Trying to Get Old My Way
Thought Crime Bill Passes House

When the Future is Shorter Than the Past

category_bug_journal2.gif Terry DuLong, who blogs at Writing Away on Cedar Key, had this to say in response to last Friday’s post about my difficulty with getting old amid all the cultural imperatives to do everything possible to look young:

“…what bothers me the most about aging is that I have less time ahead of me than behind me. I mean it truly, really, bothered me for a few weeks after turning 60. I finally had to let go of it and focus on the here and now because I know how important the present is.

“But I'm enjoying this stage of my life so much, I don't want to let it go. Time is passing way too quickly for me. I moved to Florida 20 years ago and it feels like yesterday. So, 20 years from now, I'll be turning 80!

“I guess what I'm trying to say is the physical doesn't affect me as much as the thought that I just might not be able to do and accomplish ALL that I want to in this lifetime. Does anyone else feel this way or am I totally alone thinking these thoughts?”

One of the most interesting aspects of getting old is that unlike infants and children whose growth can be predicted to the month and even week, we age at dramatically different rates. There are 80-somethings who run marathons and corporations. And there are 50-somethings who, due to health, genes or simple bad luck are decrepit.

There is no reason to believe this applies only to our bodies. We come to our changing attitudes about age and eventual death at different times too, sometimes years apart from one another.

Like Terri, and not so long ago, I was concerned that the speed of passing time would leave so much unfinished, unknown and undone when the grim reaper shows up for me.

When I was in my late teens and the sister of my godfather committed suicide, I couldn’t imagine – particularly since she had died by choice – how she could have left unfinished on the bedside table, Lawrence Durrell’s Clea. There is no way, I thought, having slogged through the first three books of The Alexandria Quartet (and it IS a slog), I wouldn’t have finished the last third of the final book before making my exit.

And I have often thought that when my time to go arrives, I will face it pleading for a few extra minutes to finish the book or meal or blog post. But not so much anymore.

Throughout the 50 years of my working life, I looked forward – in the far, far future – to doing the big, “important” things I postponed for lack of time through those decades. Then I would re-read all of Shakespeare one after the other with, I hoped, more understanding than in my youth. Then I would, at my leisure, listen with more concentration to Wagner and try to reconcile the music I like with the composer’s anti-Semitism and Hitler’s love of his music.

Then I would learn pastry cooking which is more science than art. And then I would go to law school not to become an attorney, but for the deep education in logic. And it went without saying that then I would re-read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books – all 46 of them. And spend a year in China.

Now I know I will never get to these beyond dabbling a bit. There is too much there for an entire life and I’ve lost the impulse for them while gaining it for others.

I don’t regret now (most of the time) what I won’t have time for and I think I know now, too, how my godfather’s sister could leave off finishing Clea; sometimes the effort is too much for the small return.

After my great Aunt Edith retired sometime in her seventies, we had a richly satisfying, long-distance relationship for many years. She had a lively mind, a fine sense of humor and she read widely, clipping news stories and New Yorker cartoons she sent to me. We spoke at least weekly on the telephone for an hour or more about the world, politics, life, family reminiscences, recipes and more.

Then, when Aunt Edith was in her late eighties, a couple of years before she died, she began to let go of the world around her. There were fewer mailings, less conversation about politics and the world. She began complaining that she’d seen all the movies on television too many times and she made a sharp turn inward.

She repeated stories from her childhood every time we spoke. Fortunately, this was on the telephone and I could make faces to get me through the hundredth telling of the first automobile in her neighborhood – the “red devil” – without expressing my impatience. I never stopped her because the stories were obviously important in some way I did not know.

This disengagement from life and the world at large was also apparent in several friends who died young. The lifelong political fire in Patrick’s activist belly receded as the HIV made him sicker. Joe became quieter and turned inward as he became weaker – also from HIV. Those two men were in their forties, but even Archie, in his late twenties (again, it was HIV) lost interest, as the disease progressed, in everything but his partner and friends.

I am counting on that disengagement when my time to go comes near. I have often said that I am pissed off big time that I will not live long enough to see how the mess in the Middle East plays out over the coming decades; or how history will judge President Bush; or in what manner we have not imagined yet that computers will advance and change daily life; or if ageism will be defeated and elders will gain their rightful place in the culture.

But halfway through my seventh decade, I can already detect a less urgent desire to know these things. Not much yet, but noticeable particularly as that impossible to-do list for my elder years recedes in importance.

Like Terri DuLong, I am enjoying later life with more gusto that previous periods and I am not ready to leave. I’d like to be here as long as Aunt Edith who died about three months short of her 90th birthday. There is relief, however, as my time grows shorter, in the gradual letting go of the need to be doing, doing, doing or to tick off items as they are accomplished.

