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Monday, 15 August 2011

There is No Shame in Getting Old

category_bug_ageism.gif Not long ago, Marian Van Eyk McCain of elderwomanblog alerted me to a story at Huffington Post by 93-year-old Rhoda P. Curtis. She writes about our ageist society and some elders' fear of aging related to shame they feel about their aging selves.

”I think we need to accept ageing as a necessary process, not as a disease. Aging is a process that begins with birth, and does not need to be conflated with infirmity.” [emphasis added]

How right she is and the many comments left on her story mostly uphold her point of view. There was one, however, that reminds me of how often, in the ageism we constantly encounter, that elders are blamed and shamed for their afflictions and conditions.

The commenter first quoted one sentence from Ms. Curtis's story: “It isn't as if the ageing process was something we could control and/or manage.” Then, working overtime against Ms. Curtis's protest against shame:

”Of course you can control and/or manage your ageing process! Don't put garbage in your body, work out, eat natural and lightly, pray/meditate, maintain healthy community, keep learning. You'll still get old, but you'll be strong and vibrant instead of feeble and dull.”

Here we go again. It's your fault if your body fails you.

Perhaps I am particularly sensitive right now to the crap shoot of life having learned, Friday, of an old and dear friend who just underwent surgery for a malignant brain tumor.

His diet is more in line with health guidelines than most people I know. He never skips his physician-prescribed, daily, three-to-four mile walk. He has a close and loving extended family. He's always busy with one project or another. He is only 61.

My answer to the commenter is this: you are wrong; we cannot control and manage aging.

Certainly healthy eating, getting a reasonable amount of exercise, maintaining interests and friendships are good for us. But people who appear to do everything right get smacked with bad, even fatal health news every day.

World class runner Jim Fixx died at 52 of a heart attack. Being trim and active did not protect actor Mary Tyler Moore from diabetes. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, who had not smoked in 30 years, died of complications from lung cancer.

I have no doubt the commenter I quoted is young enough to still run for the bus, climb flights of stairs and haul home 30 pounds of groceries. But plenty of elders who are otherwise healthy can't do those things anymore and there is no shame in that. It's called getting old. It's okay. The body winds down.

So let us reject those who think they know what's good for everyone else. We all die of something and on that journey, shit happens to some people no matter how hard they work at healthy living.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jackie Harrison: My Naughty Computer


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

I cannot understand how anyone could feel "shame" about growing older.

I'm with Kenju. (I don't often see evidence of ageism in my daily life; but, when I do it makes me think that what goes around comes around. We, as kids, were too prone to mock our elders - behind their backs, of course!)

Listened to a report on the radio on centenarians. There was a strong suggestion that centenarians are born, not made. Eating "correctly" and exercising is a quality-of-life issue, to me - not a quantity-of-life.

"Amen". I refer to those people who know what's good for everyone else as "if I were in charge, there would be no problems".

I get really pissed off at the idea that, at any age, we should take on personal guilt about the accidents and infirmities that are life. Younger people get hit with this if they get cancer or some other disease -- if we are lucky enough to age, we are supposed to feel guilty about experiencing normal processes.

Lots of it comes down to our very American belief that everything is all about our individual selves. That's a society enjoying transitory luxury speaking.

The other kind of person who would say something like that is an elder who got genetic luck. They really don't 'get it' and until they find themselves knocked back by an illness or something out of their control, they won't. I do think we can do a lot to help our aging process but it's still there and we will not remain strong as we were no matter what we do. It's only a question of when and whether we die before those things get to us; and it does come to everyone in one form or another. It's not like we did something to deserve or earn our DNA and family histories.

Some members of my book club were commenting that 60 is the new 40. I didn't get into the discussion because for one thing, I had just read "Never Say Die" by Susan Jacoby. This book pretty much puts to rest such notions, especially the waste in all these "Youth" products. It really is a great matter of luck and genes.

I never can understand the headlines that proclaim this super food or that exercise or so on "lowers" the death rate. The death rate, is 100%. I'd rather live well than live long, but I'll take what I get.

I agree: one of the subtexts of the "be healthy" meme is just another denial of age. Fortunately we can value people for their wisdom and kindness,not for whether they have no wrinkles and can run for the bus. I wish I had put more older people in my writing, but the ones who are there are valuable for just those reasons.

