I am following on from some comments on Monday’s post.

There are two themes that caught my attention Monday. Let’s start today with fear of aging and death, and continue tomorrow with employment and retirement fears. From the comments:

“I just cannot accept my own mortality with anything less than a nagging fear right now.
- Cowtown Pattie of Texas Trifles

“I for one am having a dreadful time with this whole aging thing - the process is not a smooth as I'd like it to be.”

- Dee

Although no one can predict when, I think it is normal for each of us, as the years go by, to make peace with these fears. Time moves forward relentlessly and with it the inevitable realizations that we too will not stay young until the end of our days, nor be anointed the single immortal. But it takes some work getting there, along with just letting it happen.

A lot of people (boomers?) seem to be convinced that if they lift one more weight or run one more mile, they will never get old. Even if you don’t succumb to cosmetic surgery or spend too much money on expensive anti-aging creams that don’t work, there comes a day, I think, when it’s too much effort any longer to keep up the pretense.

You realize that you do get tired more easily than your younger friends or something inside compels you to skip the daily workout in favor of a good book or those sexy high-heeled shoes hurt too much to wear today. That, my friends, is the beginning of accepting your age.

But in an ageist culture such as ours, there is still a lot – maybe years – of negotiation with yourself; the days you have the energy to prance around in those fabulous Jimmy Choos versus the mornings the mirror tells you that your makeup or hair color is beginning to look weird – it needs toning down.

For a long time, particularly through our fifties, we live with a foot in each world – not young anymore, but not old either. It’s not a comfortable place to be. The discomfort will pass – when it becomes all right to be old - each in our own time. But our profoundly youth-centric culture doesn't help.

When I first understood that I would die someday – was I eight or nine or ten then? – I was horrified. The thought kept me awake at night lying in bed while my heart pounded so hard it thumped the sheet above my chest as I tried to wrap my mind around the idea that I would not be here anymore.

At 21, having lived many of those fearful, dark nights of the soul, I gave myself permission to believe that I was the one immortal (too bad for the rest of you) and even knowing I was lying to myself, it carried me for many years. It didn’t stop the truth from suddenly clutching at my throat now and then when some incident brought the magnitude of not-being home to me. But I got by for a long time with that pretense.

[Whoever said it is not possible to hold two conflicting beliefs in your mind at once is full of it.]

Decades later, sometime after I started studying aging in earnest in 1996, I began to relax into my age and with it came an acceptance of my death. I didn’t do anything to make that happen so I can’t take credit for it. I just noticed that my heart didn’t race with fear anymore in contemplating my death. I don’t know what changed, but a need to stop being afraid contributed.

Darlene, who does not keep a blog but comments regularly around the blogosphere and is 82 years old, said this on Monday’s post:

“I wonder if a declining attitude about worldly things is a way of withdrawing from them in preparation for the inevitable. I'm not there yet, but I sense a feeling of ennui at times.”

Although she has more than 15 years of living on me, I think I know a little of what Darlene means about the “ennui”, for when I am tired or when too many picky little things the outside world constantly requires of us pile up, I feel myself reach into the future for the time when I will be relieved of worldly concerns.

None of this is to say that should a future medical test doom me to a death sentence within weeks or months, as happened to my mother, that the paralyzing fear of those childhood nights will not return. There is no way to know until then if in all this blather I’m not whistling past the graveyard (as it were).

A TGB EXTRA
In a column about fake news on Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg had this to say about the people who watch different kinds of news programs:

“Indeed, while the network news broadcasts are sustained by the consumers of denture cream, adult diapers and pharmacological marital aides, it’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report that have a grip on the hip, iPhone crowd.”

Wouldn’t “old consumers” or “elder consumers” or even "senior consumers" have done the job? One wonders why Mr. Goldberg needs to gratuitously bash elders and if an equivalent slur against blacks or women would have made it past LA Times editors.

If you’re inclined to express your opinion about this ageist bigotry to Mr. Goldberg, his email address is jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com. The standards and practices department at the paper can be contacted at readers.rep@latimes.com.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, kenju wishes she had been old enough to take on a bully at Summer Camp.]


