When our culture at large is not ignoring old people, it celebrates us in an especially demeaning manner by holding up as paragons the freaks of old age - the ones who climb Mt. Everest at 80 or deep sea dive or jump out of airplanes.
Responses from younger people to these extreme accomplishments of age are universally out of proportion. “Wow,” they say. And “awesome.” “Risks are what growing old is all about,” they exclaim while barely concealing their disdain for the rest of us who don't or can't emulate a 40-year-old.
What those of us who are actually old know, however, is that our time of life, whatever else its pleasures and joys may be, is a time of loss. That cannot be denied and it is something we must make peace with as we pile up the years.
We may find ourselves with a chronic disease or two that limits us. Our mobility can become a challenge. Old friends move away. If you live long enough, they die.
The small things add up too. Forgetting words that were on the tip the tongue. Standing in a room wondering why we are there. Misplacing the keys. It takes longer to do chores we once raced through and when we're finally finished, we're too worn out for the fun activity we'd planned – if we can recall what it was.
Pieces of our lives, large and small, fall away one by one and in addition, we must, when our careers are done and children gone, figure out what our purpose is now at this time of life. There is rarely anyone to help with that one; we're on our own.
But the amazing thing about living with all these losses is how good we are at it and how resilient. Instead of succumbing to hopelessness, we devise systems to help us remember. We fold the necessary routines to monitor our health conditions into daily life. We pace ourselves to husband our strength and energy. We adjust, adapt and accommodate.
But best of all, we find, almost naturally, the silver linings in the difficulties that appear in these late years. We trade old pleasures for new ones. We make time to serve others. We each invent the best possible way to navigate the changes and losses we encounter and we make jokes. My god, how we laugh at ourselves even if it is rueful sometimes.
To those very few elders who become heroes to young people by swimming the English Channel or driving race cars, more power to them. But they are not typical.
The majority of elders face their inevitable losses as they appear without much fuss. They do it with courage, too, and perseverance and humor. They do it day in and day out and then they do all over again when something new lands in their laps. That should be honored at least as much as bungee jumping off a bridge at age 80.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Susan Gulliford: The Sledding Hill