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Another Reader, Another Age Dilemma

Exactly 55. That is the age at which I learned I am not immortal. I've told the story many times:

I scanned the newsroom one day to locate a writer I needed to speak with and was stunned, gazing over two or three dozen fresh, unlined, eager, young faces that I was older by decades than everyone in the room.

After a lifetime of being the youngest kid in the crowd, I had to acknowledge that while I had been otherwise engaged, it had ceased to be true. That revelation was the genesis of my research into what getting old is really like and, eventually, this blog.

I was reminded of that life-changing moment when a drop-by reader named doug left a comment on an old post from April 2010, titled The Courage to Grow Old. In part, he wrote:

”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.”

Although I'd had my first nightmares about dying when I was eight or nine years old, it was that “55 years” in doug's note that caught my eye matching, as it does, the age at which the loss of my youth was rudely presented to me. Is there some beast, do you think, on our trek to the grave that our 55th birthday triggers?

doug, in his message, takes a side trip from his main subject to inform us that “people in their 30s are my equals physically” and “I have the body of a 20 year old.” I don't mean to be unkind, doug, but you are fooling yourself. However fit a person may be, no 55-year-old in the history of the world has ever looked 30 or 20 - especially to anyone not staring in a mirror.

What bothers me about that and has always been one of the many subtexts of this blog, is that any of us, after having lived more than half a century, cling to such nonsense. That we do (my version was believing I was still the youngest kid in the crowd) can be laid at the feet of a popular culture that from the cradle insists youth is the gold standard of life.

It is not and 55 is just about the right age, I think, to begin rejecting the youth mantra repeated in the majority of marketing and media to ask ourselves, as doug is doing, what the rest of our lives can be and what we want it to be. His comment continues:

”My heroes in life are the elderly who keep on going. Some of these are the late Jack Lalanne, Dolly Parton, Tina 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.”

My question at 55, since the culture generally refuses to be honest about it, was: “what is it really like to get old,” now reflected in this blog's banner above. Maybe that is what doug is asking too.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jacqueline Herships: Waugari Muta Maathai Has Died at 71 and the Trees Will Mourn


I too was the youngest in my crowd, and later the eldest at work but it occurred when I was about 48. Where did my peers go? At my age, 69, I am that demographic of war babies, and we are pre-boomer and our numbers are fewer which may explain some of the lack of company.

At 48 I still looked good but youthful, no. Getting old is sneaky, it came along under my radar, and I perceive as coming in fits and starts until I think about it and recognize the slow steady changes. Some elders are more productive, but dear doug, almost all elders keep on going even though they are not in films, or an exercise guru. They were those things when they were young just as I was who am then and now, just more content with it.

At 43, I am still the kid. I was just with my parents over the holiday which reinforced that feeling. But I do notice changes that have me thinking of things like acceptance...what is my new role...who do I become in this new chapter? I'm in a place where I still feel like a girl but recognize that my purpose has changed. I believe we are who we always were...there is no drastic change in our belief system, our 'way of being'. We simply re-purpose who we are in the midst of those around us. If we are the 'older', we become the ones who enrich those behind us...telling history that makes the lives of those around us more whole. I'm seeing where that will become my new job.

Mirrors don’t lie; people do. Whatever 69 looks like, I’m that person.

I’m very tired of people telling me how good I look. What does that mean?

I finally said to a (not much younger) friend who has told me this more than twice something I either read or heard—--there are three age groups:…young/middle age/and you look good….

Will be 75 in December. And sometimes I get a little irritated with what is happening to my body as I age -- just as I always got irritated when I was sick and it restricted me from being the physically and mentally active person I have always been! Have to really work at accepting it, and for the most part, am achieving that.

And like many of you, I was always the youngest - from First Grade on. Feels very strange being the most senior member of my family at this point.

Now, I have to remind myself to be very grateful to still be on this side of the grass, still able to work full-time, and still able to live alone and do for myself. Actually, life is good!

Awareness of mortality--hard to write one comment about something so profound and universal. Death is the one certain thing which binds us all together.

Curious, this "turning 55" thing. I found myself in a surprisingly dark funk related to aging for most of the year after my 55th birthday. Being in the medical profession for decades and having witnessed/admired older folks dealing with the the rigors of the process, I expected myself to be immune to any distress. Not so. By the time I was 56, the gloom and agitation had cleared. Now, at 61+, I have an ever increasing appreciation for the Robert Frost poem I have framed on the wall above my toilet:
In three words,
I can sum up everything I've learned about life.
It goes on."
Still...I wonder why 55 for this coming of age experience? Something in the water?

Some of you may have read David Brooks Op-ed piece in the New York Times. He had asked for people over 70 to submit a bio of their lives.

