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Wednesday, 07 May 2014

How It is to Be Old

Having fallen asleep with the television on a few nights ago, I woke a couple of hours later to the fragment of a sentence just before a commercial began: “...young people wondering how it is to be old.”

Sleep for me is a fragile thing easily lost to wakefulness so I quickly turned off the TV and did, for once, get back to sleep.

When I woke the next morning, it was with that phrase, “young people wondering how it is to be old” rolling around in my head and I am now dumping it on you, dear readers, with a couple of thoughts to go with it.

There are old people who insist they feel the same as they did when they were 20 or 30 or 40 or whatever younger year they choose. Although I've never said it out loud before now, I don't believe them.

If that were true, it would mean they have learned nothing in their decades of life. That their worldview remains as it was at 20. That they have endured no heartbreak or unbounded joy, are still befuddled with youthful self-doubt and have no experience to inform their choices.

Which cannot possibly be true. Of course old age is different from youth and it should be. It is meant to be.

As I considered that sentence fragment, I did some wondering of my own: perhaps I missed a crucial lead-in to it because I don't believe the young give much thought to what it's like to be old. I didn't get around to it with any seriousness until I was into my fifties.

Recalling this set me in mind of something Penelope Lively writes in her 2013 memoir, Dancing Fish and Ammonites [emphasis is mine]:

”...not only do you know (even if it is getting a bit hazy) what it felt like to be in your twenties, or thirties, but you remember also the relative unconcern about what was to come.

“You aren't going to get old, of course, when you are young. We won't ever be old partly because we can't imagine what it is like to be old, but also because we don't want to, and - crucially – are not particularly interested.”

Lively goes on to explain that as a teen she spent a lot of time with her 70-ish grandmother who acted as a mother substitute [this time the emphasis is Lively's]:

”I was devoted to her,” she writes, “but I don't remember ever considering what it could be like to be her. She simply was; unchangeable, unchanging...

“I never thought about how it must be to be her; equally, I couldn't imagine her other than she was, as though she had sprung thus into life, had never been young.”

Although Penelope Lively is a – (sorry, can't help myself) lively and interesting writer, I don't always agree with her about aspects of aging. In this, however, I think she is correct.

When I make the effort to inhabit my younger mindset - in school days and my twenties - I recall being surprised to think of the old people I knew as my own age. When they spoke of events in their childhoods, it was impossible for me to picture them as young.

For me, Lively states it exactly as it felt for me then – they always had been as they were. And I don't think we elders should go about trying to convince young people we were once their age. Like us, they will get to it in due time.

Because I have the book off the shelf and just for fun, here is some more from Lively that speaks to me:

”Certain desires and drives have gone. But what remains is response. I am as alive to the world as I have ever been – alive to everything I see and hear and feel...

“I think there is a sea change, in old age – a metamorphosis of sensibilities. With those old consuming vigors now muted, something else comes into its own – an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in.

“Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold...People are of abiding interest – observed in the street, overheard on a bus.

“The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day – food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed. “It is almost like some kind of endgame salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new.”

Exactly as it is for me these days.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Chlele Gummer: Treading the Boards


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

Comments

"An almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in"

Oh how this sums it up for me! There are so many things I have the time to savor deeply now. And I do. Trees, bees, blue skies, fresh bread, soup, fruit, I drink them all in and marvel.

Ditto, Ronni, I could not have said it better.

As an old guy, I like how a long relationship (my marriage) keeps getting better and richer. Youth and those masking hormones, in abundance, prevented my fully appreciating and enjoying it. Getting old made this possible. To me wisdom = less testosterone.

When I young---under 25---I was naive and never thought it was possible to get old, act old or look old. I am no longer naive and I much prefer my my older and presumably better mind and empathic soul. I wish I could say I savor these later days but more often than not I feel more panicked. Panicked that I'm not going to get everything done that I want to accomplish in life. From an early age I always had more on my plate than what was humanly possible to accomplish, BUT back then I thought I had my whole life ahead to do it. I wish I get that mindset back again.

When I say I feel the way I felt at 25, I don't mean that my attitudes and knowledge hasn't changed. Saying what I *do* mean, though, is hard. It has something to do with my sense of self-perception and identity. My essential personhood--the I in any sentence I say that includes the word "I" --is that same person. Perhaps it's tied to the age at which we stop being our parents' child and become our own person. For example, I would not say that I'm the same person I was at 9 or 16.

