ELDER MUSIC: Songs about the King
ELDER POETRY INTERLUDE: Getting Old by Jack Gilbert

The Courage and Bravery of Elders

Recently, I ran across a quotation from Muriel Spark on the subject of growing old:

”Being over 70 is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.”

Spark reminded me of a blog post I have intended to write for a long time (see above headline). But first, I wanted to be sure I know the difference between courage and bravery which most of us – me too and even some dictionaries – use interchangeably.

Fortunately, there is a respectable website called DifferenceBetween and I'm going to quote at length their explanation of the difference between courage and bravery. Added emphasis is mine:

Bravery is the ability to confront pain, danger or attempts of intimidation without any feeling of fear. It is strength in character that allows a person to always be seemingly bigger than the crisis, whether he is indeed more powerful or is lesser than what he is tackled with.

Courage, on the other hand, is the ability to undertake an overwhelming difficulty or pain despite the eminent and unavoidable presence of fear. More than a quality, it is a state of mind driven by a cause that makes the struggle all worth it.

“Unlike in the case of bravery, a person fueled by courage may feel inevitably small in the face of peril, pain or problems. The essence of courage is not the feeling of being certainly capable of overcoming what one is faced with, but rather is the willful choice to fight regardless of the consequences.”

So the basic difference is that bravery involves no feeling of fear in the face of danger and courage is the will to keep going in the face of fear.

Certainly there must be elders who bravely keep on truckin' without fear as the years pile up. I am not one of them. It is in quiet moments alone and in the dark of night sometimes, when I can't sleep, that I am fully aware of the disasters that can befall me.

Fully aware even when pretending that none of them will happen to me.

Fully aware even when recalling that actor Bette Davis was speaking from first-hand knowledge when she said, “Old age ain't no place for sissies.”

In 1983, Ms. Davis underwent a double mastectomy for breast cancer and two weeks later suffered four strokes followed soon by a broken hip – three of the most common scourges of old age crammed into one year.

Bette Davis and her Pillow

There was a long period of recovery but Ms. Davis worked her way back to make several more films before she died in 1989 at age 81. The epitaph on her tombstone reads, "She did it the hard way.”

No kidding. And so do a lot of old people. Actually, I suspect that one way or another, we all do it the hard way:

Weathering the kind of loneliness Muriel Spark speaks of when too many old friends have died and there is no one left who knew you when you were young.

Of the medical horrors like those of Bette Davis. Not everyone comes back as far as she did but so many are surprisingly resilient in making do with limitations.

The drip, drip, drip of declining strength and energy in old, old age. Nevertheless, elders accommodate and keep going. I've known and continue to know many.

The bone-deep sadness (not to mention exhaustion) of caregivers watching spouses decline while they still find things to laugh about.

Approaching the end of our days wondering so much more seriously than when we were younger, what comes afterward. Hurray, I suppose, to those who are convinced of life ever after.

Those who are not convinced are left to contemplate oblivion.

There is courage in just walking around when you know that every year, one-third of people 65 and older fall and 20 percent who suffer a hip fracture die within a year. Remember when a fall meant a bruise or at worse, a broken bone that would heal quickly? No elder can count on that anymore.

Old age requires that elders become aware, as much as possible, of the catastrophes that can befall them and they do that with amazing good cheer most of the time as they arrive closer each day to the inevitable and only outcome life grants us.

All old people are amazingly brave and courageous, and none get enough credit for it.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Vicki E. Jones: The Advertising Lesson


I guess, for me, being older is not the focus of my life. I have so many interests that I think about far more than the calamities that could befall me being old. My philosophy is take enjoy each day presented to us with full appreciation of everything it has to offer. I spent over 40 years raising 2 generations of children as a single parent and then grandparent and this is my time now just for me.

My paternal grandmother lived to be 92; she suffered from crippling arthritis (back when aspirin was the only pain-killer option)...yet kept going, even having a veggie garden up in her 70s.

From my earliest memory, her knees were hugely enlarged, a big knot on her neck, at the top of the spine. She and my grandfather lived in a big old ramshackle house -- heated mostly with two fireplaces.

At 62, I have started on the long painful path of arthritis; some days it's very difficult getting out of bed--stiffness, aching. Now I appreciate what my grandmother must have suffered, yet kept going, pushing herself beyond what many today could even imagine.

