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The Courage to Get Old

Last week, a post titled Old Age: Reinvention vs. Reflection drew a lot of good conversation. I came down on the side of reflection and a couple of people disagreed, wanting to continue to reinvent themselves. From their comments, I think that is more a question of semantics than disagreement. Many agreed that, so far, this is the best time of their lives.

As often happens around here, it was Marian Van Eyk McCain, a woman wise in the ways of aging and life itself, who eloquently summed up the question:

“I suspect that when people talk about 'reinventing' themselves they are in fact describing the continuation of [Jung's] individuation process. It is a misnomer of course. We are not re-inventing. Reinvention implies replacement. We are not replacing. We are adding.

“Until we die, we are all growing, learning, individuating, becoming all that we can be. Not in the striving, goal-oriented way of youth, but in the same slow, natural way that a flower unfolds to its fullest extent and, as the petals fall, the fruit quietly swells and ripens.

“Even in its last day on the tree, the fruit is still absorbing sunshine. Not reinventing itself, just continuing to deepen its flavour.”

Kathi, who blogs at My Sister was a St. Bernard and is five years into retirement, doesn't think old age is as rosy as Marian and many others of us claim:

“I find it often hard to just relax and enjoy and validate myself in retired activities. A chronic illness which has cropped up mostly post-retirement adds to the challenge. I exercise 3x a week, volunteer 5 days a week at the Humane Society, and read and watch good Netflicks a lot. But I still worry if I'm doing "enough" with my energies.

“My question to those who've retired a decade or more is, Does it get easier to define yourself in internal, retired-type endeavors as the years go on?

“Even as I write that I think of the external influences of lack of finances, poorer health, etc. which no doubt affect many folks. The mostly cheerful and positive comments to this essay make me a tiny bit suspect. How come we don't hear from more readers who are really struggling with elderhood?”

A number of answers to Kathi's question come to mind. In terms of this particular blog, elders who have not made peace with getting old are unlikely to stick around for long. I regularly receive notes from those who unsubscribe from TGB telling me they will fight aging to the day they die with Botox, face lifts and whatever else it takes to “remain young,” and they will never, ever refer to themselves as “old” because they are not.

TGB readers who do stick around, however, live in the reality-based world where aging is a fact of life and who see it as another adventure, another learning experience, as Marian Van Eyk McCain wrote, in “becoming all that we can be” even while dealing with inevitable difficulties of health, money, and a culture that does everything possible to marginalize old people.

It is not that we don't struggle (see Okay, Now I'm Pissed Off About Being Old). About defining ourselves when we no longer have a career, I was lucky to learn when I was still quite young that we are not our job titles.

It may have changed in recent years (or not), but on trips to England during the 1970s and 1980s, I found that it was considered rude to ask what new acquaintances “do.” In the U.S., it is one of the first questions exchanged on meeting people. In London, I got through uncounted numbers of dinner parties having had a wonderful time without ever knowing how the other guests made their living. It was an important lesson in learning to define myself.

That is not to say it was easy to make the transition from working woman to retiree. For the longest time, when asked what I do, I choked on the word retired. But repetition works – the more I wrote about retirement here and forced myself to say the word when asked, the more I accepted my new status. Nowadays, I look old enough that few ask.

Another reason some struggle with approaching elderhood, I think, is that from the cradle we are bombarded with only negative images and words about getting old. Language matters and when everything we hear sounds like “over the hill,” “decrepit,” “out to pasture,” “geezer,” “fogey,” “past one's prime,” “out of date” and it is rare to hear such positive descriptions as “wise,” “sage” or “learned,” we arrive at old age primed to dislike ourselves.

That was the genesis of Time Goes By. Everything I had read about getting old was about decline, debility and disease, and I did not believe then, nor do I now, that those three Ds could possibly be all old age is about, although they can be part of it.

I am coming to believe that courage is an overlooked attribute that elders share. In the face of the three Ds, along with often reduced financial circumstances (I doubt there is a TGB reader among us who did not lose a large chunk of life savings in the 2008 crash) and a culture that would like us to disappear from view to not remind them that they too will get old, we persevere.

It is hard, sometimes, to make the transition from midlife to elderhood. Most of us do it in fits and starts as we struggle toward acceptance in our individual ways. The biggest help for me during the past six years of this blog, is reading and paying attention to the many wise elders who participate here.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, P.J. Davis: Turtle Story


I can relate to Kathi's comments. I've been "retired" for less than 5 years, and for me the biggest issue is finding my way in a culture that marginalizes old people. I really feel it. I would like to feel that I am contributing to my community, my family and the world in general, but it is very frustrating trying to do that when you feel isolated and ostracized by the culture at large. I feel like my culture thinks my best contribution would be to just go away. In my own community I am feeling that rather keenly right now, and it's depressing and demoralizing.