I remember my mother looking at her 80-something face in the mirror and saying, "I don't feel any different than I did at 16." I'm sure she wasn't saying she didn't know and understand more, or that she hadn't suffered love and loss.

Something to think about.

The main difference for me these days, in my eighth decade of life, is that there are no days left when I'm not dealing with discomfort and sometimes downright pain. Falling into bed before the sun goes down after a full day, I can finally understand how good it will feel one day to lay it all down.

Ironically I never expected to live long enough to be old so I can honestly say that I never gave being old a thought when I was young.

I am learning day by day that being old changes with each passing year. Physically, it never gets better.

Emotionally I find I am shutting down. I don't get as excited over a coming pleasure; nor do I get as upset over a crisis. That may sound like I have become more mellow, but it isn't that. I think it's that I no longer have the energy to feel extreme emotions.

I do appreciate small things more. This morning when I opened by vertical blinds and saw the birds flying here and there it was a happy sight and I enjoyed the moment.

I could not honestly say that feel the same as I did when I was 20 or even 50. I believe that when people say that they mean that in this old body resides the same person that I was when I was younger, albeit physically changed.

About the same time I realized I might very well get old, (around 40 because I wasn't dead yet) I started noticing how I felt/thought periodically. I still have the same personality, although I hope I've gained better awareness as the years go by.

I suspect what people mean when they say they feel the same is that they're not aware of any dramatic changes in their cognitive or physical abilities, and definitely as Mary said - about their essential personhood feeling the same.

When I was quite young, I worked in a beauty shop. I would look at the older women and try to figure out what they had looked like as young women. It didn't work, they were just what they were. I never thought I would live that long. Here I am.

I was brought up by my grandmother, who would have been in her mid 40s when she took me on, aged 4. She looked old to me then, and I would wonder aloud to her, when I looked at a portrait of her in her 20s, what life had been like for her. She really only came into her own when my bullyig grandfather died. She was in her 50s then, got herself a boyfriend and began to enjoy life.

It was a revelation to me to see this "old woman" continue to age but with a new zest for life. She was a real role model and kept me entertained with stories of her youth, marriage and, in later life, her new romance.

I never once heard her say she felt the same inside as in her youth...she just lived her life to the fullest each day right up to the end. I nursed her until she died aged 90 twenty-odd years ago.

And it's not a phrase I say about myself. I accept all the wrinkles, aches and pains, the (at the moment) mild forgetfulness and body going South. I can still get enraged about certain things but no longer act that out...maybe I really have achieved some kind of tranquility, some self awareness and definitely more patience. This to me is what my aging has been about.

I remember my Dad going to his small town's high school reunions and saying how amazed he was that people who came (from several class years) who were nice still were nice, the jerks were still jerks, the oddballs were still oddballs, and so on. He thought they were the same people, just less energy and less functional bodies.

I don't think I have gotten away from my basic self. I gained life experiences and certainly more patience. I make different choices based on my circumstances including my age. Still many of things I love and enjoy are the same as always. I may not want or be able to participate in all of them anymore. But here comes that funny word, I "feel" the same about them now as in the past. When someone says they 'feel the same,' I think it may not mean what what others might think it means, to misquote Inigo Montoya.

Your posts are so thought-provoking, Ronni! Thank you! I have spent a lot of time recently- mostly because of my current p/t job driving (mostly under 30) people around - reflecting on the differences between being young and old. All that angst! Don't miss that at all! To me, being old feels like sailing on a calm sea with a bit of a breeze, as opposed to the storms and waves of youth. Despite the aches and pains occasionally, I love it. But I still smile when I catch a glimpse of myself and see my mother! It's a good thing I liked her so much!

Sad to say, at mid-80s, I'm not as alive to things as I was in my 70s. Evidently there is old and there is old.

An aside...I can't read the comments because they are cut off on the left margin. I have to click here in the writing section to get them to move over so I can read them. It has been consistent since you switched feeders.