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 03:11 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Sigh. I grew up being taught that civility and tactfulness toward others -- especially my elders -- were important. Obviously that went out with bobby sox and saddle shoes. It's one of the things about the world that bothers me most.

Ronnie once again this early morning in Nashville as I read your blog I find encouragement, comfort, a smile on my face. So many thoughts and opinions. I have been there and done that. I have been one that has always stayed very busy. Have wondered why over the last few years I just cannot do what I have in the past and really do not want to. Guess it is about time as age 70 just rolled past.

Like you, the idea of "not being" bothered me greatly in my teens and early twenties. It wasn't until I became a nurse and saw death up close and personal that I was so easily able to accept it. Even for me. While I still hate the idea of "not being" I understand and feel it's simply a "passing over" and hey, who knows what's waiting for me on the other side?
You'll see from my blog entry for tomorrow that your words the other day had a profound effect on me, Ronni.
And shame on Mr. Goldberg! Yes, I have an iPod (which I never use, by the way) but I ALSO faithfully watch The Daily Show and am not a consumer of the products he mentioned. Off to write my email to this character!

Tight deadlines on a project have kept me from my own daily show... reading TGB! Catching up w your recent posts is my treat to be redeemed next week. Meanwhile, I want to mention that your citing Lillian B. Rubin recently sent me to the library, where I read the book you named yet found another by her, Tangled Lives, superb. Thank you for introducing me (without even knowing) to this keeper (also on aging, among other themes).

Your posts are of the highest caliber. Thank you endlessly for the gift. HUGE efforts and a wealth of talent/skill/experience inform each post.

If I die at the same age my mother did, I've got about 7 years left. If I die when my dad did, about two. Since I was little, I've always wanted to live to be 100. Now that I know personally someone who is looking forward to her 108th (!), I think, well...maybe not THAT long. But I'm taking it a day at a time. It's still fun and the world, despite Bush's best efforts, is still beautiful. I love it all.

I will tell Jonah Goldberg that I do not use any of the products he mentioned and I love the Daily Show. So much for stereotyping this old gal.

As Woody Allen said, "I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens." There's a definite fear of the decline/ailing thing but not so much of the fact of being done with here. What some poor souls go through on the way out makes thinking about your own decline frightening. No way out but through. Sigh.

Interesting topic and one I think on off and on. I don't feel any fear of dying. Some aprehension, of course, of walking into the unknown-- or floating... or not being... or whatever happens-- but it's also excitement. Like wow, then I will know as they all knew who have gone on before me. When my mother died, that was my big thought-- she has gone ahead and now she knows. All of my life, she was there for me and in my life but then she wasn't. Death is an amazing thing to consider.

I wrote about it recently regarding a dvd I watched, 'The Fountain,' where the whole topic was premature dying or trying to stop aging. People who want to live forever don't consider the consequences to the world if that could be arranged. We are over-populated now. What would it be like if people even lived another 300 years? What about jobs for the youth? What about babies? Reproducing would have to be severely limited or the whole thing would turn bad fast. Frankly, I think our current life span of up to 100 years for those who have good vitality, seems fairest to the world with the resources and life as we currently know it anyway.

The main fear I have where it comes to dying is simply what method will take me across? There is pain and debility attached to many but if I could do like my mother, stay fairly active, get what seemed like a normal flu, three days later just go to sleep and cross over in the night, well that'd be okay with me.

I do believe that one of the tasks of elder years is preparing ourselves spiritually for making that transition. Be comfortable with what we believe is over there and hopefully have those on the other side who will come for us at the time. I could write a lot on this topic but will stop here before this turns into its own blog.

Every day we go visit our friend Richard in his nursing home. He has no family left, and he has no friends here in town willing to visit. He remembers little. He fades quietly with only an imaginary dog for company.

My brilliant mother faded with only a burst of anger here or there to enliven her days. I used to fear the decline, but now I'm fading as bits of my brain is damaged by tiny strokes. I can see how all this fading helps with the fear. You get tired of wearing out so in the end, if you remember, you welcome the passage on.

