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Friday, 13 September 2013

How to Accept Our Aging Bodies – Part 2 of 2

[Part 1 is here]

A man once told me that if he ever suggested to his 89-year-old grandmother that she was old, she would have smacked him.

Yes, it is extreme to hang on to such a view at her age, but I've seen it myself. Many elders – the majority, I would guess – find the idea of old age so abhorrent and terrifying they deny they are old even when doing so makes them appear sad or foolish or, in some cases, grotesque to others.

But it's not hard to see why they do it. In a thousand ways every day, our culture reminds us that being old is the most terrible thing that can befall any person. And in twice as many ways every day, it unrelentingly promotes the lie that we can maintain a youthful body unto death.

”The shame-based approach to aging is heavily reinforced by an American mediascape that loudly and insistently proclaims, 'You are young. Young is always better than old. Adulthood can last forever, if you want it to.' In public, we tell each other, 'You’re as young as you feel!'”

So notes geriatrician Bill Thomas.

Even though I have never really believed any of this hooey, the repetition is insidious and like so many, I have been a shamed victim of it.

All my life, I fought the extra 10-20 pounds my body insisted it wanted. I did pretty well until I retired nine years ago and exhausted from 40 years of constant dieting, just let it go. The result, of course, was a heavy weight gain.

As regular readers know, I let it be until early this year fear – make that FEAR - of aging diseases associated with obesity led me to a weight control regimen that is ongoing and, so far, quite successful.

However, the cultural shame game about our bodies had kept me from looking at myself naked for many years. I will show you how difficult that is in my home. This is a photo of my dressing room that has lots and lots of mirrors reflecting one another.

Dressing Room

My clothes are behind about 13 feet of sliding doors you can't see on the left and the door in the back on the right opens into the tub/shower room so you know that at least twice a day I am naked in that room.

But until last week, I had seen myself in that natural state – really looked at myself without clothing – only once, about a year or so ago. Do you have any idea how difficult that is with mirrors on two sides of you every day? It takes a lot of shame to work at it that hard.

For me, elder advocate that I am, there is a strange division in my mind about this. On the one hand, I unshakably believe – and have done so for many years - that there is nothing wrong with old bodies. I find photographs and paintings of old bodies to be fascinating and attractive.

On the other hand, I have not liked to see what time has done to my own body. Bill Thomas again:

”Because our culture has conditioned us to focus on our flaws, we naturally concentrate on and worry about the wrinkles, creases, and imperfections we see in the mirror.

“Although it can seem hard to believe at first, it is within our power to look into a mirror, study what we see there, and acknowledge, without reservation, that we are no longer young. We can learn to read the story of our lives as it has been written around our eyes and mouth and across our foreheads and cheeks.

“We can begin to reinterpret the changes as signs of important signifiers of our unique journey through life.”

It had been a couple of years since I had read those words of Thomas's but they came to mind when, last week, I wondered how my body looks now after losing 25 of the 40 pounds that is my goal. I stood in front of those mirrors for a good, long time taking in the wrinkles, the pudgy parts, the sags and all.

No, you are not going to see what I look like naked, but I am going to show you whom I most reminded myself of: the sculpture of “The Old Courtesan” by Rodin that I showed you yesterday, here in another view:

The Old Courtesan - Rodin

I'm a bit more round than she is with more flesh on my bones but with that, our bodies are remarkably similar, even to the apparent strength in her calf, to that little pot belly (which I am determined to lose) and to our breasts. Mine never did amount to much anyway and are almost as droopy as hers.

The more I looked, turning here and there, adjusting the mirrors to try different angles, the more I became okay with me. I'm 72 – into my eighth decade now. This is what I look like and it's been a long, interesting road getting here that I would not trade.

Not infrequently on this blog, a commenter will say that he or she feels the same now as 30 or 40 or more years ago. Really? I feel a lot different and glad of it.

It would be awful to feel and be the same person I was at 20 or 30 or 40. I hope to god I've learned and grown and changed my mind about stupid things I once believed. Bill Thomas agrees:

”You must have an intensely personal and private conversation with your own true, aging, self,” he writes. “The time has come to look into the mirror and, finally, make peace with the changes you see on your face and feel in your mind and body.

“You are not the person you were when you were 20 years old. You are not the person you were 20 years ago. The fact is that those people vanished a long time ago.”

That was readily apparent when I spent personal time with the mirror and guess what? I didn't faint. I didn't fall down. I didn't feel bad when I looked at my naked self. It's what I am now and there is no point in trying to wish back my 20-year-old body.