As to Kathi's question about why hardly anyone talks about struggling with elderhood, I expect it is about fear; when everybody is so upbeat about things, one fears that if one says anything negative then one is going to be dumped on for being so negative, or such a wimp.

First, let me thank you for creating and maintaining Time Goes By for all of us to enjoy. And to participate in. (It feels like a club, doesn't it?)

I realize that every one has their own approach to elderhood but there are many commonalities in it and that's why Time Goes By is so important. It's where we can listen to others and feel that we share something important. Even for those that only 'lurk', I'm sure it has to be comforting.

Brave, timid, excited or calm, we're all on the same journey and it's nice to make the trip with friends.

(Hmmm? Did I wander off of the topic? Does it matter?)

While I agree with the comments here, there's one thing about being retired that isn't much mentioned & that's the feeling of liberation. No alarm clock, no boss, no deadlines & no competition. That feeling often outweighs the other negatives. But hey, I just do my best each day, try to live in the moment & "chill." Dee

It's all in attitude. My often used remark is "Old age is worth waiting for!" I find it similar to a child's being home alone. I can have my dessert first...and do.

I read Time Goes By to have some role models and virtual peers during this time of my life. I have no one my age to relate to and don't really know what's "normal." Thanks to you, Ronni, and the commenters here, I can judge when to be worried and when to just chill out.

I don't have any negative issues to comment about because I'm basically an optimist. Reading others' thoughts helps me maintain my equilibrium.

Willie Nelson sings:

"It's Always Now
And nothing ever goes away
Everything is here to stay
And it's always now

It's always now
There never was a used to be
Everything is still with me
And it's always now

Living in the here and now is as basic as you can get. Like keeping your eye on the ball or the Golden Rule. It's simple and obvious but it's so hard to do.

You can't "re-invent" a 76 year-old mind and body. It would be easier to reincarnate.

Like Steven says, "we're all on the same journey and it's nice to make the trip with friends." It certainly is.
We might feel like a minority sometimes, but IMHO we are a far more important minority than we realize. Quite apart from our love of - and loyalty to - TGB, when you think about it objectively a Technorati Authority rating of 529 for a blog about aging, in a culture that doesn't value aging, is pretty damn significant!

Retirement is worth waiting for. No longer do I have to work at some off beat job to support the real me. Most artists have day jobs of one sort or another....I had a string of them from running a tow yard to being a security guard. None of them were boring, but they took time from painting. Now that the stroke took my hand eye coordination, I have moved from paint to the written word. Such new and exciting frontiers await me. Now I am retired and have the time to enjoy them.

“For the longest time, when asked what I do, I choked on the word retired.”

Well, when at last I do retire I should have no problem saying the word retire. I’ve had years of practice choking on words such as housewife, secretary, office worker, administrative assistant (whatever the hell that means these days).

Getting older only means we did not die young so good for us! This blog offers me more than anyone can imagine. I am grateful!

Since I am still working 1-3 days per week, and more around the holidays, I cannot call myself fully retired. I will say that I enjoy working, but I fully enjoy those days when I have no place to be other than home. By the time I am "home" seven days a week - I might feel differently about it.

My blog, your blog and others I read daily give the largest amount of (to me) help in coping with getting older, and I don't know what I'd be doing without them.

Ronni, your last paragraph says it so well, "It is hard, sometimes, to make the transition from midlife to elderhood. Most of us do it in fits and starts...The biggest reading and paying attention to the many wise elders who participate here." The thoughtful comments that followed illustrate this.

I do confess to one small dissatisfaction. I really don't like the word elder yet. It makes me feel different. I don't mind being called older. It's just part of the arc of life and I'm okay with that.

I always think it's interesting, when people ask what I do, to tell them: Well, yesterday, I read the Atlantic. All of it.
Or, Today I'm figuring out how to cut quilting triangles from rhombuses. Or inventing a lasagna of spring asparagus and portobello mushrooms with a bechamel sauce.
In my part of Seattle, I do sometimes wonder where the folks my age are, but I don't believe I've ever been rebuffed by the young people I converse with at bus stops and on buses.
I will say, there's a group I should consider joining, but the name has discouraged me: Crones of Puget Sound. What do you think? Ready to be a crone? (And I know the definition, but for me, that doesn't sufficiently elevate the term.)

I'm a new reader (not sure how I got here!) and I have to say, your commenters all have great things to add to your thought provoking post. We sold our business 4 years ago, took a big financial hit a few years ago, weathered it, and we are now back on track. The adjustment from "productive" to "retired" has been more pronounced though subtle. I liked Betty's comment. "Eat dessert first!" Why not? Our goal is to stay healthy in mind, body and spirit. Attitude is everything and now I contribute by volunteering at our library shelving books in the juvenile section - selfishly keeping up on all the material so I'm ready for our first grandchild's reading enjoyment (he's only one!).