Bette Davis was certainly right!

I'm a very lazy woman, and that gets in the way of my leaping into life fully. Yesterday I didn't do so well on two test in the AARP Magazine. Dementia next? I'm going to let go of the worry and hop in the pool. Every day I can walk a greater distance, and that
s my goal.

The few moments right before I fall asleep is the time when worry hits me. There have been a few times when I have felt panicky because I realize how much is out of my control. My siblings and my partner are all declining with age and I have no idea what will befall us in the future.

I don't think that we old people are either brave or courageous, We are however, stoics who have learned to deal with the inevitable. We know what is in store for us and how to face it head-on. Anything less would put us all in the looney bin. Keep doing what you've been doing children, it's worked out OK so far.

When so many people around me are suffering with age related medical issues it's hard not to let it color my moods and outlook. Just this past week a friend had a hip replacement that went horribly wrong and the week before that another friend found himself in the hospital for 10 days when he was told it would only be overnight. We have to believe in living every day instead of just existing every day, and I do. But some days it's harder than others to do that.

" . . . there is no one left who knew you when you were young."

Powerful words that struck a deep chord within. Thanks so much for sharing them.

Since my mother lived to be 94 and my MIL is now 96, I have seen how age debilitates. And it's obvious that my MIL is "ready to go" as she herself says. But the fear that creeps up occasionally when thinking about old age needs to be replaced with the love that still exists and remains in our hearts. I really enjoyed your distinctions between bravery and courage.

You are such a great writer -- I look forward always to your thoughts on topics concerning getting old.

Thanks for my morning read everyday.

As a "young" older person of 66, I find that I have stopped worrying what will happen to me. I try to do something positive for some one around me every day. It makes me feel useful. I always remember that each day is a gift and I try not to waste it. When I find myself worrying, I "change" the subject if I can. If not, I always remember my Dad's mantra that got him through WWII combat and his ensuing wonderful life back home: "Nothing lasts forever". Bad or good.

Ironically, the main things I worry about are related to money. Even I think that is a waste of time. No one knows if they will have money in the future.

PS I had quad bypass back in 2010 and try to live a healthy life-style and leave the rest to fate.

Powerful post. I try to live one day at a time, an AA teaching. Another AA concept is working to eliminate "stinken' thinken." Being fearful steals what life I have left from me, so I work on derailing those downer thoughts while I can as they come up. I work to replace them with positives. I deliberately read something light or imagine beautiful places I have been before I go to sleep and after years of practice, mostly it works.

Thank you for your willingness and ability to look at aging honestly, stripped aside of romanticism, but also to provide resources, amusement and information that help to provide hope, resilience and a reason to keep going. That's what I like the most about the Villages movement -- if we can help each other with support of all kinds and companionship, aging is likely to be so much better.

Bruce said it for me. My only fear is to be dependent on others and I will try to check out before that happens.

I do not focus on what could befall me, I am too busy living life and taking care of my husband. Age is an attitude and a state of mind - and it isn't all bad.

I've never worried about the physical signs of aging -- wrinkles and such don't bother me, although I would rather have looked like my Grandma Jacques than my Grandma Wright.

It's the fear of being dependent upon others for anything that keeps me awake at night. Especially others who care nothing for me and who don't know me and don't want to know me.

I am not brave nor am I courageous. If my husband were to die I might just do away with myself the next day. On the other hand, I might find the strength to continue on. But I would be very afraid. I would not wish to impinge on my children's freedom or to drain their finances.

Interesting and true. Though I have fewer friends, I embarked on a journey after retiring of acquiring new friends through social media. Today, friends are younger, live in many different places, with a wide range of interests. Different but sustaining. This new communication network is My Gift along with being Blessed with a loving husband of 53+ years.