When I was young and foolish I never expected to live as long as I have. Ashamed of it? Not on your life. I am eternally grateful that I inherited my great grandmother's genes.

Ronni, coincidence strikes! Just as I fiinshed reading your post, my Google alert on "aging" brought me an article in Time, "Even the Long-Lived Smoke, Drink and Don't Exercise, which basically debunks Ms. Curtis' hypothesis.

Read more: http://healthland.time.com/2011/08/05/even-the-long-lived-smoke-drink-and-dont-exercise/#ixzz1V6zqcMMY

It's great if we live a healthy life because we want to, not out of fear or social pressure. Life is for living!

I will feel more relaxed today for having read your words re: aging and the fact that there's only so much we can control. I've been knocking myself out trying everything (meditation, exercise, good foods) thinking I'll beat the system (dealing with my scary new aches and pains). On the way to my next doc appointment, I think I'll stop to smell the flowers.

You are right on with your comments. We really can't control the way we age. So many factors seem to be at work in our bodies as we age. I think genes are very important, but I'm not sure to what degree they even play in the way we age.

My mother is 95 and healthy mentally and physically, but she is 95. If I make it to that age, I guess I will know if genes played out well for me or not.

One plays the hand one is given. Whether it is played well or badly is one's own choice. I do all I can to stay vital and active, (with 55 years of serious multiple health issues, BTW) but would rather go down in a blaze of fun stuff than live a few more years cautiously and boringly. Bring on the chocolate and the butter!

Framed and hanging on a very visible wall in my home is ...
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body ... but rather to skid in sideways -- Chardonnay in one hand and chocolate in the other -- body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming WOW, WHAT A RIDE !!

Twenty-five years ago when my breast cancer seemed barely in its one year remission, a colleague at work was diagnosed by the same disease. We were both in our 50s. When I tried to empathize with her, she told me that it wasn't fair, because SHE had exercised and eaten well. She was surprised when I asked if she meant it was fair for me because I clearly didn't exercise. No reply. BTW, we are both still alive and exercise has nothing to do with it. Just luck.

Miki- I love that quote. I have seen it before and wanted to find it again.
Thank you. It is perfect!

I just finished participating in a Qi Gong session, from a DVD, with my 90-y.o. mother. She complains, but did it with me to the best of her ability. I tell her that it may not increase her life span by more than 5 minutes; however, it will help keep her healthier and mobile, safer from falls, than if she did not exercise.

Perhaps we cannot control the aging process itself, but do we want to have a steady decline of function, doing less and less until the final curtain, or do we want to stay as healthy as possible, dying suddenly as opposed to slowly? I vote for the latter, and that I feel we can at least have influence over by eating well and keeping as active as we can. My mother begrudgingly agrees and continues to push herself to move as much as she can and eats a healthy diet. As a consequence, her medications are minimal.

There are two aspects to aging; one that we have a certain level of control over (diet, exercise, mental simulation) and genetics which we have little or no control over.

A lot of us, including me are very or somewhat lax in our approach to the first category. In some cases we have limited resources or time. Sometimes our genetics just screw us over. My sister getting type 1 diabetes for example.

It sounds to as if your friend falls into the same category as my sister. I wish him well and hope he has a quirk and speedy recovery.

I'm still working full time and can run for buses and up stairs and haul groceries (as long as I can rest the entire next day) but I can't hang on to my Ray-Bans for more than a year or so. I need them for ambulating because I can't walk in bifocals without stumbling, especially on stairs.

So I stepped out at lunch to buy new Ray-Bans and the 20-year-old behind the counter regarded me the whole time as if I were something distasteful and smelly as her co-worker texted. Then I came back and read this post. Thanks for it, but I'm still steamed about the way people treat older women in public!

I know you all have stories.

"And please don't refer to me as "dear."

Walked into a Tim Horton's in St. John, NB today, ordered soup and sandwich.

"Anything else, dear?"

Said the server.

When someone starts calling me "dear," I should play games.

"Thank you, Godzilla."

How about that?