Everyday my husband and I express how grateful we are for each other and all our blessings.

Just lurking and enjoying. Thanks everyone. Much food for thought.

I have more or less backed into retirement. A year and a half ago, when my wife was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer, I moved from self-employed to what I came to call "self-unemployed." After a while, I started calling myself retired.

Meanwhile, my wife has returned to work and I have become caregiver for my mother-in-law. It's not much like retirement, although the pay is the same!

Is it possible that questions about what someone does is regional? I am trying to think why I haven't heard it out here or ever thought to ask it at any age. I'd be interesting in knowing if others from the Pacific Northwest are hearing that question and it's my local area that it's just not something people would ask because it'd seem inappropriate maybe? I am not sure and wondering if I am just too isolated to have heard it. It something I wouldn't ask as it would seem invasive unless someone said something leading up to it.

Another great post and comments.
A big part of why I 'retired' was that I was so uncomfortable being defined by what I was being paid for. For years I responded to "What do you do" by saying I was retired from the Navy, and then by saying I was a Red Cross volunteer. I feel like I'm making a much more worthwhile contribution to my community now than when I was doing 40-hour weeks in that cubicle for a paycheck.
Volunteering with the humane society or at the local library is not an insignificant contribution, and we're doing what we love.

I was forced into early retirement and felt completely useless for the first year. Then I discovered the joy of taking a morning walk instead of fighting the rush hour traffic to get to work. As time passed I found joy in the freedom to do whatever I wanted to. I learned to take care of me and to please me. It was wonderful.

I did my stint of volunteering and now physical deterioration makes that difficult.

I think I paid my dues and am entitled to enjoy each day in whatever way I wish. I am not going to apologize for that, because that is the reward for being a survivor. It more than compensates for the physical problems that aging has imposed on me.

I couldn't wait for retirement and I've enjoyed every day of working for what I love and not for what I must. I agree that retirement is sometimes a difficult stage to navigate. For a couple of years after I retired, I would still wake at 6 AM with an anxiety attack. My body was not in the retirement zone but we are getting there. Now, I can say with pride "I'm a painter and a writer, " not "I work as a buyer, etc." I have a couple of friends who retired without a clue and they are not doing well - too much sleep and too much TV do not add to the quality of life. I feel better now than I did when I was working, I've lost about 50 pounds and have more energy and I'm a lot less cranky. But then, I have the luxury of decent health and an all consuming love of art and writing; I don't know how brave I would be if I faced a lethal or debilitating illness.

Driving home yesterday from a big box store, I spotted some kind of animal, not a groundhog, something reddish, sitting straight, paws up, in the woods beside the highway.

It seemed to be grinning at the world, as if it had a big secret.

All I could think about, was how free I now am, free to explore life on my own terms, instead of rushing around like a chicken on crack.

I keep this book on me all the time, for when I have time to read.

"It's Only too Late if You Don't Start Now." (How to create your second life at any age.) (Barbara Sher)

Here are some quotes from her book:

"In most cultures, middle-aged people
become invisible. They can walk down the street without being the object of attention. That could be a very good thing, although most of us don't think so at first."

"But being invisible puts a great power in your hands, the power to be yourself."

"Being invisible lets you swipe something a lot bigger, the freedom to do as you please, because when people stop seeing you, they lose control over you."

That's what I'm talking about.

Pretty good comments today. All that I can say, is that I'd do better if I didn't have age spots! Young people focus on them. I could pass for 50 without them. Oh well.

For some reason, I wasn't able to get TGB to load from any of the starting points I tried, for two days! I missed important stuff, I see, and I've become addicted enough to my daily dose that I really hate missing out.

In my two years of retirement, I struggle and recover; get excited and struggle; recover and hit another developmental milestone; and so it goes. I'd like to think it's going to get easier, but my constant refrain is, "How old do I have to be before I stop feeling new at aging?"

I'm pleased to have grown in my own gray hair, to be exercising and eating for health rather than looks, and to have given up on fashion. I don't care to look unkempt, certainly, but the slavish concern for appearances disappeared while I was busy elsewhere. What a relief. There is such adventure to living now...and to daily locating a courage I didn't know I had.

I think the question of what a person does for a living probably is more prevalent in U.S. metropolitan areas since Rain is not as aware of it where she lives. Perhaps it occurs more with certain types of people, select settings, also may not happen as much in older/elder groups.

I also think how one enters retirement influences the ease and manner of adjustment. My retirement evolved gradually, by choice, even if somewhat involuntarily as a consequence of family responsibilities. I might well have experienced quite different reactions had I not been able to control that decision-making process.

Recent years I've conducted an informal personal experiment, particularly when I have occasion to encounter business and medical people. I initially engage them on whatever business I have to conduct, or the office staff to make an appointment. At a given point in the conversation I explain my situation requires consideration of the fact I work part time. Most of the time I note a significant change in attitude, surprise and increased willingness to fulfill my request. On another subject, occasionally I note some medical people determine much too easily an issue is simply due to aging.

