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Tuesday, 04 December 2012

Youthiness in Old Age

category_bug_journal2.gif Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert had truthiness – his term for something that kinda, sorta seems to be true but is not. Time Goes By has youthiness.

For the near decade I've been writing Time Goes By, I've been looking for a better way to explain why cosmetic surgery, Botox and other means people of age use to try to appear younger seem stupid to me. The youthiness aspect helps clarify it.

I don't much like such phrases as “young at heart” either. What's wrong with an old heart? I would argue that an old one is superior because it is experienced: it has loved more, been broken more often and despite that awful sense of betrayal, has found its way to recovery usually with a gain in the special kind of wisdom of the heart.

All around us, without let up, old people are admonished to keep striving. Go back to work, start a business, run a marathon, join a club, learn a language, write a book, take up a new hobby, meet new people. Everywhere we turn are people – always much younger – telling us that it is important to stay young and how to do it. Hint: keep busy, busy, busy because if you don't, you will be – horror of horrors - old.

The idea is that if you try really hard to behave like a young person and spend lots of money trying to look like one (never mind that your appearance becomes a grotesque facsimile of a human being), you will regain your youth.

Or, youthiness – as much a pretense of youth as truthiness is of truth.

But what if old age is its own time of life, as important and interesting and fruitful and different from previous years as adolescence is from infancy, and adulthood from adolescence? I believe it is.

Time now is becoming short for me. Yes, I can hear certain TGB readers (rarely the ones as old as the 80-somethings) saying, “Oh, Ronni, you're not old; you're only 71.”

Well, you are wrong. According to standard actuarial tables, a woman my age is into her final quintile of life with an average of 14 or 15 years to go. That's old and it would be dishonest to deny it.

More importantly, I am eager to find a good way to live this final part of life. I don't want to waste it trying to be something I am not or pretending I can or like to do things that are not so easy anymore or as interesting.

A small example: a few years ago, I was walking down a street in Greenwich Village with a 30-year-old friend. Everybody walks fast in New York and during my years there I was no exception. But on this day, I was about 63 or 64 then, I was breathing hard (while trying to hide it) and having trouble keeping up with my young friend.

What did I do? I stopped to look in the window of a shoe store. She and I both love shoes so it was not out of character for me or a reason for my friend to question my pause on our way to wherever we were heading.

But what was really happening, I realize now, is that I still bought the idea of youthiness then and was loath to admit that I couldn't keep up that speed for as long as my friend could.

Youthiness. Pretense. Maybe it could bring on an early death.

What I want from this stage of my life is to fully live it, be in it, wallow in it. I want to understand its uniqueness, discover how it is different from what came before, experience the changes – whatever they may be - and come to know what it is to be old.

I believe that our cultural youthiness is antithetical to that goal. That if I follow the widespread dishonesty of pretending to be young, I will miss something significant in life. What a terrible shame that would be.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dani Ferguson Phillips: A Home for Christmas


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

Comments

I was telling a friend last week how someone I work with forgets that I am 72, and she said "That's because you don't act like you are 72." It's all in the attitude.

Ronni:
My wife used to nag me to dye my hair, after I entered my sixties (my natueral color at the time was salt and pepper, although now there's a lot more salt. I suppose I should watch out for high blood pressure).
I resisted doing it. I thought it looked fake. In fact, I thought it looked like I was a guy in my sixties pretending to be in my forties (sort of like Ronald Reagan, who never, EVER had a grey hair!).
Eventually, I followed my gut and stopped. I like the way I look. My attitude? If you don't like the way I look, don't look at me!
As to the rest, I cringe when someone tells me I'm young at heart, and don't lok a day over sixty. I'm 72, and I've earned my chops; in fact, to use a pyschological buzz term, I've pretty much self-actualized.
The preacher said it best in Ecclesiastes: "To everything, there is a season."

I think it's silly to color my hair or do anything to alter my natural aging face. I earned it. But...I love to run and came to that love in my early 60's at the urging of my niece. It has its own legs now (so to speak) and I do run in marathons and half marathons once a year. I like how it makes me feel and when I have a good run (three times a week), I feel high with the pleasure of it. That's why I do it.

To engage with life in ways that one finds exciting and renewing is something that is wonderful at any age. Not doing things in order to pass for young or imitate the standards of youth, but because those activities or explorations are magnetizing us from where we are right now--that's creative aging.

Your beautiful post triggered this "lesson-story" told through the generations, mine included. Rabbi Zusya (18th century, Ukraine) said that on the Day of Judgment, he feared not that God would ask him why he had not been Moses, but why he had not been Zusya.