As I've been suffering (what an OLD persons word!) from body pain, something that never bothered me until I was 50, I remember my mother working in her yard in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. Hot summers mornings, she'd get me up early to go out and weed the huge rose beds, get the sprinkler going and deadhead the bushes. Then, about 10, we'd jump in the car and take off for the beach for the day.
Mom passed away at 62 and had lost her energy at her mid 50s. I'd take my children to her house to do yard work on weekends and think how difficult it must be for her, the woman who worked in her yard all year around being unable to do that.
Now, at 71, I'm planning flower and vegetable beds for my yard again..the yard I'd built up over 40 years and which was destroyed by a contractor who land-scraped every bulb, bush and flower out to make the yard level. I'm planning on raised beds this time and very happy that I can still consider being the active person that I (hope) I can be. Thank goodness for pain medication-without it I'd be on my a$$ watching TV all day.

I've learned not to mention to my grandchildren tales of when I was young. I always think they'll be SO interested in what I have to say, but have faced the reality there's not much interest there, maybe a polite 'oh,' but usually just a smile.

I've not yet read this newest book by Penelope Lively, but have been a fan of her writing for years. This was wonderful, thank you.

Merle, I have the same problem as you with the margins, but clicking like you say has worked for me too.

Well Penelope Lively said what is true for me too. I have come to relish small comforts and the beauty that resides in every day.

Well, I don't lose my temper as much as I used to, and I do seem to have developed more patience. But mostly I am the same person with less energy. I am happy to be alive.

@merle and marge:

At the top of your screen there should be the word "View", click on it and a window should come down. Click on "refresh" and that should fix the problem, but you will have to do this each time you want to see the comments. I have had this same problem for as long as I've visited this site, at least a couple of years.

Class of 65, Merle, Marge...
There are many reasons pages are cut off. They can be related to your browser (does it need updating?) or your resolution settings, font size, where your zoom is set (100? smaller, larger?).

And all of that can be different depending on which browser you use.

It happens to me on websites now and then and once I reset my one or more of those settings, the difficulty ends.

In Firefox, clicking the word "reset" under view > zoom is sometimes a fix.

Mary Jamison said exactly what I was trying to compose. I know I'm old and though I am not happy with the physical changes, I don't feel or think that I'm different than at 37. I know and have experienced so much since then, but still there is that 37 year old lurking. Also, I try to remember not to talk to my granddaughters about "when I was young".
And I have enjoyed Penelope Lively for many years and when I read "Ammonites and Dancing Fish" I thought she was writing my life. I appear to have lived a parallel life except in the instance of brilliant writing.

I was so pleased to see you were quoting Penelope Lively, who is also one of my favorite writers. And when I read the following in her Ammonites and Dancing Fish, it was as if she understood exactly what bewilderment I feel when confronting the issue of time and trying to understand it in the context of aging:

Here is the excerpt, something I have sent to several friends of all ages:

"What is at issue, it seems to me, is a new and disturbing relationship with time. It is as though you advanced along a plank hanging over a canyon: once, there was a long reassuring stretch of plank ahead; now there is plank behind, plenty of it, but only a few plank paces ahead. Once, time was the distance into which you peered--misty, impenetrable, with no discernible landmarks, but reassuringly there. In old age, that dependable distance has been whisked suddenly behind you--and it does seem to have happened suddenly. Not long ago, there was some kind of balance--a fore and aft, as it were. No longer; time has looped back, regressed, it no longer lies ahead, but behind. It has turned into something else, something called memory, and we need it--oh dear me, yes, we need it--but it is dismaying to have lost that sense of expectation, of anticipation. Not only that, but we are aware of the change in ourselves--we are the same, but different, and equipped now with a comet trail of completed time, the memory trail."

Oh, to be able to write like that.

Yes, I just love that last quote. That is SO true for me. A deeper and deeper relishing of the things I enjoy, and particularly a deepening love of our beautiful planet and all the life forms with which I share it. The downside, of course, being a deeper concern for all the ways in which we humans are upsetting its natural balance and harmony. It's like James Hillman says in his book The Force of Character, as we age we become more and more of who we truly are. It can be painful and it is also joyful. As we say here in England, I wouldn't miss it for quids.

I love not having all the responsibilities and obligations of my younger years. I have time to notice and appreciate the little things because there are no longer big things demanding attention. I can open the back door and linger to inhale the fragrance of the neighbors' pear blossoms, knowing I don't have to rush off to work. I can stay up late to enjoy a good movie and then slide into a warm bed knowing I can sleep as late as I want. The little things were always there, but now I have the time to give them the full attention and appreciation they've always deserved. Now I can wallow in them.