Doctafill said it perfectly....

Thank you Doctafill, too. And Kathi - we have no $$$ to speak of but Thank God we can smell the flowers below us and see the sky above...who cares what others think or say...IT IS MY LIFE AND I'LL LIVE IT MY WAY - even old.

thoughtful post and good comments.
at 52 i'm starting to wonder what to do next, as my job is disappearing due to technology. (folks here at TGB are my mentors, in a way)
i like being invisable, i have usually lived it my way, all along.

I love retirement. I taught school for thirty years and retired six years ago at age fifty-three. There was a period of adjustment, but I am in a good groove now.

I have starting painting. I run an online collectible jewelry business. I read and research. I workout. I am never bored. I am now learning to work with stained glass.

I love the flexibility to be spontaneous.

I plan to grow old the way my grandparents did. No plastic surgery just keep myself looking as nice as possible and take care of my body by regular exercise and good eating.

Life good.

Jung had the right idea about aging. It's in later life, after we have paid our debt to society by having a job and/or raising a family, that we have the opportunity to become the person who is our deepest self. If it seems sometimes, as Nance says, that we continue to hit developmental milestones that cause us to struggle and recover I think that just means that we are continuing to grow. There is much inner work to do as we grow older.

Right now I am a family caregiver myself. My 91 year old father's presence in my life is one of the biggest challenges I've faced. He is enabling me to face my own unconscious prejudice against old people and my fears about aging. I blog about it at Inside Aging Parent Care.

Funny what the most common question is in different cultures. Here in South Korea, it's "How old are you?" Some Westerners theorise that it's all about status, but that's only part of the story. There's personal pride in surviving "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." The elders I talk with are teaching me so much about self-respect, pro-active aging and about mentoring younger folks. I like to say I'm semi-retired, as I do work part-time as an English teacher and volunteer at the local adult learning center, also.
Hugs from Asia, ~ Sil [just a baby at 68, heheheh]

WOW--I'm just taking time this cold rainy Thursday to catch up on my email items and what FUN to find myself quoted by Ronni and the many wise and delightful responses!

Growth in our lengthening years, with grace and courage and humor...THANKS to you all--your comments helped me a lot. Isn't it interesting how folks you don't know and faces we don't recognize can feel so close to our hearts?!

Ironically, I've been so busy lately I haven't had time to be depressed over what my retirement/new elderhood "demands" of me. Anyone else out there who works or volunteers with abandonded animals will know what I mean: it's Kitten Season, and we're swamped. It's not all joy and fuzzy babies, but it's real, and the days go quickly and satisfactorily.

I appreciate the comments for TGB which related growing into being more happily retired, and Ronni's thought that it may be the culture's negative connotations which affect us as we arrive at this new threshold.

I also think there's great wisdom in the comment that it matters how we become retired. Since mine was at least halfway involuntary, naturally my resistance would be greater.

But the only moment we really have is NOW, so thanks a bunch for brightening up my rainy day!

Anyone who'd like to continue hashing this out by email is more than welcome to write me ([email protected]) or by visiting my blog and commenting.

Thanks Ronni, and welcome to the West Coast!

While I may not be considered elderly by many the subject is of course increasingly important to me, and I am glad I got up this morning at 2 a.m. from yet another nightmare about old age and dying.

I am 55 years old, and have always fancied myself as a person who didn't fear these things. I guess it's because I am single now and wondering about mating versus not; about the prospect of ever finding anyone; about who might care for me; and the fact that I spend more time in my life (due to various factors ranging from friendships of choice to family to customer base) with the elderly, that I find myself often with repeated nightmares about a subject which philosophically has never "scared" me.

I must be vulnerable here, as I am in total agreement about the healthy need to embrace all things rather than escape them, and admit that these dreams indeed frighten me. I hate dreams in general. I am an early to bed / early to riser, and am always glad to wake up fully from a dream. Reality is my friend. Yet the dreams contain an element of sure reality.

I am unusually young looking for my age, and people scoff when I make mention of my thoughts on this, as people in their 30s are my equals physically.

And I have the body of a 20 year old (this isnt a denial of mine, but is in fact so). Still, I am glad I had the courage to google and find this site.

My heroes in life are the elderly who keep on going. Some of these are the late Jack Lalanne, Dolly Parton, Teena Turner, William Shatner, and my stepmother; and the age peers who are remarkable in their own right...such as that man who climbs skyscrapers at my age.

I have no desperate question here (or maybe I do and just don't realize it). I am simply responding to an obvious finding that this subject is important...something I want to take the time to explore. Thanks everyone for your interest and participation in blogs such as these. I am eagerly listening.

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