He seems to be most interested in the successes and failures that the elders encountered along life's way and how they coped with it.

David is now summarizing what he found in the thousand replies. And I find it to be ludicrous to try to do so. Like that old radio show about New York City - there are a thousand stories to be found here and this is one of them. To condense them into trite summations of what made for happiness or unhappiness is to trivialize the stories.

We are all individuals and we all started out with basic traits. We all have had great joys and sad events in our lives. Some have had more than others. Some became famous and have much to look back on with pride, but whether this constituted happiness is debatable. And others had great sorrows; some had more than others and some coped well while others let it destroy the rest of their lives.

There is no norm and it's futile to try to lump us all into neat little cubicles.

There are things we can teach the younger generations following us, but they probably will have to learn their own lessons anyhow (just as we did).

In the end, most of us have muddled through as best we could, given the fact that both nature and nurture colored our start in life.

I always think it's dangerous to generalize and that is what David seems to be doing.

Ok...I sent an email to Ron that contains 2 pictures of me taken a few weeks ago. I sent these in order to show that indeed I do look as I say I do. This is not for purposes of vanity or denial. In context my statement about how I look in my last blog had nothing to do with advertising my good looks. It was a point I was making: that no matter how good or young one may look that doesn't change what goes on in a person's mind. One still must resolve natural issues of aging. I don't go around worrying that I am getting old. And I love people who are elderly yet young at heart. As I said, those are my heroes. I enjoy so much and prefer my friends and acquaintances who are much older than I and who are so "young" at heart and in mind. Yet my dreams cause me to stop and wonder about my subconcious thoughts. I submitted that last blog to stimulate conversation about this because I like hearing from elderly people who have so much life and energy to give. I also wish, as are evident in some of your responces, to promote give another "wind" to everyone, and to perhaps instill or re-instill a true youth in all of us (and I am not referring to physical youth, but mental youth). Thanks guys.

I started accepting getting older at 50, when I threw myself a "Welcome the Crone" birthday party. I think we can diffuse the things we fear by co-opting their power right up front.

I have always been the oldest of any group of women friends I've ever had, and the youngest, even now, is a decade younger than I am. That fact keeps me from dwelling TOO much about my own aging. However, at 71, I am what I am. I well understand the fear of a future alone -- and that is why I sank every cent I had into adding to my daughter's (and son-in-law's) house and moving in with them. I'm lucky that they are good people and have agreed to be my caregivers if/when that's what I need. Meanwhile we have ground rules and honor boundaries. I have to make an effort not to interfere with how they raise my grandson (I don't always succeed), but, all in all, I made the right choice for me. I am lucky that I had this option. I had to give up a certain amount of personal space and choices, but in return I have a sense of security that I appreciate more and more the older I get.

It is so good to read your blog about old age that has triggered such interesting comments from others. I would like to add a couple of experiences that I have had.
The things that first signaled to me that others perceived me as 'old' was when a perfect stranger stopped to help me load 5 bags of groceries into the trunk of my car. Five days later a another perfect stranger and his wife made me let them carry my bag of dog food and bird seed to the car and put them in the trunk. It wasn't long after that, a teenage boy held the door open for me to go into McDonald's.
Being on the edge of the women's lib movement, maybe I should have resented this help declaring "I can do it myself." Instead I decided to enjoy it. Maybe my osteoarthritis-wracked
body would last a little longer.
My Dad always said, "If you want the grandkids to continue to want to come over, you need to buy a red convertible. Let the grandkids drive you around with the top down." This year I have reached the age of 75. The grandkids all have their driver's licenses. It is true over the past couple of years I haven't seen as much of them. So I decided I would do something about it. (Fortunately we were able to do this.) Grandpa and I bought a Volkswagon Eos Hardtop Convertible. I am here to tell you that my Dad was right. The grandkids love it. So do their parents. It doesn't have to be red.

I think about this every now and then. It didn't come to me at 55 but more when I crossed into 60 as it had come to me about 27 as each seemed to be transitional points in my own life. I don't panic about death but dying scares me more. If I could go like my mother or father went, that'd be the ticket. I do once in awhile though think about this aging thing and the changes I feel in my body and life as I adjust to those differences. I am not sure what the answer is but the more involved I am in creative projects, the less I think about any of it; so that might be part of the answer. Denial doesn't help even if a lot of people would encourage us to do just that. The other thing is not limiting ourselves to fit what others expect from whatever age we are. The only test for this is are we living fully where we are.

In the men's group that I belong to you are welcomed into the community of elders at 50 but cannot fully participate until you are 55. I am 51 and love the premise that really what does anyone under 55 really know anyway? Head knowledge? Nothing of the heart.