I really miss the energy I had. I could do a 100 things during the day and just keep going, day after day, living like that. Now, a few things each day is all I feel like accomplishing.

Hmmm, have to go read Penelope Lively.
Thanks, as always Ronni, for a great, thoughtful, made me smile, made me think column.

I loved the last quote about "points of relish...a shower, the comforts of bed." Lovely!

A friend's father remarked that he didn't feel much different at 70 than he did at 50 and 60, but at 80, he did feel different. That struck me because I am approaching 70 and I would say the same. I look different, but I don't feel much different. Yet. I'm still physically active, strong, and fit, and the only noticeable difference is that my knees and shoulders hurt, which I largely ignore.

But that's physically. Mentally and emotionally, I feel very different. After a decade of caregiving and the death of my husband and now helping out my parents (who are in their 90s and compos mentis), I feel somewhat remote and detached and patient and not full of wants or striving. Maybe I'm just soul bone tired.

I liked the quotes you shared of Penelope's. I certainly didn't think of aging when I was young and was shocked when I experienced the first signs of menopause. Me?! Now in my late 60's I love my life and appreciate the life experiences that I hope are leading to wisdom.

I recall, at 26 years of age, asking my mother who was 55 (the same age I am now) how it felt to be her age. She said that she was surprised to see the face in the mirror as she felt my age--or younger. When I now look in the mirror, I feel a similar feeling--as though--where had the time gone? Who is that person with the slight lines around the eyes, the thickening waist, the greying of my eyebrows (!)? My eyes still sparkle and my smile still has a mischievous curl--as does my mother who is now 84. I savor things things more, enjoy the being of life--rather than the accumulation of goods or keeping up with my neighbor. We are both more comfortable and enjoying what time we have here, take pleasure in watching children and grandchildren and count our blessings in each new day.

I honestly can't remember well what it was like at any younger age. Snatches of memory, remembering little incidents and the people attached to them.
I was raised by my paternal grandmother for the most part. I lived in a farming community where almost every family had an elderly member living with them. Old people were part and parcel of everyday life, and it seemed natural and even as a young child I think most of us realized that was what we would be someday if we lived long enough.
I'm 81 now, with 9 great-grandchildren, all but two I see quite frequently. I'm part of their lives and with the oldest, whom I am closest to, we sometimes talk about what being old is like for me.

I have expressed to him the idea of continuity - how life just goes on an even flow even when both good and bad happens.
I'm relatively healthy. I sanded and painted parts of my house last year and will finish those parts I can reach without climbing on the long ladder. I stripped wallpaper, cleaned the wall and painted 2 coats of paint on a large bedroom. I intend to do the kitchen this summer. I do my own yard work, but hate gardening so my yard isn't very pretty with flowers etc. If it were not for Hosta, I probably wouldn't have a single thing showing.
My older great-grandkids come for visits overnight during summers and holidays, so that
takes up time also.
One last thing: each morning as I look into the mirror, I see my grandmother's face staring back as I look so much like she did at this age.

@Class of 65
Thank you for the fix of clicking View and Refresh. It worked for me and makes navigating much easier.

Merle

I have always had same problem but early on I discovered that if I clicked on "comments "and switched back to the blog then switched on comments again, I get the full comments. sounds clumsy but it's really not.

Funny I still feel like I'm 19, only with more achs and pains. Can't read print like I could I guess I miss that most.

I am a 64 year old male and still working. All my life I was fascinated by my grandparents tales of their lives. I could not get enough of the history. My grandchildren could care less. That type of thing holds no interest for them. I have a difficult time accepting that difference. I am not sure why it is like that, but suppose it is a sign of the times.

I like what Mary Jamison wrote in her comment about her 80 year old mother .....I think we reassure ourself when we look in the mirror that the person inside is the same person even though the body has changed so much. In a way, I think that is true because my world view is that we each have a spirit and it is ageless. But I am not exactly the same person as I was when I was younger. And now that I am old, I truly appreciate other old people. That ability to focus on aging and the aged is new. As a young person I was aware of old people but not focused.

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