Friday, 24 April 2009
What It's Like to Get Old
Recently, a 20-something, young man asked me what it's like to get old. When I made that phrase the subtitle of this blog five years ago, I didn't mean that I had an answer but that over time, writing about a variety of things related to aging, perhaps a picture would emerge.
And that seems to be happening at Time Goes By, particularly with the varied thoughts and opinions from readers in the comments and occasional guest blogs. Not that there can be only one answer. We each get old in our own way and the longer we live, the more the answers change.
Young people probably would find this hard to believe, but there are as many aspects to life in age as there are at any other time, although some are different: new challenges, adjustments to new circumstances, diminishing sex drive, knowing death is closer rather than farther away, health or lack of it, the changing focus of one's days after retirement, reduced income and more.
Many old people say they don't feel as old as they are. This makes me nuts. Since no one has ever before been as old as they are now, then whatever they feel is how it is to be that old. And anyone who says at 65 that they feel the same as they did at 40 is – well, lying.
But here is what I think they are trying to get at: even with new challenges, a big surprise about being old is that it's not so different from every other age. Because there is such an enormous emphasis in our culture on youth and so little attention paid to old age, there is the expectation that age is an entirely different country - that, perhaps, asleep one night, we cross a great divide and wake up old.
It doesn't happen like that. There is no divide. We move through adulthood adapting to the milestones as they come along – first job, achievements, promotions, marriage, children, divorce sometimes, empty nest, becoming a grandparent. But no matter how sudden or jarring the event or transition, the minutiae of daily life continues: brush your teeth, take a shower, cook dinner, wash the dishes, do the laundry, take out the trash.
And so it is for old people, if not their observers, that there is a similar continuity to daily life when the next, old-age-defining transition – retirement – comes along. Plus, our interests, opinions, passions, friends, personalities, likes and dislikes don't change just because we get old and except for not going to the job each morning, we are, for better or worse, the same people we have always been.
One of the biggest changes in old age is not within ourselves as much as in how other, mostly younger, people treat us. We are dismissed, ignored and made invisible based solely on our appearance. Put the same words, thoughts and opinions we have in a younger body and the world pays attention.
This forced disappearance into a void that is foisted upon elders is part of what it's like to be old and it is insidious. Just as a kid told repeatedly that he is stupid seems to become so, an elder who is ignored frequently enough stops trying to be part of the world. (This is one of the reasons I promote blogging for elders. Within each of our little blog worlds, readers listen and respond. We are still respected here.)
Old age is changing. Because we live so much longer than previous generations, there can be 20 and even 30 years, a third of our lives left after leaving the workforce. Some, if they are not laid off and can avoid age discrimination in hiring, prefer to continue working. Others, in retirement, pursue interests that were postponed during busy midlife.
What is not given enough attention in old age, however, is the right to do nothing – or what would appear to be nothing in the eyes of younger people. But it can be a relief to no longer have places to be, goals to achieve, quotas to meet.
It may not seem as exciting as the competitiveness of corporate life or partying the night away, but getting the garden (which moves at its own, slow pace no matter what you do) just right, for example, is equally satisfying and not something I appreciated 30 years ago.
A younger person would probably dismiss me as an old couch potato sitting quietly in my favorite chair most evenings. But my mind is busy, having the time now to reflect, contemplate and weigh alternatives at leisure. Or to shut out everything around me and lose myself completely in the world of a novel. Or to listen – really listen and not merely hear a Beethoven symphony. Or, other times, to wallow in the mundane amusement of TV cop shows.
So perhaps the one definitive thing that can be said about being old is that it is slower, in the best interpretation of that word. It is not an attribute that is widely admired in the go-go ethic of young people. But that's okay. Whoever wrote Ecclesiastes knew what he was talking about with “to everything there is a season.”
I think I understand why that young man asked the question. I once thought old people were alien-like too. I was disappointed on my 21st birthday when, as an official adult at last, I did not wake that morning with a complete understanding of life.
Fifty-seven Forty-seven years later, one surprise is how much I have not changed, except for the external packaging.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lois Cochran reflects on beloved pets in the tale of Tigger.]