Not always, but more frequently nowadays, being is what gives me pleasure while I hope I am correct that the disengagement at the end of life I’ve seen in others is the natural order of things. I want to spend my final weeks or months engaged in what I believe is our last, great personal adventure and I hope I will have the strength of mind and soul for it rather than sorrow for what I have not accomplished.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Paul Henry has contributed a World War II story about trains, chance meetings and A Lesson Learned When I Was Young.]


I still have that urge to complete a list of things that I want to do. But I also have some things that my attitude has become so what? or who cares? Readjusting priorities.

My thought is that if you spend much time concerned about what you might not get to accomplish due to aging - you certainly will not do as much as you might have if you worry about it less and just be and do.

I think that disengagement of which you speak is nearly universal for those who live long enough, at least it has been in those whom I have been able to watch in that stage of life.

When I was young, and would get all bothered about some thing, my father would calmly say,"In 10 years, it wont matter." Man, did that get to me and, at the same time, made perfect sense. He was 50-ish and very wise.
There is a time for all these feeling about life and doing or not doing. And of course the best is to have the advantage to do it all gradually to completion. Since we can't count on that we are back to "living in the now." A very good place to be and damned difficult to achieve.

I am now reading that wonderful book you brought to our attention, Ronni, titled "What are Old People For?" In it Dr. Thomas writes about gerotranscendence (a mouthful) and the similarities people share as they age. I have been giving a lot of thought to my changing attitudes as I aged and I do find that things that were extremely important to me a few years ago no longer matter but have been replaced by other things. That also goes for attitudes and I wonder if a declining attitude about worldly things is a way of withdrawing from them in preparation for the inevitable. I'm not there yet, but I sense a feeling of ennui at times.

For almost 30 years I've been remindng myself that every day I'm here is a gift -- and some days it's a nicer gift than others.

I had a long list of things I intended to accomplish after I retired . . . now that I've actually retired, I've put the list away and I find myself more interested in just living—storing up the passing seasons. I'm tired of deadlines and have-to-dos. I seem to be accomplishing a fair amount anyway, but it isn't as important as it used to be. And I've always been out of step with the prevailing social mores, so it doesn't bother me much to be more and more invisible as I age.

Some days, the thought that I have less life left to live than I have already lived is a panic-inducer.

A real gut punch.

Perhaps I am not old enough yet to see things differently, but I just cannot accept my own mortality with anything less than a nagging fear right now.

Perhaps that will change - I hope so. I hate counting days like a dwindling piggy bank.

It's been very helpful to me to adopt the belief that our "life" is more than just our lifetime on earth. The idea that the soul goes on has freed me to look at what I can do and can't do as simply the reality of this time around. I just want to make sure that I use my time and energy to have a good time, and make a positive difference in the lives of thers.

First off, thank you, Ronni for "getting" what I said and what I felt.
You captured it all so succinctly. I have no regrets whatsoever...I learned years ago during my nurses training to never be one of those people on their death bed, saying, "How I wish I had..."
So from my mid-20's on, I made sure that I DID all that I wanted to do, visited all the places I wanted to visit, accomplished the most meaningful things to me. And at age 60, I can truthfully say I did.
You understood what I meant about enjoying these later years so much that I just don't want them to end. Life is so much "easier" now without the pressure of raising children, competing, working, etc. And I guess it's this ease of life I'm reluctant to let go of.
But I must thank you tremendously for reminding me about "disengagement." I saw it ALL the time with my elderly patients in my nursing career and you made made remember how I used to marvel that nature has a way of doing this for us...allowing us to slowly disengage....preparing us for the final journey in this lifetime. So thanks, Ronni. THIS time I'll try to remember it.

Thanks, Ronni. I for one am having a dreadful time with this whole aging thing.....the process is not a smooth as I'd like it to be. Perhaps I need to spend more time just being. Dee


I can relate to you. I'm not sliding into the aging thing with nearly the grace and confidence that I see/hear others talk of. I keep wondering why, and come up with all kinds of reasons, but it seems that ultimately the reasons don't matter. Lots of times it makes me feel, once again, that I'm not smart enough or good enough or whatever, to age gracefully and accept the changes and go on. And I hate that. I figure I'm the ultimate boomer, delaying having children to have a career, having children in my late 30's, just in the last 2 years, seeing them out the door, having no retirement "plan" and figure I'll probably have to work until I die. I just hope I don't end up trying to scramble for a job when I'm 66 YO that pays minimum wage. I'm OK now, but the future looks scary to me...and aging gracefully doesn't really seem like a priority right now...just making it through is on my mind. Just "being" is a state that I can't even think about, but would like to...but maybe if I stop worrying and start just being, everything will work out alright...