My mother was very afraid of death. She saw death as the end of life, obliteration, with nothing after. As her caregiver, I was able to observe a change in attitude over the seven months she was bedridden here at home with hospice, not in pain, simply old - nintey-six. I think acceptance came with the visitors who would appear in a corner of the ceiling. At first, she resisted their existence. Then she began to socialize with them. The day before she passed, my father and her beloved grandmother were present, in spirit, visiting. Of course, she was the only one who could see them. She even talked to them. Their presence made her happy. Since we had become close, she did not hesitate to tell me, first with disbelief, then with joy. Sharing this experience confirmed my belief that the spirit lives on. (Hospice personnel tell me elderly people in nursing homes also have "visitors" but hesitate to report them for fear of ridicule.)

Yes..I'm back again. Came back to read more comments.

And in the meantime, I visited a blog of a medical student that I frequently read. Coincidentally (?) she had a link for an article about dying.

It's about 3 pages long, but I feel it should be mandatory reading for everyone. As an RN, I've always felt there ARE worse things than dying. This article once again proved it to me.

Here's the link in case you're interested:

Somewhere during my 20th year I had a dream that I would not live to be 21. It was a strong and vivid dream and one that haunted me until my 21st Birthday. There were nights I would wake crying after dreaming of seeing myself dead. Yet, I made to 21 and recently turned 60.

How do I feel? Somedays, (as they say) are better than others. I am truly challenged by the difficulty in find employment as I do not have a college degree. When I started working it was not necessary for a secretary to have one. This, I often classify as a regret.

The good part of being 60 is the realization of the milestones crossed and knowing that you reached one that earns you the right to really choose what matters. Experience has taught us many lessons that flew by us. We learn to spend time doing what really matters and more importantly spending time with who really matters in our life.

I woke one morning and realized that I am truly happy that I came of age in the times I did. I find many of my age group feel the same way as well as carrying much concern for what our legacy will be for generations that follow.

I am glad that I had the experience of being able to start my work/career at a time when jobs were plentiful and that you truly worked your way up to earning promotions and more money. I am glad that I had the opportunity to gain experience at an entry level position and move on to a new job with more money - paid vacation - paid Holidays - bonus and sick leave. Up until ten years ago, this was the way it was as I had long-term employment until then.

Yet the common thread throughout my living has been family and friends, good books, good music and special times. When asked, I often say that my life has been ordinary with a few extraordinary moments.

And to close - my birthday goal has been the pursuit of happiness. Each day I mark clearly my moments of happiness. It is the little things often taken for granted and I realize now - this is the more important.

"I will leave this world as I would an Inn, not as I would a home; for nature has provided us a place of entertainment, not of residence." MARCUS TULLIUS CICERO

“Goldberg is just a dime-a-dozen pundit. Cranky rich people hire sharp-tongued and relatively uninformed young people all the time and put them on the mass media to badmouth the poor, spread bigotry, exalt mindless militarism, promote anti-intellectualism, and ensure that rightwing views come to predominate"

I found this comment on Jonah Goldberg that seems to fit. It is
near the end of an overheated blogo-debate between Goldberg (at National Review Online) and Dr. Juan Cole, the Middle East scholar from University of Michigan

For a long time, particularly through our fifties, we live with a foot in each world – not young anymore, but not old either. It’s not a comfortable place to be.

You nailed it.

I learn so much from this blog. At 58 I am an elder in many areas of my life, but here I feel like I'm learning at the feet of older, wiser friends, who have experienced much of life emotionally, spiritually and physically. It excites me to know that we continually learn more about ourselves, and that there will always be new "ah-ha" moments.

"Doughy Pantsload" Jonah will not care what you have to say to him.

Glad to see you caught that L.A. Times Goldberg comment, 'cause I was eating a mid-afternoon brunchinner at a local restaurant after work, and nearly choked when I read his comment. Intended to write him, but not sure he's worth the effort.

'Course I'm one who believes it's important to keep speaking out, calling people on this ageist language and have written offenders up the ying yang -- just seems like it never ends. Glad to hear others saying they're taking action.