Or

Say, "dear", since we're such close strangers, how about flying me to New York City."

"No?"

I thought so.

Aging impacts more than the individual alone. How would you feel, folks, if your aging spouse abused his/her body with excesses of booze and food and inactivity which then lead to one or more infirmities, thus losing his/her independence and acquiring dependence on you who did not abuse your body? Do partners owe each other the gift of healthy habits so as to minimize and/or shorten the onset of debilitating infirmities? I would prefer to acquire my inevitable old age limitations in the course of a life lived in moderation, with a clear conscience that I did not inflict the burden of my care on my spouse (or my kids) prematurely.

I was on a sales call with a high powered younger (they all are) manager. He says to me: You really have a lot of energy, I think you'll do fine". Reading between the lines, he was saying, I didn't think that you had it in you, old man. Also, in general, I hate it when younger people address me as "young man".
I hate this part of growing old. I'm inclined to drop out to avoid it, maybe.

I am referred to on occasion as "young lady". I don't care for it, but it's not such a big problem that I'd take someone to task for it.

Some of the comments leave out the part about the "shame" in growing older. How can you be "ashamed" of something you have little control over. Yes, you have some control over the quality of that life, but how can you be ashamed of the simple fact of growing older? We all do it, if we live long enough. For me, growing older is certainly more appealing that not.

April 22 at age 64, I had a blood vessel spring a leak in the right side of my brain. I was healthy, slim, ate right and worked to keep body, brain and relationships fit. OK maybe one day researchers will find that eating an occasional bowl of ice cream and fresh strawberries or maybe occasional popcorn is a no no. But the unexpected happens. I just have to cut those irritating youngsters some slack by thinking of them as super-sized toddlers who don't know any better.

All too soon they will be confronted by the puzzle of hair growing out of the wrong places or joints that don't always cooperate or worse.

What is dismaying is that they are often in positions to make decisions that affect elders' jobs, health and quality of life.

My big gripe is the pervasive way that some treat our elders....as if they belong in a wheelchair someplace in a corner. The generation of elders that are with us today have skills and knowledge that today's youth do not seem destined to have. ( in my humble opinion)

I'm chiming in a little late in the day, but wanted to say how much I enjoyed today's TGB! Yes, I can't run for the bus anymore, and I've got tinnitus, persistent sciatica and a bad left knee, and plenty of stories to tell about being invisible in public, but...

I saw some pics this morning of Gloria Steinem, who's written a new book. She, who is now 77, is beautiful--of course she always was, but now in mid-old-age, even more so.

And so we all are. We walk, in these years, in a silvered aura of experience and knowledge, and, hopefully, a little wisdom. And that makes us beautiful--guys included. Getting old is a grand accomplishment. And if those around us are blind to that beauty, well, f--- er, too bad for them.

If he lives to be as old as Ms. Curtis that commentator will hopefully recall his words to her and dine on them one evening before he departs from this world. Lightly sprinkle with garlic and and oregano.

Hooboy! My mother was a health nut, in a good way. She did her best to take care of herself, not overly fanatic about any particular health fad, just did her best to take care of herself. And she got pancreatic cancer and died--in my opinion--prematurely at 78.

I learned from her experience that you do your best but still it's a crapshoot. I try to take care of my health but it's still a crapshoot and you are absolutely right that nobody should be shamed for being old. It's a crapshoot.

I agree there should be no shame in growing old. And, it's true that even those who do everything "right" healthwise and otherwise, can have bad things happen. But, I truly believe that the negative effects of aging can be greatly reduced by maintaining a health lifestyle. Are there guarantees? Never... but why not do everything possible to reduce the risk?

I love Miki's quote!

Looking at two quotes from Ms. Curtis, we can get a clearer idea of what she means: "Aging is a process that begins with birth, and does not need to be conflated with infirmity,” and, “It isn't as if the ageing process was something we could control and/or manage.” We can do some things to prevent major health problems (though many are completely out of our control), but whatever we do, we are all going to get old—if we live long enough! Age is nothing to be ashamed of.

I think the commenter who is so sure he or she knows just how everyone else should live (and that, if they just did that, everyone would always be "strong and vibrant") clings to this belief out of fear. So many of us do this in so many ways: If we can just convince ourselves that any problem in life is entirely the individual's fault, then that bad thing can never happen to us.

