What Really Matters at the End of Life
Unexpected Passions

A Contradiction of Old Age

It makes me happy when I come across other people writing about the serious effects of ageist language. The latest I've seen is from a trio of academics who work in the field of ageing:

”Recent articles in a variety of publications provide an illustration about the language of ageism and aging,” they wrote recently in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“They use language that describes aging as 'a catastrophic condition,' an 'ailment' or 'a social problem.' Aging is neither a catastrophe nor a malady. Yet the words we use to describe aging certainly seem to tell a different story.

“The language of ageism is entrenched in our daily vocabulary and is so commonplace that it is practically invisible.”

The three go on to list some of the conditions that are mistakenly conflated with ageing:

”...all adults are living longer. Adults with chronic health conditions, including HIV, diabetes, obesity and heart disease, are living longer. But let’s please not confuse the side effects of these diseases and long-term use of medications as anything akin to the normal aging process.

“Normal aging does not create frailty in our aging population; frailty is an actual medical condition.”

For many years, I've been saying these same things along with others the three writers cite but it's terrific to see it gaining a wider audience beyond my blog online and in print.

That said, however (that ageing is not a disease in and of itself and should not be spoken of in that manner), there is no denying that if we live long enough, even disease-free, there will be decline we must each accommodate.

So just to confuse you, I'm going to discuss an article by a woman who has since 2001, lived with a debilitating illness, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). I know there is a great deal of controversy about it, that some people deny CFS is real, and for that reason, Toni Bernhard usually doesn't name it:

”One reason is the absurd name,” she wrote in 2011. “As others have pointed out, calling it, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, is like calling Emphysema, Chronic Cough Syndrome, or Alzheimer’s, Chronic Forgetfulness Syndrome.”

I don't have an opinion about CFS but according to various publications, due to the debility it has caused her, Ms. Bernhard was forced to give up her 22-year-career as a law professor and has never been able to return.

She has, however, managed to write some books the first, in 2010, being, How to be Sick – A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. I haven't read it nor her two subsequent books and probably will not.

But on the same day I came across the ageist language news story, I also found an article she wrote in the tenth year of her illness.

It is titled 10 Tips From 10 Years Sick and although it is about being chronically ill at any age, it struck me that the insights she has gained are just as useful for any healthy elder dealing with the normal changes that can accompany the final third of life. Here is a sampling:

1. Take time to grieve your old life and then create a new one. “I was in such denial that I forced myself to return to work while sick. When my body finally broke down and I had to trade the classroom for the bedroom, I was angry for months.

“Then I was paralyzed with sadness over the loss of my identity...if someone had told me I’d write a book from the bed, I would have said, Not possible. But I did."

Old people can do this too. When an activity becomes too difficult or impossible to do, we can redirect our attention to try something else. Can't run anymore? How about a bicycle or a walk. Can't drive at night anymore? Find more to do in the daytime, as I did. And so on.

5. Find beauty in small things. “I’ve learned to do with seeing beauty in the small happenings in my bedroom: a spider, dropping from the ceiling on a silken thread, only to stop a foot above the bed; a fly, dashing around the bedroom like some crazy freeway driver.

“When I wrote about this in Issa: My Life Through the Pen of a Haiku Master a reader commented, saying she’s had to trade a life of activity for one of stillness, but when she uses that stillness to observe her small world closely, 'it almost seems like an even trade.'”

Appreciation of small things doesn't arrive only in the stillness and confinement Bernhard speaks of. It happens as easily to those of us lucky enough to be healthy and mobile – just old. I've heard it so often from so many that I wonder if it is an attribute that comes with growing old.

9. We’re fortunate to live in the Internet Age. “I can’t imagine how much more difficult this illness would be if I couldn’t connect with others on the web who are similarly sick. Through blogs and Facebook and my website, I’ve met people from all over the world.

“When I think of how isolated people were who were sick just a few decades ago, I feel fortunate to be sick in the Internet Age.”

Any of you who have been hanging around this blog for awhile know that I could have written that last item word for word.

In my case, it's about how fortunate the internet is for old people who may be perfectly healthy but lose the camaraderie of the workplace when we retire, who may move away from old friends and neighbors (or vice versa) and whose social circles continue to shrink when friends and relatives die.

There are now many people important to me I would never have known except through this blog and other places online, and about half the people I treasure most I've met via the internet.

It might seem to be a contradiction for me to insist that old age is not a disease and then recommend ways to deal with the limitations that can come with it. It's not and slowing down can be seen as a good thing, if you want, after several decades of a whole lot of go, go, go.

(Tony Bernhard's full list of 10 is here. Her website is here.)

Comments

My mantra: "Old age is worth waiting for." I often pass this along to younger folks.

I have to say I have never heard of "getting old" referred to as a disease. If there is any truth to that, show me someone who is 74 and hasn't caught the aging disease! Then I'll reconsider my position on the subject.

Getting old is no different than being born, it's just on the opposite end of the scale and the procedure for our bodies to be born is quite different from the procedure we are required to follow when it's time for our bodies to die. The diseases out there in the world simply make the journey from birth to death somewhat less enjoyable. As we enter our old age the body is already beginning to process death therefore we become susceptible to a sundry of diseases and conditions that are for the most part impossible for us to control. It is quite unfortunate that in our society and culture that the younger generations seem to have no respect for their elders as in Asian cultures, much less respect for the process for which those elders must go through to finish the circle of life.