Until now I thought how much more gracefully and calmly than I everyone who read TGB accepted getting older, even seeing humor in it. Should have known better, I'm seldom unique in my thoughts. While I'm glad some things are over,(did anyone ever enjoy their periods?) I have my shake and quake moments contemplating death. Like you said Ronni, it's possible to have conflicting thoughts at the same time. While I imagine myself as ceasing to exist, I also see myself as joining my family and friends for a joyous reunion. Gets me thru the scary down times

When I was a young girl, I regretfully believed I would not live to see the next (this) century, the life span being what it was at the time. Now that I have leaped over the magic year, the excitement of having done so is quickly extinguished every time I look around and see what kind of world this has become. I won't be upset if I don't see my next, 90th, birthday.

Thoughts of death used to make me shudder. For some years now, my attitude is take it or leave it. I know I'm not going to be Martha Graham or Picasso when I grow up.

Hi Ronni,

While I genuinely enjoy your blog , I strongly disagree with the following quote in your post 'On Fear of Aging and Death'--

"A lot of people (boomers?) seem to be convinced that if they lift one more weight or run one more mile, they will never get old. Even if you don’t succumb to cosmetic surgery or spend too much money on expensive anti-aging creams that don’t work, there comes a day, I think, when it’s too much effort any longer to keep up the pretense."

"You realize that you do get tired more easily than your younger friends or something inside compels you to skip the daily workout in favor of a good book or those sexy high-heeled shoes hurt too much to wear today. That, my friends, is the beginning of accepting your age."

This point of view strikes me as unnecessarily negative & fatalistic. Frankly, many of the bodily changes attributed to "aging" are really due to a premature deterioration on account of an increasingly unhealthy American lifestyle. Obesity and a sedentary existence have been increasingly linked to many diseases-- including various cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular ailments, as well as injuries and falls.

Because muscle mass, bone density & cardiovascular capacity can decline markedly as we age, exercise becomes an increasingly important tool to combat this lifestyle-related deterioration that is really PREMATURE aging. And regular aerobic exercise releases chemicals in the brain that act as natural antidepressants.

I think that it's also imortant to differentiate between silly & expensive 'cosmetic' attempts to forestall the aging process (like surgery & cremes) versus healthy and useful choices like aerobic exercise and a good diet.

I recently (11/5) posted "Running as Medicine for Elders-the Fifth Avenue Mile 2007" on my blog. Many in their 70's, 80's & even 90's (!) are happily doing competitive running (& other sports)--rather than unhealthily obsessing about their approaching demise. I hope you will get a chance to read it and I welcome your comments.

No, lifting one more weight or running one more mile will not prevent you from getting old. But you just might enjoy your 'golden years' a lot more!

My name is dylan I am 28 yrs old a awful fear has griped me and I cannot shake it it always happens late at night I start averging how long I have left and how fast the first 28yrs went I think about how long family members have left I try to beleave in heven and hell but its like nobody stoped to think what if there is nothing time is what I am most scared of. Seems like time keeps going faster and faster I have a great job and family but I don't know who to talk to about this it has been going on for about a year email me at dylanbiberstine@gmail.com

I'm only 18 and I have all of a sudden been rocked by fears of aging and death. I hate the thought that we will reach an age where we can no longer improve physically and mentally. All of a sudden when I see people I wonder their age and have started obsessing. I hate tho think of being alive when I can no longer improve physically (mid 50s).

Ronni, I found your blog because I'm starting one for geezers like myself that undertake active and even extreme sports. I was struck by one thing about your blog (besides being an interesting read). The most beautiful woman in the photos across the top is the one on the far right.

And Adam--you're wrong. I'm 63 and I surf nearly every day, race standup paddle boards for long distances, race vintage cars, ride mountain bikes in challenging terrain, windsurf, fish and hunt. I have more fun and do more active sports on a Tuesday than you probably do all week. Don't worry about the future, it takes care of itself. Worry about what you are doing today that makes your life as full and fun as it can be.

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