Aging gracefully is an act of courage: accepting that, no matter what we do, we will get older and some day, we will even die. Ms. Curtis is that brave. I wish we all were.

I'm about ready to throw in the towel and say I don't care. I'm not ashamed. I withdraw. I will stop trying to fit in and go with the flow. I no longer want to participate. Whatever. Sounds like I'm ready to retire and just fade away. I always wondered when and how it would happen. Shame? If I no longer care, there isn't any.

I'm late to weigh in on this post, but basically I agree with most of the views expressed. I've never been afraid of dying and I'm still not, but I AM afraid of how I get there. I've read Susan Jacoby's book, too, and it's plenty scary to realize how little control you have over what happens to you once you're in the hands of the medical-industrial complex. I hope never to be in that situation, but I also believe that we can only do so much to ensure a long life in good health. Genetics play a big part, and we have NO control over that!

From my experience, Boomgono's comment is right on the mark. People's fear makes them believe they can prevent things from happening. Whenever I mention a family member or friend that has cancer, the first comment is always, "Well, did he/she smoke, drink, etc?". I don't think they want to blame the victim as much as they want to believe they can avoid the same fate. My mother did everything right. She got tons of exercise, ate well, didn't smoke, etc. and she had Alzheimer's by the age of 61, and was dead by the age of 71. My husband's uncle drank, smoked, never exercised. He used to sit in a chair all day, drunk, smoking and peeing himself. He lived to be 92. While I think exercise is great if you can do it, most of our future is written in our genes.

Kendra--Bingo!

I think that the feeling of aging is further developed by the media today and the people around us. Media keeps washing our minds and convincing us that we are old enough to need a particular medicine or to live in a particular house for seniors. But, I want to say something: youth is in heart. And if your heart ages, you will never be able to feel young again.

Kendra - I couldn't agree more...it is our genes and "opinions are like butts - everyone has one" live and enjoy the best you can each day...we all have to go sometime.

Insulting to think in absolutes, much less to write words that we're all responsible for what happens to our body with aging. Anyone who attends to the facts knows there are multi-factors, so I don't even pay attention to someone who writes nonsense to the contrary.

You really tweaked the thots on this subject! I recall my MIL who was medically "grossly obese" and lived to 90+, mentally active always, though physically slowed. She was from the South and her cooking was Old South classic -- food rich and fattening -- thought anyone from baby age up that wasn't fat wasn't healthy. Yes, she had medical problems. Yes, she might have lived even longer, but she knowingly and happily made her choices. She lived independently until the final days of her death from cancer. Her slim trim father had lived to be 100, cared for by twin daughters in his final years. Who's to say one's life was better than the others. Neither was heard to speak of regrets for not having lived differently. Who would we be to project our criteria for living on to them?

On the other hand, I do empathize with the individual who has to be a caregiver for someone else because that person has excessively abused their body. Frankly, I don't know how you prevent that, short of early on giving an ultimatum, if all else fails, and then leaving the relationship if no change. Tragically, the caregivers of such abusers often ruin their own health prematurely and may even die first.

I go along with whatever is comfortable activity, gives pleasure and enjoyment. Stands to reason keeping body weight to a minimum allows more movement. A balanced diet makes all of the above more possible. Curiosity and interest in the world makes life worthwhile, coupled with maintaining a positive outlook -- which doesn't mean bad things don't happen -- it's how you cope with them that makes the difference.

I get disgusted with the snake oil salespeople and perpetual youth proponents -- it's all about making money from the naive misguided souls believing in eternal physical youth being possible.

Maybe "managing" is working for her so far...good for her. However, it did my heart good to hear somone else object to the ascertation that all you need to do is the right thing and everything will be fine. I was in that boot camp once too but lately I find myself saying "but I ate right, exercised, never smoked....how did this happen?"

Thank you again for your comments I needed to hear them and read the others.

We can't prevent aging. We can try to leverage statistics to prolong good health, and may fail nevertheless. Our society applauds self-discipline. I understand that. But we should also learn to respect aging and not spend so much time sorting it out from self-indulgence.

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