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Thursday, 30 January 2014

Growing into Old Age

When I was young, 21 was the official age of adulthood. Yes, you could get married before then and young men could join the military but that 21st birthday was when the world accepted and recognized you as a grownup.

And I desperately wanted to be a grownup. As I've mentioned here in the past, I was deeply disappointed when I woke on my 21st birthday in 1962, and did not suddenly know the answers to all life's existential questions.

Equally discouraging that day was that I felt no more like an adult than I had the day before.

Although I'd had my own checking account for four years by then, I was angry with myself for still being secretly proud that I knew how to write a check and balance the account each month. By then, I thought, I should be so practiced that it would be no more a big deal than – oh, dialing a telephone.

And even though I had been working all those same four years, I was chagrined that I was as afraid of my boss as I had been terrified of my dad all my life. Grownups didn't feel that way, I believed then.

At about that time, when I was buying several cosmetic items one day because makeup was still fun at that age, the cashier held up the eye cream I had selected and said, “Honey, you are way too young for this.”

I could feel myself blush, embarrassed because I so wanted to be a grownup and a real grownup had called me out. I still believed then that grownups were always right and I ached for it to be my turn to be right.

It irritated me that whenever I accomplished something new, something real adults seemed to do as a matter of course, my pride in myself overflowed. Booking an airplane trip the first time. Getting my first credit card (very hard for unmarried “girls” in those days). Registering to vote and then not being turned away on election day.

It shouldn't be that way, I thought. I should be as comfortable with myself now, as an adult, as I was with being a child. I never thought then that I was faking being a kid; I just was.

But even getting married when I was 24 seem too grownup for how I felt yet - that I was still pretending to be grown up. But by the time I left my husband six years later, believe me, I felt plenty grown up.

And that is my point. However much I yearned to be an adult at a certain age, it doesn't happen that way. The transition from teenager to adult takes growing into over a period of time.

And now I'm pretty sure that at the other end of life, time is required again to become comfortable in one's old age.

Even if we accept that we've reached the beginning of old age, by 60 or so, many of us are no more able to yet make the internal transition to it than we felt like grownups at 21.

I was 55 when I first realized I was decades older than everyone I worked with and translated that into knowing that yes, I really will get old, in fact I already am doing so. And I wondered what it would feel like just as 35 or 40 years earlier I had wondered what being a grownup felt like.

It's taken me nearly 20 years to settle into old age and I've done it with as many fits and starts as growing into adulthood took.

What I first noticed, in the youth of my old age, was that people treated me differently. It probably wasn't but it seemed sudden that at work, I was no longer automatically included when groups of colleagues – all younger now – went out for drinks at the end of the day.

I knew something age-related as afoot when at age 57 or 58, I could no longer bear the pain of wearing high-heeled shoes.

At about the same time, a friend arranged for me to meet a certain writer she knew I admired who was also single. I was surprised at dinner by how old he looked; how could she think I would be interested. But he was only three years older than I.

More and more frequently, I was happy to stay home on Friday and Saturday evenings. It hadn't been so long before then that I had thought of myself as a social failure without a date or dinner or a party on a weekend.

And as I was chagrined at age 21 to feel a secret pride in little accomplishments that I believed adults handled with aplomb, now I was annoyed with myself for feeling superior to a couple of old women in my neighborhood who “behaved” much older than I did even though we were born within two or three years of one another.

Curious about what was happening to me and how my life would be different as I got older, I began researching aging. Back then, before the boomers began turning 60, there was almost no popular media about aging that was positive, if not entirely ageist. Mostly they ignored everything about life after 55 or 60.

The amount of information about old age has improved since then (although not necessarily the negative attitudes) and in the past ten years while I've been writing about various aspects of old age, I've settled into being old in a way that is similar to having gradually grown into adulthood so long ago.

It took me a very long time to understand that it's a journey getting to old age just as it was getting from childhood to adulthood.

In her excellent 1987 book, Old Age: Journey Into Simplicity, Helen M. Luke writes that Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, can never be analyzed because

”...for every time it is read it speaks with a different voice to each individual reader. Indeed, on that same reader it's impact changes with each new reading – and particularly at different phases of his growth into maturity and old age.

