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Friday, 15 February 2013

Elders and Loss

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


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

Comments

This story makes old age sound pretty depressing to me. I certainly salute the original theme that we not look at a very small percentage of us elders and say "Wow" and then disregard the rest.

I myself am enjoying life as I never did in earlier years. I now have time to do things that I deem "important". I volunteer frequently to make a difference. It is a very fulfilling time of life.

Yeah, I have aches and pains now that I didn't have just a few years ago but I cope with them without a lot of bravado.

Thanks for the article, it got me to thinking how well I have in in my senior years.

Absolutely!

I've been feeling some of this lately, especially the lost of friends/peers. And I know it will just keep on coming.

In the political world, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg has finally decided to retire rather than run for another six year term at 90. I'm glad to see this, as I just don't think it was realistic for him to hang on. A Senator is protected from many of the ordinary stresses of life, but he has real obligations to his constituents and shouldn't hang on just because he can.

Many of us have probably heard the expression "If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself." Another favorite of mine is something I overheard "It's good to see" you, the response being "It's good to be seen." At this time in my life there seems to be more physical limitations to do what I would like. I feel lucky that my mind still works and that all new technology has opened up a whole new world to me. There doesn't seem enough time to do it all.

A beautiful post. Since turning 70 last summer, I feel different. The robust, unflagging energy of my 60s is depleted, health issues multiply. I feel ever more strongly about documenting my life experiences - in writing and by sorting 'all those boxes of papers.' Making a narrative, more for myself than anyone else. Sense of finite time.

Ronni:
Like you and other old people, I paid my dues.
As health and circumstance allow, this is "me" time; time to take stock, be mindful, and enjoy each day.

I disagree with your original premise here. Climbing Mount Everest at age 80 or at any other age is a decidedly "wow" accomplishment in anyone's eyes. But acknowledging the magnitude of the achievement in no way demeans or denigrates those who haven't climbed Everest. I may have misunderstood your point here, but I'm inclined to think you are taking offense where none was intended. Why do you feel demeaned because someone else's achievement is lauded?

You should have seen me nodding to your words like a bobble head. Imagine, I remembered that word.

In many ways Bette Davis got it right - old age ain't no place for sissies.

I want to take this opportunity to inject a personal note.

I want to inform all of you who were so nice to wish my son and me well that I left my thank you note on yesterday's post. In case you don't want to go back to read it I want you to know how much I deeply appreciate your comments.

Ronni, a special thank you to you for informing everyone as to why I am missing these days.

I also say "Wow!" at that small percentage of elders who transcend the aging process with late-in-life physical accomplishments.

But I have also observed, quite often, an impatience and condescension toward elders' who are doing their best to adapt and to continue LIVING with old-age challenges.

The impatience appears among individuals of all ages, even other elders, who have not personally experienced similar limitations.

Your post articulates well what I observed with my late mother and what I am experiencing now. I am happy to say I have also seen and experienced kindness and practical compassionate actions among all ages. I hope, as aging continues, that I will follow her example, meeting all who come my way with good humor, concern for others, and joy in and thankfulness for old and new pleasures in my changing world.

Pied Type...
"I" don't feel demeaned personally, but elderhood is demeaned when the media continually highlight outsized achievements of elders but otherwise make old people either invisible or blame us for ruining the economy.

Real courage in old age is not that of the few who can still keep up with 40-year-olds but those who cannot and persevere anyway. My colleague on the "age beat," Judith Graham, wrote this a couple of years ago about the many who are not so lucky to be as healthy in old age as the few:

"Their achievements will never be the stuff of press releases. Often, they're as simple as walking from the bedroom to the kitchen without stumbling. Or picking up a glass of water without spilling it. Or hoisting a walker upward to make it up a step.

"When we shower praise on those who triumph over adversity, I worry we overlook others with serious conditions who are not so fortunate."

I think we do heap too much admiration on old people doing highly-risky activities, such as jumping out of an airplane.

According to my husband The Engineer, that's an excellent way to break an ankle. (Or two.)In all his years of flying, he jumped out of an airplane only once, and that was when the cabin filled with smoke.

It's the whole Bucket List mentality, racing around doing things to prove that you've "still" got it. We don't need to prove anything to anybody.

One does not attain a very old age by being a wimp.

Neither does one reach ninety by doing foolish things.

Being tough means taking care of oneself, whatever it takes.

Thank you for saying what I've been feeling and wondering "How did I get here?" After reading all the comments I don't feel so alone. Thank you all.

I can see both sides of this issue. At 76, I'll never climb Mt. Everest--or any other mountain. However, I didn't climb mountains (or jump out of airplanes) at 26 or 46, either! Some of us are just more athletic than others throughout their lives. Some of us accomplish "Wow!" achievements, but most of us don't. We just live our lives. I think the point of this discussion is that no one should be judged for losses that are beyond their control later in life--or any time.

Still, I intend to keep on doing as much as possible--of the things I need or like to do and am reasonably good at. I value being useful and being a contributor to society in whatever small ways I can (e.g., work), so I want to continue doing that. I love cats so I want to continue volunteering at the cat rescue/adoption center. I want to do these things and more--for as long as I can.

I don't like getting old because I don't like losing--my functional abilities, my (high) energy level, my college classmates and even my (average) appearance, for that matter. However, so far, there are still far more pluses than minuses. If/when that's not the case, well, I'll deal with it--one way or another.

Ronni, this is one of my favorite posts you have written. I like how you are writing closer to the heart.

Great job.

Wow. Your thoughts sure struck a chord for me in this piece. It really moved me.
Great work.
-s

I never really blame younger people for their lack of sensitivity to the reality of being old, because we are a mystery to them.

Yes, we lose our physical powers and our youthful beauty, but we also reach a stage of emotional richness and joy. At least I have, and I am grateful for the peace I feel.

Do you remember people telling you when you were young, how the secret to life is living every day as if it could be your last? And, even though this made sense, we could not really sense how to do so. Now, we do sense it and can, as a result, truly appreciate all the tender mercies we experience every morning we wake. Great post.

Oh, this rings true in so many way! Thank you for this amazing post!

Blessing,
Gert

Terrific post Ronni! I cringe when I see an older person who is able to do the 'wow' factor stuff. It contributes to the fantasy idea that we can ALL be that way if we don't 'give in' to age. I've always been curious, active (but not athletic), and grateful for what life has presented, because I see so many who succumb to cancer (and other diseases) in their fourth, fifth and sixth decades and don't get to experience the 'aches and pains' of their seventh, eighth and ninth. Old age is a crapshoot, and the young will only recognize that when they arrive there.

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