It would be such a waste of time to spend one moment on such thoughts. Instead, listen to Bill Thomas – he knows what he's talking about – and be brave:

1. ”Stop pining for what is already gone

2. ”Start searching for the person you are meant to become

“Relinquishing one’s claim on youth is a necessary precondition for exploring life beyond adulthood...

“Persistently and deliberately misinterpreted as mere decline, elderhood is actually the rich reward that goes to those who manage to outgrow the frenzied jangle of adulthood and enter voluntarily into a new and much more soulful way of being.”

All these quotes from Dr. Thomas are from Eldertopia, his impassioned plea for acceptance of elderhood as a separate time of life from adulthood, published in the 2012 edition of “The Journal” from AARP International.

I hope Bill doesn't mind that I have cherry picked the quotations to go along with what is on my mind this week, acceptance of our elder bodies. That idea plays a supporting role in service to the point of his story but I don't believe I have misrepresented anything.

It is well worth your while to read Eldertopia in full.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joyce Benedict: Double Treasures


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

Comments

Thanks for these two excellent posts. I have a friend who is a rabbi and she told me that in Hebrew there is a phrase that means "the beauty of the aged." It feels good to open up to this beauty on all levels.

Ronni - I write a blog on fashion and style and as a result read a lot of posts on aging. Most of them are in the How Not To category. Otherwise they tend to be in the Advanced Style category. I find your voice to be so much truer than most anything else, because you put the aging bit first, and the body etc. is seen in that light. Thank you.

At 71, after a bit of mental work, I've come to be content with my body, and to take care of it more gently and consistently. It wasn't easy and I still have my moments especially when I catch something nasty or I've have fun for a couple of days and then am too sore to get up on the 3rd.

I'm was happy to drop the fretting trying to look right, for dating, to get a job, later to keep a job, and so on. I've had asthma all my life so I've had some pre-conditioning for my body giving out on me at times. I use the same methods to take care of it now (mostly eat less and keep moving) and appreciate how it's carried me through thick and thin. Hopefully these feet will carry me upright on 90.

During this Jewish New Year period when we reflect deeply on who we have been, and then make amends, clean the slate, and move on, I especially relate to your post and cherry-pickings:

1. ”Stop pining for what is already gone

2. ”Start searching for the person you are meant to become

Shana tova, have a sweet year!

I, too, am on a journey of honouring my body more and revelling in the life that is still in me. I am working on accepting the inevitable process of the sag, the greys and the thinnings BUT have found extraordinary ongoing energy in a daily physical and dietary regimen that now feels like part of me.
XO
WWW

At 72, much of me is scarred. The latest surgery was a 19 staple job because of the weight in that one leg. The other leg is vastly thinner. I don't have to look at the middle of me when I see the horror of it all in various doctor's faces. After acceptance, there's always humor. :)

I understand about the mirror and that is what motivated me nearly 3 months ago to begin a healthier diet. Thank you for sharing the link to Dr. Thomas's article. I always enjoy your posts and have been reading your blog for a long time. Thank you.

The saddest elder of all is the one so terrified of aging that they try to look 20 at 75.

There is beauty at every age, and at 75-80 the beauty comes from self-acceptance, serenity and an ability to laugh at things which once would have kept you sleepless for weeks.

I deal almost daily with a young colleague who is so brash, so hard, so "my way or the highway" on even the most trivial of matters that she's already had a stroke at 32.

I look back at my youth and see energy and drive without the compass of wisdom that experience and age bring. I like myself much more now. I wouldn't be younger for any amount of money.

I thought that I was philosophical about aging until I found out that I have to have surgery. It's not my older body that is making me upset; it's that at 69 - and after a hysterectomy - I am supposed to take care of myself by myself, as if I were 29 instead of 69. No hospital over night stay, no medical transport, no meds delivered to my home should I develop an infection - it's a system set up for the young and fit. I realize that this is not only a reflection of our youth and vigor obsessed culture but the way that health benefits, even for Medicare, have been cut and cut and cut. I do understand why elders cling to the illusion of youth; the reality of aging and illness in the US is harsh.

As I near my 73rd birthday, I don't care for what I see in the mirror every day either, but I am alive and reasonably healthy and that is what matters. No one can hope to remain slim and wrinkle-free forever, and when you add in bruises, scars, warts, keratoses and spider veins, the total effect is off-putting. But, as I said, I am alive to see my grandchildren grow up and that is a beautiful thing - no matter how I look.