“This of course is true only for those who continue to grow old and do not merely sink into the aging process or attempt to delay it.”

I'm working on it, Helen. I'm trying.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Henry Lowenstern: Rocky Mountain High


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

Comments

I actually thing you fell into the demographic black hole. If you look at movies from the 30s, 40s and even 50s the people in the nightclub scenes were often older. The writers, hairdresses and makeup artists in Hollywood were much older as well. The same with offices, they often had older secretaries and such. You were allowed to age back then. You ended up smack in the middle of the youth culture.

I personally don't see boomers having any influence at all on aging. They are pushed to the back of the bus exactly like you were, out of sight and out of mind. Maybe in 30 years the pendulum will swing the other way.

Wonderful quote from Ms Luke, thanks!

As to credit: "Getting my first credit card (very hard for unmarried “girls” in those days)."
It was even harder for married women to get a credit card. I know. When I applied (in 1976, mind you!), the card came back in my husband's name. Fortunately, that was the year that the laws had been changed and I was able to reason with the company (read that as: I threatened to send them to my lawyer) in getting a card in my own name.

Vera--I think that in looking back at older movies we ascribe much older ages to the people than was true. No woman in Hollywood could get a leading role in a movie if she had hit 40. Many of the "women" in the movies were teen-aged girls. A woman of 30, these days, looks much younger to us than a woman of 30 whom we see in older movies does.

We are all benefiting from your curiosity about old age. Thank you.

Vera--With more reflection on your comment, I think I see where you are coming from. The supporting roles (secretaries and such) may have been played by people who looked older to me than they were; but, they truly were not spring chickens!

When I was young, the age of majority in my state (NY) was 18. That year I voted for the first time (JFK), had my first legal beer (Dortmunder-Union in a bar in the Yorkville area of Manhattan) and filed my first tax return (I think I owed them about $100). The rest of my life I have spent learning to be an adult. I am 68 now and I still haven't figured it out.

I am ever adjusting to this stage of life. I fought it for a while after I turned 60. This was quite unusual for me because I had accepted all the other age milestones without much thought to them at all. I think what made my adjustment somewhat more difficult is some increased mobility problems that accelerated around the age of 60. I know that age is not the reason for this (at least not the only reason). I see many people much older than myself walking briskly unaided. I use an electric wheel chair. So I am seeing that age has little to do with my mobility issues-but at first it seemed so. I think if I was still totally mobile, I would not have as much difficulty accepting my age. I am trying to separate the two in my thinking.

At 72 - I do not think of myself as older, just young for a very long time...I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up....I still work full time and actually feel much better than I did in my 30's, 40's and 50's....fewer aches and pains and a lot less anxiety about issues that shouldn't have made me as anxious as they did....

"And now I'm pretty sure that at the other end of life, time is required again to become comfortable in one's old age."

This seems to be most difficult for many of us. Something I have come to dislike is people who have reached elder ages still trying to recapture their youth in the most sophomoric styles.

For example, I am reluctant to watch the full movie "Last Vegas" with Hollywood greats Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline. The trailer displays a group of old men trying to live out a fantasy they failed to achieve as young adults rather than simply visiting Las Vegas and all that it offers them as elders.

Maybe I'm too reactive to this but to me, it's a matter of acting your age and not being ashamed of it.

Just recently, about a month ago, I stopped wearing eye makeup. No one in my RV community has said anything about my pale face.

There are others here in their 80's who wear no makeup, so maybe it does not seem so unusual to anyone.

Still wearing lipstick! In the dry desert climate it does help keep the lips moist!

There is only one male member of our community who walks by me and other elders here, as though we do not exist. I do
know that he is well into his 60's. He does like much younger women, changes girlfriends like others change their clothes!

Having been "retired" for 20 years, I am very comfortable being an elder.... Certainly would not want to relive much of my past 82+ years!

I have been giving this old age thing a lot of thought--

My new mindset is now to make my life better --not younger--for as long as I can.