Wow...thanks Ronni! (you and I haven't had a good, long talk in a long time--time to call!) I've noticed a bit of slowing down recently as I inch my way towards 52. Definitely a different way of thinking and seeing the world. A few years ago, I might have been out there with some of my 40 something friends, chasing after ageing rock stars or trying to fit into old-time trendy garb, wondering why I'm not a size 8 anymore. Honestly, I don't quite care anymore why I'm not thin, why I like opera (omg! I'm so square!), and why my knees bother me when I wear 4-inch heels. It just is--it's part of getting older slowly and I'm not going to go out of my way to create some illusion that I'm not in my 50's. It is what it is, and I'm really happy to not kvetch about my weight or my gray or other things that are really only superficials. I have too many other things to do :)

About a year ago I contacted (via e-mail) the author of a book he had written. I wanted to know if he was going to write a sequel. The author said that, no, he was not. "I am 75, and I am preparing to die. What is more important than that." Since I had been a Hospice volunteer, off and on, for the previous 20 years, I just smiled. I already knew there was nothing more important than that. /// This author had led a pretty interesting and a fast-paced life, somewhat similiar to yours, Ronni, but when he was in his early 60s, he retired and moved to a remote, quiet place in The US. And he lives without being inundated with all this 'Be Young Forever', eh, 'stuff'. /// He inspired me to live my life as I want (and as I can, circumstances allowing) and to quit fighting my growing older. And my life has been so much better ever since. /// As for our society's emphasis on youth and staying young, there is a quote, which I love, by Krishnamurti: "Being well adjusted to a profoundly sick society is no measure of good health." (I take good health to mean good mental, emotional and spiritual health.) /// The author of the book quoted an older woman he had interviewed: "I love getting older when I don't have to see myself reflected in the eyes of this society." /// May we not let this society distract us from or try to make us ashamed of all that is really good about getting older -- and may we all prepare to die well. Because for those of us who have been fortunate to live to older age (a lot of Americans have died way too young), this time of life is such a great gift. /// Thank you for your writing, Ronni and for all of Time Goes By.

Your post today is the essence of WHY I read your blog every single day. You express exactly how I feel, and I turned 61 yesterday. But I tire more easily, sleep longer, and NEED more rest. Without that rest I don't function well...

Admitting and living your true age is so under-rated in the USA! Sigh.

Exactly! I think being myself began at 50 when I quit coloring my hair and found I liked it. At 70, I still like it, wear it longer in spite of being told by my (now former) hairdresser that longer hair wasn't for older women, ptui! Each day is a gift which I can waste if I feel like it.

Never allow a number to dictate your activities.

It's not the number, it's the capability.

Do what you choose, when you choose, as long as it's legal you aren't hurting anyone, and you tone it to what you can do, rather than what you did back in the day.

Now I must don my flaming red jumpsuit, grab my Christmas decorated unicycle and ride it to the gym.

Not.


Two of my friends had their chin lifted for job purposes. That's what they said. I didn't argue. Me? I'd love to have a chin again. Oh, well. I put on my very purple bathing suit and cavorted in the water today....and every day. That helps me feel younger and keeps me moving.

I have shoulder-length snow-white hair (similar to the platinum I kept it for years) and enjoy my laid-back life more than I can describe. Deciding what to do every single day is a fantastic luxury to me; I enjoy every minute of it. The shorter the time left to live, the more valuable it becomes.

What planet do your readers inhabit? I want to go there! Their comments are fantastical to someone still negotiating an urban environment. I live in a city where you are constantly reminded that age defines your worth. We have car dealerships where no salesperson even approaches people who look like they get social security checks, we have restaurants that upon seeing two smiling older women prepare a table close to the ladies room at the back of the dining room. Defying the parameters of youthiness carries a social cost that is not acknowledged here. Not everyone has the gumption to resist social conformity and enjoy being a contrarian. Sometimes adult children are adding pressure because of their own angst. It's not easy to embrace reality and actually enjoy getting older in a Victoria's Secret world!

Speaking of contrarian, I've always wondered about this: I'm sure it's true that socializing with/family & friends prolongs & enhances the life span & experience of aging for old people; but, could this notion be over-rated? Maybe being older generates a desire to go inward, be less social. Is it so bad to want to be alone, to enjoy silence and eschew so much socializing?

Great post. Made me think that age/youth skip right over middle-age. If the culture lingered longer at that time might we have a more sensible view of the life span?

@BabyBoomerWriter: the urban world & its "social cost" is familiar. I see myself as a lucky escapee who hopes to find more ways to bridge the space between us.