I agree with all you said. I don't recall reading many posts here from older women who are struggling to hang on in the (youth-oriented) work world in order to support themselves, with no foreseeable "retirement" in sight. It is very scary and it's also exhausting at times, both mentally and physically.

I agree that I think it would be easier to handle this "aging gracefully" business if I were not so consumed with the basics of paying the mortgage and maintaining health insurance...

Just wanted you to know that you are not alone in your thoughts and concerns about the future. Thanks for the post.


Several years before my husband's mother died (at 84), she said (in German), "I am curious about this last great experience." My respect and admiration for her, already great, just swelled.

She lived in communist Romania and we visited her once or twice a year. When she finally had the chance to emigrate, she felt it was too late. She had lived most of her adult life in the same house and she said that in any other setting "I would not be I."

Fortunately, we had several days' warning of her death -- she had a flu that was turning into pneumonia, and she was rambling deliriously on the phone about laying flowers on family members' graves, and I suddenly knew we had to get there, fast. We got there on Friday and she died on Sunday morning, holding our hands. Here, she would have been given antibiotics and recovered; she was strong. But they allowed her to go while she was still strong and independent, which seemed to be her wish. Probably ten days before her death she was still splitting wood and pumping water.

It was a struggle for her to die because her heart was strong. And at one clear moment between deliriums she commented with surprise, "The end comes so hard!" and I knew that she was, in fact, experiencing the last great experience.

My heavens, what a wealth of ideas and rich experiences are contained in the comments. Ronni, it must be such a pleasure to write something from your heart and see how it blooms in the minds of all your readers. I wanted to thank you for writing this because it made me realise that the untimely death of my father, at 69, was not so untimely. He had been experiencing that sense of detachment for a year or two before he died. We had some wonderful discussions of life, death, and dying all along, that I didn't realise those discussion in the last years were true and not just philosophical. Even if I was not quite ready to see him go, it is comforting to know, on some level, he was.

My dad died in may, 2003. the day before, I had come into town to help him take care of my mother who just had a minor stroke. He made the comment to me, "Sunny, if I die tomorrow, it'll be OK. I've done the most important things I wanted to do.
And you know what, he did die the next was a shock to us but he had picked his time..

Great post Ronni, and a very important one. I wonder how I will be thinking in the decades to come, should I be so lucky that they do come to pass.

It surprised me a bit, your musings about not knowing how things turn out. I guess I have to be reminded that not everyone believes something exists after death.

For me its as easy to believe there is an afterlife as the scientific fact that earthly energy only changes form and is not destroyed. I think our souls are but another form of undestroyable energy.

I remember at fifty expressing the view the last half of my life was ahead of me. I have occasionally given momentary thought since then, to the fact I probably have fewer years left than I've lived. I become most aware of that fact at the times a contemporary dies. The thought flashes through my mind, I must be approaching that average life span year, that my time here could be up, but my mind doesn't dwell on that fact.

Somehow, I've thought I might engage in activities after all, that I had earlier necessarily postponed for a number of years, as a consequence of adjusting to my husband's health limitations. Recently, I was surprised to find during those years that lapsed, from when my adjustment began to occur and when it ceased with my husband's death, I had gradually changed more than my conscious mind had bothered to assimilate. So, part of my process coping without my husband has unexpectedly included a reassessment of myself, what I want to do, in ways I had not anticipated.

Thoughts of leaving this life cause me only to regret that I'm going to miss knowing what the future will be like. I just don't want to miss anything. Disengagement is likely part of that gradual exit process. That state is also not unlike that which accompanies depression.

You, Terri and others commenting here describe well many of my thoughts, views and experience.

visited from Terris blog. Thank you both for this insight. As my parents are aging (80 & 82), I am anxious about what is to come. Your comments have helped greatly and I will look for the book, What are Old People For. Funny, just yesterday I was thinking to myself, 'oh I'm past the half way point (53), now what?' But that thought quickly turned to, 'well just do what can do, and go from there'! But definitely no regrets and I'm happy where I am now.

Ronni, thanks for this very apt post. Having just come home from trying to ensure that my brother's last four weeks of life passed the way he wanted them to, I've concluded that relationships are the most important thing to focus on. Amba's comment points this out: her mother-in-law knew how she wanted to live, and her relationship with her son and Amba benefitted them all in the end. How about the phrase "a beautiful death"?

Thanks so much for all your sharing.
It means so much to me!

My dad died from hospital complications after a car accident, but he had been withdrawing and becoming more and more remote (only repeating stories too) for the year that preceded this. The way he died seemed to be his exit point, but the dying started a year or so before. I think of death as a season of life not just as an event.

I have to trust that I'll be ready for the stages of life, not right away but in time. I never thought I would want to kick my toddlers off the breast, or want them to move out when they were older, but it happened.

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