I, too, thought that by reaching the age of 21 my life would magically change, but nothing did with the exception of being able to vote and drink.

With a few exceptions I did not feel old until after I broke my hip and physical aging accelerated then.

I was made aware of the fact that I was old at times. When I would walk up the ramp from the plane to the concourse thinking I was walking fast and others were passing me I knew I had slowed down. Or when I was no longer able to do as much in a day as I had been doing it became obvious that I was aging. Other days and episodes pointed out that I was old. When I made my last big trip to Europe in my 70's and had days of wishing I was home in my bed instead of walking from castle to castle or schlepping my suitcase on and off of a train I knew I was no longer young and that such trips were over for me.

I could still do almost everything that I had always done, only shower. But after breaking my hip I found my energy level was dramatically decreased and it continues to do so with each passing year.

I think that the aging process is sneaky. We slow down, but are not as aware of it unless we have a serious illness and that seems to change everything. I used to have days that I really felt young again, but no more. I am old, old, old.

Your comment "I was deeply disappointed when I woke on my 21st birthday in 1962, and did not suddenly know the answers to all life's existential questions." brought back memories.

When I was 16, my 24-year-old sister, living in another city wrote me a letter apologizing for her tardiness in writing. She said something like "I've been so up and down trying to figure out what to do and where to live and what I want to be", etc etc. I was devastated, and in my teenage angst, felt "Oh no, I thought I would know by then!!"

My sister and I laugh about it now, as we sit (still) trying to figure things out. Hopefully, we gain a little "adult" wisdom with each passing year, but it's no longer so important.

Still learning HTML, the bold was supposed to be around the word "everything" but the word disappeared. :)

I so enjoyed this posting and the comments, but have to admit that being "old" has made my life easier in many ways. Busy with volunteer work, friends and visiting children and grandchildren.
I am as happy at home reading as going out with friends. My greatest concern is being a burden to my children when and if I am no longer able to care for myself.
I'm here now and so I want to make the most of it and enjoy it.

That's odd. When I was twenty-one I knew the answers to all life's existential questions. I wish I could remember them.

I expected something magical to happen when I turned 13, and of course, it did not. I gave up on that then and there. The only thing that bothers me about being my age, 71, is that I am seeing the deaths of some very dear to me people. I have but one aunt and uncle left, no parents, my dearest sister-in-law is gone, and now a brother-in-law has pancreatic cancer.

Other than that, I am slowed down some but that seems to be working in my favor. I used to have trouble pacing myself and worked or played until I dropped. Now, I've learned better and consequently feel better most of the time. I too worry about burdening my children later and have my fingers crossed as my parents went quickly when they died, and maybe I will too. I made plenty of mistakes in my life but survived them all, and I've had a good life.

I am 71 and celebrate being an elderly woman.

I love the claity of your synopses. Thank you.

And Hooray for you, for working on it! For trying! And Hooray for all of us, who are doing so, as well.

Like any life transition, it does take work. And attention. And seeking. And not, not, not just "hiding it under the rug."

Thank you for the reading suggestion. I'm very glad to have discovered this blog. And you. After all, this blog isn't writing itself, is it? -grin-

Tessa~

-chuckle- And guess what I just did? Changed my Icon pic. :-)

For Valentine Time, I've been using a cute little Valentine themed drawing. But I just switched it out, for a pic of me. -chuckle-

Wondering? Does that count as becoming wiser? Or as bowing to ageism? I mean, by not having the fun of a cute holiday themed Icon...

Oh well, I did it, today. Who knows what I'll use for an Icon, tomorrow?

:-)

Tessa~

Tessa--I just had to come over from Ronni Bennett's to see the photo on which you commented. Unlike Stacy, I am already old. Trust me when I tell you that I wish I had looked as good as your photo looks - at any of my ages. You are a cutie!

BTW: I tried to leave the above paragraph as a comment on your blog, but the blog doesn't allow "Anonymous" comments.

Most of the major decisions/choices we make in life evolve rather than strike us like bolts from the blue. I imagine that growing into old age takes the same wayward course as picking a career, deciding on volunteer commitments, planning a family, retiring,etc. Thanks for your insights.