I've often thought about how early in life our society begins wishing away and wasting time longing and striving to be in a different phase of life.

When children, many long for teenage years. When teen aged we look towards young adulthood. Fully fledged as adults (and sipping from the river of real/responsible adulthood) we long again for freedom, for retirement. Once thru the threshold of salt/pepper/soc sec lol we long for youth.

The magic (if you can locate and hold on to it) seems to reside in 'enjoying where you are' at any given point in time. Each portion of life has its perks and problems, joys and juggernauts.

Whether battling acne or wrinkles the quality of life is always hidden (and found) in embracing who you are and where you are in the timeline of life.....

Or so it's been for me*

*(and I'll be the first to say it's an ongoing effort to remember that fact, lol)

I wish I could re-capture all the days/weeks/months/years I longed to be elsewhere than where I was in age and experience. Tho anywhere along the path I could have (and now strive) to live and enjoy where I am I wish I'd started sooner.

Excellent article Ronni - as always

Issy

I certainly appreciate Ronni’s post though I have a little different take on this topic.

To me the phrase “young at heart” means a person past her/his youth who continues to have zest for living, enthusiasm, and purpose, regardless of her years. I do not see it as a denial of one’s elder status.

Old people sometimes tend to become disengaged from the world, turning inwards and passive, which can cause them to become less vital than they could be. This can happen at any age. I continue to encourage my 92-year-old mother to read, create, and engage/exercise her mind so as to maintain a high quality of life for her remaining time. I don’t see this as a denial of aging, rather an acknowledgement that she has “worthwhile” time left that she need not waste.

I also feel that choosing to enhance one’s physical appearance, be it through cosmetic surgery or altering the color of one’s hair, need not be a denial of aging. I feel happier and more self confident if, to me, I look “brighter” with my hair highlighted, with less drab gray. I don’t deny my age, I say, “this is how 68 looks!”

Keeping in our best physical condition is not a denial of age, rather the smart thing to do to maintain our body functioning at a high level, so that when the end comes, it comes quickly versus a slow decline. Of course we cannot do at 90 what we could at 60, or 70, but we can do what we can. My mother and I used to go to Curves together a few years ago. Now I encourage her to walk down to her mailbox on her own—for her that’s an accomplishment.

Like Ronni, I want to “fully live and fully be” in this stage of life. I am proud of my age and I want to demonstrate what this age can be!
...

"Youthiness." It even rhymes with "truthiness." Love it!

Love your thoughts today too. At 69, I'm finally free to be me. Or more precisely, free to figure out exactly who "me" is. Workin' hard at it. Stay tuned.

I wanted to write much the same thoughts as Nana Royer, above. Now she's led me to go deeper. Certain traits of some old people--in their eighties and more--I react to with distaste: the self-repetition and passive-aggressive reliance on others, often combined with a litany about one's own accomplishments in the past. Because of these feelings I push myself, often quite painfully, to go places and do things. Perhaps this is all just my lifelong struggle with depression continuing. Joyful non-doing is very hard for me to cultivate--it dies on the vine.

I second that notion! Also, I am beginning to think that old age, despite the aches and pains, may in many ways be the cream in the coffee.

When I die I hope they talk about the person I was and not how I looked!

I have definitely learned to know what it is to be old. It is like the rest of your life; some good parts and some not so good. I love the leisure to do as I wish when I wish but I don't appreciate the aches that keep me awake at night. I have never wished for my lost youth back.

I look at my life as going from one room to another. Each one had it's share of joys and sorrows. Old age is no different. This is my last room and I am making the best of it. I enjoy each day and when it is a bad day, I am still grateful for the opportunity to live it.

Thanks so much for this Ronni.

I have a friend who is about six years my junior and loves going into the city as much as I. However, she's always determined to catch that next train. This very thing occurred last Saturday and I stupidly went along. It won’t happen again. She turns 65 in a couple of weeks and maybe she’ll appreciate the slowdown.
I am totally disgusted with so much talk about the way people look!

"Truthiness" I like it. I'm adding this one to select words I gather in a personal dictionary of unique words and phrases. Thanks Ronni. I'll attribute this word to your sense of it expressed in this post.

Sorry. I meant "youthiness"

Beautiful collection of comments. Really full of instruction.

This is a great post and definitely thought-provoking. I weigh in with Nana Royer and Renee Watkins on this issue. As I approach 76, I still like to look as vital and well put-together as I can (without the benefit of plastic surgery or Botox, which I couldn't afford even if I wanted to). I enjoy fashion. I color my hair. I'm very much engaged with the world as a part-time employee and a volunteer at a local adoption center for rescued cats.