I literally laugh when I meet 30 somethings who "look good" and "act as if" they know something about life. When I laugh, they ask me, "What's so funny?" I say that I was naive once too (and still am). I know now why my father, who is alive and well at 79, and his father would laugh at us in our 20's, 30's and 40's and occasionally now.

I look forward to more gray hair, more wisdom, aging gracefully and mindfully, and sharing all the love and life I have in me. I really believe my best years are ahead of me.

Your tale of a watershed moment and Claire Jean's comment sent me back to my first age related shocker, the first time someone called me "M'am". I must have been in my 20's, but it startled me. Then, in landmark appellations, came the first time I heard "Grandma" from the lips of my first grandchild. Wow. These days I'm struggling with "darlin', dearie, sweetie, etc." from people I don't even know. What's with that?? Grrr. If only they would just go back to "M'am".

When I was 55, I climbed Kilimanjaro. Was I fighting the truth of my aging? I don't think so exactly. Rather, I said to myself, if you want to do it, you better get on with it! I like to think I have lived with that attitude ever since. I'm still getting on with doing as many of the things I wish to do as is possible now that I am verging on 65. It seems a good way to live.

I do think sometimes about the fact that the world will go on in its delights and its troubles after I'm gone. Mostly I just feel that's how it is; occasionally I get wistful thinking I won't get to see how many things turn out. I probably remind myself every day that one day I'll die; it seems a right exercise in truthful living.

Next year I will turn 55 years. Whether it is the two pregnancies in my 30s, raising young children in my 40s, turning menopausal in my 50s (while having to cope with the challenges of raising teenagers), struggling with part-time work contracts during economic unsuitability, having to set up my own freelance business this year... I definitely do not feel 20 or 30, nor do I look it, nor will I ever again. Yet, it doesn't matter in the least. It is befriending people like you and reading endlessly interesting comments of your readers that has inspired me over and over again the last six years of reading your blog.

Perhaps we do Doug a wrong in thinking that his text was anything other than an articulation of his feelings of vulnerability.

Maybe we do not have to only find inspiration of those who grow old and stay young at heart. We should also learn to embrace the crabby old rascal in each of us as well.

So many wise older people here! At 75 I should, I suppose, be wiser than I am and more resigned to growing old (wise I'm not but "old" I suppose I am). However, I maintain that there's a place for a degree of aging-denial as long as it's used for the purpose of staying as active as possible, doing as much for myself as I can and rejecting the stereotypical image of an older woman in our culture by looking reasonably well put-together. Up until I turned about 60 I looked younger than my years, but time and lots of suntanning in my youth eventually caught up with me, so now I do my best with the age I am.

So far I still carry my own groceries or packages and politely decline help unless I have a particularly heavy or bulky item. I don't like being called "sweetie" or dearie" by strangers at all, but for some reason I seldom have to deal with it--maybe partly because I don't appear receptive.

My greatest fear is not death but the American "process of dying" in the hands of the medical-industrial complex. I only hope that all the papers I've signed will be respected when they need to be!

John, Note to self: You must come back to these comments at a time that you can savor, enjoy and learn from them. For now, I'm going to do my daily workout so that I can pass for 57 while 64 :). Actually, 47 is when the world saw me as old but I just realized that I was old when I turned 60. Such a delusional time it was--a struggle of sorts. It's over now, but not life!

I clearly remember the day when, in my late forties, I looked around the place in which I was working and, with a start, realized I was the oldest person working there.

There's something about being the oldest person in the room that's kind of scary. Somehow we feel safer if there's at least one person older than we are.

Even my mother, at age 95, does not want to be the oldest. Whenever her age comes up, she always reminds me that there's a woman in her church who is one year older than she is.

What must it feel like to be the oldest person in the world? (and know it). Yikes!

Georges Simenon, the Belgian author of the Inspector Maigret detective novels (60 in all) and about 60 other book.wrote a memoir/autobiography that was published under the title "When I Was Old" In it he wrote about his 65th year and how he started thinking he was on his last legs but in the middle of the year he hired a new secretary married her and- he wasn't old anymore. Time and age aren't totally linear
but more circular. I'm not nearly as old as I was last year but I'll never be as young as I was when I was twenty five.

I find that when someone says that a person is "mentally young" it as offensive as when they say, "You don't look 75!" My mind is the mind of a 75 year old person. Don't give me BS!

At 63, I refuse to be coy about my age or shave years off. I am annoyed when people tell me I "don't look my age"; such ageism in that "compliment".

I have lost too many friends in their 40s and 50s. I'm here, that's great.

There's a certain freedom in losing your looks, if you allow yourself to get beyond grieving for what's gone. You can just enjoy the richness and beauty of life, and let people accept you for the person that you are. Love those around you and do good.