And to Tamar, Shana Tova to you too. I like that attitude!!

Oh, those mirrors! Besides my changing body, my resemblance to a parent has increased over the years...lol, but would the shrieking wake the neighbors?
A good article and loved the quotes!

I wasn't going to write anything today until I just read Nancy's post. Being quite ill myself, but fortunate to have someone in my life help me through the really rough patches, I want to give you some advice. I know with my medicare advantage plan there are provisions for home care at little or no cost to me if I needed it ... Please look into all your contracts and make phone calls. I think you might find you qualify for an aide several hours a day and more. And you are very correct, our system and culture here begins to disregard anyone over even 50 unless they are rich or famous.

At 68, well 69 in November, I am in the last of the 60's but in my head I think I am younger...of course my body will demand to demonstrate "Not so" at times. I have just embarked on what I think is food bootcamp at a Nutritional counseling and Diabetes prevention class at the local YMCA. The roughest part will be writing down everything I eat, I graze...but I am doing this to keep good health as the body has been rising my fasting glocose...well ok, when I don't pay attention, the body can get out of control...but I think of my departed MIL who always said, "I don't feel 80" or later 90. What's it supposed to feel like anyway.

I just wish that I could still turn some heads. I don't, so I must really be showing my age. This negative trend all started when I turned 47 (Today I am 65.875 years old) and got worse from there. I can live with it, but I miss the attention, validation, and/or flattery. But, my wife is still there for me and I have come to realize the benefits of a long marriage--at least one woman is happy with my body image (love can be blind) Otherwise, I accept that it's down hill from here and gravity holds sway until I ultimately totally merge with the earth, forever.

The physical changes brought by old age are ugly and unpleasant. I see no reason to deny this. If we can accept these harsh changes with some measure of humor and grace we are fortunate. Grieving for lost beauty and agility causes only heartache, and detracts from the true gifts that come with old age. These gifts are within us.

The sculpture looks exactly like my mother in her last years and I expect that is predictive. I have watched my body change over the years, but I sew and have learned about altering patterns to fit my changing body so the mirror does not intimidate me. It is a tool, that's all.

One day about 25 years ago when I was 50 I was walking down a street in Menlo Park where I lived at the time and had a startling revelation. I realized that the women I was looking at and admiring (and in some cases lusting after) were all 40 and older.

I realized then that this had been going on for quite a while and I felt wonderful because I assumed that I wasn't going to wind up being one of those obnoxious older men chasing younger women. I realized that I had lost all interest in having a relationship with a younger woman, that I had very little or nothing in common with them and that it would be very hard for us to share much, and what's a relationship without sharing?

I also realized that these women I was admiring had wrinkles and folds and sags and that these features didn't distract in the least from what I imagined they would be like to know.

And I believe that that's the way things were meant to be. Our society's focus on youth and beauty is not unusual. I'm sure that it has always been that way.

But what does bother me terribly is the effect that the hucksters of youth have on so many older people today; how it makes them feel less of a person because they're not young and beautiful. And the intensity of our celebrity culture exacerbates these feelings of inferiority even more.

For this reason I devote most of the posts in my blog to exposing the psychological warfare being waged against the elderly with the hucksters' anti-aging scams, frauds, and propaganda.

The quote from Dr. Thomas sums things up perfectly:

“Persistently and deliberately misinterpreted as mere decline, elderhood is actually the rich reward that goes to those who manage to outgrow the frenzied jangle of adulthood and enter voluntarily into a new and much more soulful way of being.”

You gotta die from something. I would rather go like Don Corleone, from a massive heart attack chasing the grandkids around the garden.

Honestly, I don't want to spend my last years fighting my body by constant dieting, resenting every wrinkle. For what? Five extra years in a nursing home?

Enjoying my food is one of the few sensual pleasures I have left. I don't want to rage against the dying of the light, either. I'll just enjoy the beautiful sunset, thank you.

i have thought a lot about this. i used to catch my reflection and be startled to see this old woman who reminded me of my mother! i've come to accept most of my sags and wrinkles except the ones in my face that make me look tired and frowny. age spots and crepy skin are okay. knobby fingers keep me from wearing many of my rings. i can look at myself naked in the mirror now with a sense of humor! our bodies will change with age; we need to accept the changes and adjust to them, but that doesn't meant we need to let ourselves go to pot!

I'm 31 years old and petrified of aging / death. I know it's very immature of me (especially at my age) but life passes by so quickly! I hope this is a phase that will pass! Thanks for the post, it is very interesting and true!

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