I rail at conservative Republicans who persist in existing in a 1950s world-that-never-was! I continue to "strive". These things are right for me at this point in my life. If I'm still around, who knows what I'll be like a year from now--or two--or five? Just because I'm now an elder doesn't mean I'm ready to sit on the sidelines just yet.

Great post. Resonates. I kinda like being invisible due to my age. i can get up to all sorts of stuff.
XO
WWW

I adore what you said today and Cara's comment re: why she reads this blog every day expresses my feelings.
I want to understand and appreciate this stage of life and not feel that we should be imitating others. We can guide others gently to understand us.

Another wonderful, eloquent post I can recognize myself in. Thank you, Ronni, for your DAILY, YEAR-LONG gifts.
And many thanks to all your fans who post thought-provoking, honest comments.
Acceptance of the now makes the now so much better and so does worrying less about what other people think.

My mother's cancer took her life on her forty-fifth birthday, so I have always been abundantly grateful for each day I have had beyond my own forty-fifty birthday. I'm proud of those extra years, and often begin each day thinking that this is a day that my mother didn't get to have. However, each time I looked in the mirror, I saw not only an older woman, but a meaner-appearing one. That wasn't who I was or the face I wanted to present to the world, but it was the visage presented to the world by the way my face aged. Still, after many cancer surgeries of my own due to our family's inherited cancer, I had no desire for any surgery, much less an elective one.

That was the days before a debilitating illness struck, days when I was still mountain biking on single tracks, proud to almost always be the oldest woman in the woods. One day, my bike slipped as I turned a sharp corner, and I knew I was going to fall. Because I was a writer and had never been a beauty, my first thought was not protecting my face but my hands. I still remember thinking, "My hands!" I pulled my hands up out of the way, slamming my face to the ground and breaking my nose. Because I'm a tough woman, I didn't go to the doctor, and my nose healed looking like the tectonic plates had shifted below the surface of the earth. When I finally went to the reconstructive surgeon that I'd used after cancer surgery, he informed me surgery would be required to repair my nose. That's when I decided that, since I was having surgery anyway, I didn't have to face the world looking mean any longer. I had always prided myself on being kind. I have never been sorry, and I don't feel apologetic, either. I was so NOT vain that I preferred slamming my face into the ground rather than injuring my hands, and I was and am proud of my age and my life as an older woman. Years have passed. At almost 63, my eyes are framed in soft wrinkles, but my brow isn't beetled and my mouth isn't turned down in a perpetual harsh upside-down U. I look like who I am, an older woman who tries to live a kind life.

When are we "Old"? When the actuarial table places us in the final quintile?

When we decide we're "Old"? I've heard people who reached 30, 40, proclaim on their birthdays, "OMG, I'm old now!"

“Oh, Ronni, you're not old; you're only 71.” ;-)

"According to standard actuarial tables, a woman my age is into her final quintile of life with an average of 14 or 15 years to go."

Yep! Your "Use by" date is up when you're 85 or 86 years!

I guess we can accept our lives live out according to actuarial table numbers, or not. I recognize and accept those numbers for just what they are, numbers. So, people can be "old" by those numbers, but they may not consider themselves "old" by their own standards that have nothing to do with denial.

I've been working with people for years, and seeing an increasing number enter into care long after 80 yrs -- their ACTUAL final quintile likely didn't begin until they reached 80. I think for numerous younger people of age 60, 50, or less, their actual final quintile may likely be 80+.

It's one thing to be aware of and accept the possible implications of actuarial tables, numbers, statistics, but quite a different matter to allow them to dictate the language we choose to define ourselves.

I believe the language we use toward ourselves mediates our actions. So, if some 71 year olds choose to think of themselves as living to 100, others even longer, they may not think of themselves as old yet and may be quite physically/mentally active. None of these people would be actually living in the final quintile of life except according to an actuarial table.

Would be interesting to know how much their mindset might have to do with their actual aging process. Obviously, the language and terms we use to define ourselves are affected by other factors.

The use of actuarial tables becomes very important as Medicare changes in health care are made in the near future. Decisions on coverage for treatments, surgeries, if increasingly based on actuarial tables, statistics, may provide a convenient method for cost cutting, but seriously fail the increasing number of individuals who are the exception. There may be a fine line between what will be an ageist versus an appropriate medical approach to care.

I've long been and continue to be a strong proponent of natural aging which precludes all the artificial stuff, treatments and surgeries. Societal pressures to do otherwise for women have been and are strong, and in recent years similar commercial interests are going after the men, too. Guess we all do whatever makes us feel comfortable with ourselves.

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