I've been working through a lot of this the last couple of years as I was able to deny aging until age 66. And then I couldn't deny it anymore. Have been studying it with my life as my laboratorg. And this blog as part of my classroom - once again, Ronni, thank you!

I like what Alan writes... My conclusions so far:
1. I plan to live as well as I can for as long as I can. When that changes I'll reevaluate.
2. I've adopted a couple of very important words that really comfort and guide me. One is mentioned above - Stillness. My meditation has become incredibly important to me. And stillness steals over me at other moments as well. The other word is Surrender. Letting go is good but Surrender speaks to my Spirit more deeply.
3. Aging is definitely not a disease and it does require us to live more consciously.

I'd like to find/create a way for society to teach young people about aging. Required classes in high school and college maybe, where students are required to wear the items that mimic old age for an entire day... After all they are aging as well, it just doesn't show up quite as dramatically for those who are lucky enough to be young and healthy at the same time.

Can you tell this is a subject near and dear to my heart lol!

I agree. Aging, or age, is not a disease. It is simply a part -- an unavoidable, inescapable part -- of the spectrum from birth to death. It can make us more susceptible to assorted diseases and conditions, and less able to fight them off, but age doesn't cause the illness and the illness isn't a given for every aging person. And we are indeed lucky to be aging now, with so many new technologies and drugs to help us deal with those illnesses. I know I'd really be in the soup had I become ill just 10 years ago.

As Crimmins puts it, over the past 50 years, health care hasn’t slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process.

Some of us "fix" and then adjust to the new normal more than others as the years go by.

I think our challenge is to live life to the fullest and know when to stop fixing.

I like Alan's take on the subject. Aging is coming full circle of the life cycle. It is not in itself a disease, but as our bodies wear out and our immune system ages we are more susceptible to disease and injury (as PIed Type pointed out) and that's where the idea that "aging is a disease" comes from.

We must make it plain that aging and disease are two separate entities that become connected when the former often leads to the latter.

Many valid points made by all the commenters on this excellent piece. I too have been watching the progress made over the past 24 years in the field of aging, since I retired the first time from my "normal" working life. I have since had two additional working for pay experiences, and many many more in service as a "volunteer extraordinaire" as I like to call myself. I find there are so many different versions of this ageing thing that I have finally reached a level of calmness about it, a stillness about aging itself. It seems everyone must experience it in their own way, and no matter how learned or experienced the observers are, they can only report on their own observations or indeed on their own set of experiences.

You cannot know how this 77 year old feels about being 77, you can only speculate, and odds are you have no idea, as I have none about my 85 year old friends. It is a privilege denied to many to be alive, relatively healthy and active at this stage of aging. Make the best of it and try to cheer up those that haven't or cannot.

Ronni, you know how much I agree with #5 and #9. I am going through #1, adjusting to life changes. I had never thought how similar to grief this adjustment is.

My sister just died at the age of 56 after two years of a devastating illness. During the time that I cared for my sister, my mother and I were mistaken at the grocery store as sisters. When I complained about this to my sister she told me to be glad that I got to be old. I felt humbled, ashamed, and greatful that she said that. I hope I can hold on to those words and appreciate what I have right here and right now, no matter what here and now I am experiencing.

I'm just happy if they don't call me "Pops" or "Old Timer"

I feel so fortunate to be aging in this time period where we have the internet. Not only does it keep us connected more with family and friends, it also gives us the option of filling "alone" time with so many choices such as playing games, chatting through Skype, listening to old favorite songs, reading on just about any subject we are interested in, etc., etc.

Unfortunately I saw both my mother and grandmother age into their 90s without the internet or even a cell phone so I remember them being lonely and anxious for visitors. I hope if and when I reach this age, I will be as actively engaged in the internet then as I am now where my children are not going to feel guilty about visiting me because they will know I can find something I enjoy to fill my time and I am able to communicate with them even when they are not there. I am not saying electronics should be a substitute for physical interaction. I just think it can lend to an easier transition into aging.

I also think getting involved with the internet, through blogs, both personal and similar to this one, and finding other various interests online may even keep us healthier, both physically and mentally. It gives us something to look forward to each day and leaves us little time to worry about aging and isolation..

Aging is a given. We can't get away from it but it should not be dreaded. I like to play on the positive aspects of it such as doing whatever you damn well please instead of trying to please. Because I am a true minimalist, I can pick up and go whenever and wherever I choose for as long as I choose. I certainly could not do that in my earlier years.

Aging should never be referred to as a disease. As Alan said, it is simply coming full circle and hopefully dodging the diseases that effect both old and young as we move forward..

Aging should be seen as an opportunity, rather than a disease.

No, old age is not a disease, and yes, it does have its limitations. The limitations seem to pile up the older we get. I have been proud (and a little smug) about being in excellent health, and having 100% mobility as I pass my 76th birthday. But "Pride goeth before a fall."according to the Book of Proverbs, and I am now nursing a very sore arm due to spending too much time using my mouse. I have just seen my doctor and she says, "Get off the computer for now." Not possible, I say. I'm managing by using my left hand, applying heat and ointment, and keeping the rest of my body mobile. Soon I'll be back full force to crab about ageism, and also to crow about the good things about growing old!

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