I too have always been the youngest, in my family and my classes, and so far the only thing I don't like about aging is the being-closer-to-dead part. That part stinks. Oddly enough, I seem to have less fear of it, though. Now I'm in the process of collecting much younger friends by enticing them with witty repartee and my husband's cooking; someone needs to care enough to wipe my butt later.

As a Mortician Emeritus I can definitely tell you that there are a lot scarier things than death. I came to the conclusion sometime ago that we probably have things backwards and should be crying when people enter the word and joyful when they leave. I think the joke may be on us.

Approaching death does not seem to concern me personally all that much – at least not “death” itself. But I almost daily have moments of self-imposed nightmares regarding how I will be processed through death. Will I deserve a quick and resolute death or will I lie in a hollow shell disconnected from reality for months or years on end or will I suffer in discomfort, neglect, pain and agony until the blessed end comes? These are questions I am sure many of us share and we will only know the true answer with a moment of hindsight just before death finally ushers us in.

For me it has become more like the “looking but not seeing” syndrome that would best describe my nemeses as an elder. Like the majority of you, if not all, somewhere inside there is still a 20-year old alive and well and looking out through these eyes which are being chauffeured around by a body which seems to be going through some sort of uncontrollable metamorphous that from time to time makes itself known to me through unfamiliar aches and pains.

Why does the world seem to be treating me differently as my years go higher? Why is no one interested in my opinion any longer within the social networks of our time? If I leave a room no one seems to notice I have left. If I enter a room few seem to notice I have arrived. When the greetings are being handed out why does it seem I am always last? There is something terribly amiss in my world!

It has been most recent that while sitting at my computer I looked down at the hand resting on my leg and was quite honestly taken back by what I saw. I was for a brief moment quite uncertain as to whose hand it was. Surely it couldn’t be mine! It was old, wrinkled and aged like the bark on an old Oak tree. “Whose strange hand is that attached to my forearm?” exclaimed the 20-year old inside?

The point being, if there of course is one, is that only now after recently turning seventy am I actually starting to see myself in the physical realm for who I have become. I have finally come face to face with the reality of what my body has become. My body has become terribly old and completely out of touch with its owner. I struggle but I fear that I can no longer keep up. I fear that the “looking but not seeing” syndrome is nearing its climatic end.

Alan G--Well put, well put!

I can't relate to much of what I'm reading here. I'm 80 years old, but were it not for the walker I'm forced to use these days and the view in the mirror I'd never believe it. I have, however, just published my memoir, ...Invisible to the Eye: The First Forty Years and It's an Ill Wind, Indeed..., in response to my grandchildren's questions about what it was like to live before TV, the internet, cell phones; to live during the big depression, WWII, civil rights, and most of all how our family pulled ourselves out of the abyss after a tragic fire in our home that caused the death of my husband and 12 year old son.

While David Brooks's column on aging may generalize many things unfairly, I believe he's got the importance of learning "resiliency" spot on.

The title of my second book, It's an Ill Wind,...that blows no good, says it all for me. It is the unending paradox that we learn best from crisis - from loss, pain and suffering. It is through our grief that we are able to disengage ourselves from the day-to-day status quo and bring ourselves to fully examine our purpose - what is really important in life. Perhaps crisis - and in the case of some, aging fits that category - perhaps crisis can be seen as our homework, given not to oppress us, to beat us down, but to help us continue to grow - to help us move to the next stage of our life. It was important for me to find a new definition for who I was - something besides a survivor, a bereaved widow and mother. I feel lucky to have been able to turn tragedy into triumph - to feel worthy again - through helping others.

I'm 80 years old...and this is not an interim period of my life. Believing that education is a lifelong pursuit, I'm always reading. There are at least twenty books on my bedside stand, another dozen in my Kindle, waiting to be read; there are twenty plays I'd like to see, twenty people I'd like to meet or get to know better, perhaps even twenty great-grandchildren one day.

I received a quote at that fateful major turning point of my life, which resonates with me even today: "Our only real security in life is our ability to change." I've had many opportunities to test this theory as I have recalled and written the stories from my life. I finally arrived at the emotional truth that while I may not have had any control over what happened in life, I did have the freedom to choose my attitude in any set of circumstances, the freedome to choose how I thought about things. This realization has over the years helped me to make subsequent endings and new beginnings far less challenging, including this new mobility issue. When I altered the wording of the quote just a bit to read "ability to adapt," I found it worked for every new beginning of my life. Resiliency!

One of my Mother's favorite expressions after my Dad died was "there comes a time". Therefore at age 68 - married 48 years - I hope I have two more "well" years with my Syd for the big 50th. To live each day and enjoy what I do in that time span - is my reason d'etre. I have reached the point that I can enjoy staying home - I don't have to run around seeking entertainment when I have it all right at my fingertips. Each day I thank God for allowing me one more day.

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