Hey, if you all are gonna die someday I want to die too!! I do NOT want to be the only human who never dies.
I just don't want to die today.
Today is all any of us have. "This is the day.....rejoice and be glad in it".
Even though our lifestyle is not as glorious as once it was, life itself is still glorious and mysterious. I do suffer some now, and worry about how much suffering lies ahead of me, but as a career nurse, I have seen so many little kids suffer far more at a young age than I have at an old age that I are not whine, nor can I conclude that a life of suffering is a worthless life, or that suffering has no purpose. I know better than that. I am grateful for every suffering human who has crossed my path or walked beside me on my path for they have given me courage for my own life.
It is hard to see some of my friends die, but I go on making new friends, and as Yvonne said, some of them are through social media, yea even blogging!
I know none of us want to be dependent, but as a nurse who has worked with the aged, I can tell you that while it is true some caregivers really do mistreat old people, MOST do NOT mistreat old people. In fact, I think people are unusually kind to us as a rule. If ever I lay dependent in bed, peeing my undies, I hope I can remember the children who never could acquire bladder control and who never could stand before a crowd and speak. I hope I never take my suffering as a "personal insult" from the universe. I love life.
Oh, ok, I'll admit it: I whine sometimes, but I'm not real serious with my whining.

Classof65, we think along similar lines as far as dependency and the death of a spouse--although I must admit that, if I had a choice, I'd prefer a few less wrinkles and "spots". Ah yes, a remnant of vanity is hard to relinquish, although I never was "beautiful".

I don't think I'm particularly brave or courageous either. I believe that the concern some of us may feel about what lies ahead in our old-old age would be reduced if there were some assurance that we (along with our family and physician) would have control over when and how we depart this life. Of course, right wing types don't like that idea at all--they want nothing less than total control over us in the womb and in the last 90 days of life, but in their world we'd be completely on our own during the years in-between!

Like many other responders, I try not to dwell on the "what ifs" and do the best I can each day.

Today's comments were the best I have ever heard about how humans face old age. They were positive and uplifting. I wish every person who worries about getting older could read this blog and its comments.

This was a wonderful piece and comments today. It really hit me because it was like someone was saying things I only thought and feared so much to say. Saying things seems to give them validity somehow. I read it all and read it again. Thank-you Ronnie and readers for putting into words many things I only think to myself. I have been working on living in the moment. Very hard to do but living in the past causes stress and in the future causes stress. So I pull myself back into the moment whenever I can. Also helping others is great to give a sense of usefulness to me. I try to find things to do as an act of kindness whenever I can. It is more of a challenge sometimes now that I need help of my own, but by no means impossible.

1. Thank you - Ronni
2. Each day is a blessing
3. Class of 65 - Class of 61 - so agrees with you
3. Sleep-no problem -lug in old book on cassette tape and off I go ....love the somebody reading to me as I go into the abyss
4. Just don't require alot anymore 4-5 hours and nu I'm up
5. Remind you of anyone????!!!!

I've never stopped to think in terms of bravery or courage where aging is concerned. I kind of mentally rehearse what I'd do if I were alone and dependent on others. As it is legally binding on families in Spain to care for their elders, there are few resources for those on their own. For the first time ever, my partner indicated that whichever one of us survives the other, s/he should return to UK and live our days out in our own language. Easy to say, difficult to accomplish if health is failing.

I push these thoughts to one side, knowing that if things are really bad, I have my own exit strategy. And, no, you could say it doesn't involve any bravery or courage.

I'm feeling a bit morbid now!

Apologies to the diehard optimists here, but I'm going to admit that to me old age is probably the worst thing that will ever happen to me, and I don't except the euphemistic "alternative." The regrets about wrinkles and flab left me some time ago without my even noticing. What I do regret is the gradual but inevitable loss of physical capability and, worse, mental acuity. I am not religious and I'm not afraid of dying. But I dread, with the passion of experience, the period of hospitalization and helplessness which will likely precede death. How I wish we were actually in charge of our own destiny and could have access, just by requesting it, to quick and painless methods of taking leave of our bodies. None of this crap about "right to die" which means right to petition the administrative powers only when you can prove you have a legally specified, doctor certified amount of time to live. I am in no way suicidal and am facing my old age with as much stoic "courage" as the next guy. I just wish I had the right---on my own, with no government involvement---to stop when I know I have had enough. That would be a genuinely good death at the end of a good life.

Wow, Meg, I certainly agree with you. Dogs and cats are helped to leave this earth when their age and/or ailments make life miserable.

We (dumber?) humans do not seem to realize that like them, we are animals, and great endless suffering is not something we want.

Q: do you know of any group that is working to do what you and I want?

Thanks for your good comments--

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