Darlene - did you have a hip replacement? My mil had 2 on same hip. It's a device problem usually. She was 86 with her last operation and it allowed her many more liberties and enjoyment once done.
I'm 71, MUST exercise daily to feel good all around and keep my mind emotionally positive generally - perhaps it's just getting out and finding reasons to smile broadly at whatever is new or that I didn't 'see' before. Today I noticed many crows gathering and wildly chattering in a high treetop - and then silence. Have no idea what was going on with them, but it entertained me for some time and took my mind to new thoughts (of how interconnected life is/how there's a balance or delight when we give attention openly).
At 21, I was confused and rattled. But sensed a certainty that "I" was mine.

Ah, but you see, I never felt I'd become an adult. I've always felt like a child masquerading in an adult body. I go through the motions of being an adult, doing what adults are supposed to do. But I've never really felt like a competent adult. In my 70th year, nothing has changed except I'm now costumed as a rotund gray-haired grandmother instead of a chic career woman. Shhh, don't tell anyone ...

I'm still working on this acceptance-of-aging thing! I'm not yet "liking" it, but at 77 I guess I'd better keep trying since older is all I'm going to get. Unlike Elizabeth above, I'm not ready to forsake eye or any other makeup (in moderation--glitter eyeshadow is OUT), but I admire her chutzpah!

If I still imbibed, I'd raise a toast to Ronni and others who are WAY further along the path of growing into old age than I am--or may ever be. I don't deny that I'm "older" than I once was, but so far I've been able to avoid some of the negative baggage that seems to come with being "old" in our society--maybe in part because I try not to characterize myself in that way except where it makes sense to me personally (i.e., I don't jump out of airplanes now but I didn't in my 20s, either).

BTW, I share the desire of several other writers not to live long enough to be a burden to anyone, and I certainly don't want to outlive my money!

I came upon your blog recently and find it so very informative and useful. Just recently turned 65, entered Medicare and was feeling "down" when I went into a bakery to pick up my birthday cake. There ahead of me was a 90'ish woman and her husband. The woman looked at my cake and said "honey are you 65?" to which I said "yes I am". She then said wistfully "oh, you are so young; I can't even remember when I was 65". I left the bakery with a smile and feeling it is all perception.

Ronni - somewhat like you I took up the study of ageing because I felt I had stumbled through my earlier years with no clear idea of what to expect - always feeling I was playing a role and hadn't really learned the script. So I've spent a lot of time studying ageing both through reading, volunteering in aged care and by being old. At 75 I am so happy that I now know as much as I do - that I know what is required to keep me fit and healthy (barring accidents) and to explore the options available to me as I get older. Still don't know the answers to the big questions of life - but I do know enough to live fully in the here and now and thoroughly enjoy it.

I learn so much from this blog and the comments. Means a lot to this near-shut-in. Thanks to all.

Wonderful post, Ronni. Thank you.

Great article. It's always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained!

Knowingly and unknowingly,Ronnie,you are helping us in the process,Thank you for this piece and the comments are both funny and educational.

How true the points you describe. I am a male 'front end' Baby Boomer born January 1946. Just as we had the motto (rule of thumb?) 'don't trust anyone over 30' now I have the motto 'don't trust anyone under 60' especially young doctors or other health providers--I always research their answers and statements with the thought that so many suggestions are driven by money and not altruism.

You brought back a long forgotten memory. I had my first baby when I was 21, back in 1957. I was practiced at childcare because I have a brother 11 years young than I am, but I worried about my maturity in relation to making all the right decision now that I was responsible for this amazing infant. I was having a lunchtime visit with one of my aunts and I asked her my burning question: "When do you get to the point where you really feel mature and comfortable with your decisions." She, who was probably about 40 at the time, which seemed so terribly old to me then, smiled at me and said, "When I get there I'll let you know." I was soooo disappointed. I thought I was really going to get the straight poop.

Hi, this is really something touching may be I could not be feel the same you share but I would to tell my Mom to read this at least once. Thanks for this wonderful piece of experience.

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