Being about midway into old age now, it seems to me that changes great and small come barreling down the pike lickety-split – that there are many more arriving at a much faster rate than at previous ages of life.
I can't prove that with facts and figures and numbers and charts but it feels about right and I've come to believe it is an important job of elderhood to learn to adapt as we are buffeted front and back, up and down, left and right and around again with each new, often unexpected development.
It's not easy. As you know, my life was upended three months ago with a cancer diagnosis. I'm still trying to find a way to make the large number of restrictions that control my days now as commonplace as, for example, brushing my teeth has always been.
It's frustrating that I'm not there yet. I have other things I'd rather do than try to remember if I took those pills after breakfast or treated my hands with that special lotion.
Although I've fought hard on this blog during its 14 years of existence against the generally accepted perception that there are no positives about growing old, it shouldn't be denied that loss is a part of it – more than most of us would like.
There are the ones to which we adapt with relative ease: eyesight and hearing can be successfully treated now; dental implants, if affordable, are almost miraculous; there are many ways to deal with graying hair and hair loss depending the degree of one's concern.
If you try to track down information on the internet about the changes that come with old age, the only things you will find are about health and debility. To the not yet old - the ones who make the rules and decide who is worthy - old people are defined entirely by failing health. Period.
(Keep that in mind as, in the next two months, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, will do his best to dramatically increase what old people pay for Medicare. Cuts to Social Security are being crafted too. Stay tuned for information here about these proposed changes soon.)
But there is much more to growing old than health and although there is crossover among them preliminarily, I have placed these changes into five general categories: Physical, Emotional, Social, Calamitous and Cultural. In old age, all of them take away something we have been accustomed to for a lifetime and, usually, enjoy.
The physical is obvious as our bodies wear out, we slow down and we collect a group of manageable but annoying conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, balance difficulties, even living with cancer, etc.
Emotional issues range from such things as my obstinance about accepting daily changes caused by cancer to sadness from losses as old friends die or move away, and recognition of our own approaching death – among others. These are no small change.
We lose a lot of social engagement when we retire or don't get out and about as easily as we once did or reduced income prevents us from past social pleasures such as theater and travel.
The calamitous, of course, has to do with dire health risks to oneself, a spouse or other people we love. Only a few days ago did I realize that if the chemotherapy is successful and I am pronounced cancer-free at the end of six months, I will still need to be tested every three months for the rest of my life.
Four times a year I will hold my breath waiting for test results to tell me something good or not good. I remember what that feels like from years ago when, a couple of times, I waited a week for answers from breast biopsies.
There are, of course, many other tests of our resilience in old age than these.
Oddly, given the last two paragraphs, it is the cultural category that most aggravates me. In the 20 years I've been studying ageing, the American attitude toward old age has not changed a whit: youth is perfection and old age is a personal failing worthy only of fear and pity.
It comes to each of us, the day when we step over a line in the sand that no one told us was there, the day when the world rejects us, ignores our knowledge and experience, maligns and scorns us.
And no, it doesn't cheer me that the people doing the maligning and scorning will join us soon enough. They have still robbed me of basic dignity - in their eyes if not my own.
Even so, I have found these years of growing old the most engaging, interesting and exciting time of my life. I may not get out and about as much as in youth and adulthood. I have lost interest in keeping up with the latest fads and fashion that I once had fun with. And at last, I have outgrown caring what anyone thinks of me.
But I am more passionate than ever about the two things that most engage me these days: our terrifying politics and what it's really like to get old.
It may not surprise some of you that I've been reading Cicero again, his Cato Maior de Senectute or On Old Age written in 44BC. There is much to learn from Cicero but two things come through strongly about my time of life:
⚫ To focus on what I have and can do rather than what I don’t have or can’t do
⚫ That age is no barrier to remaining engaged with life: intellectually, physically, socially
There are good reasons mankind has been reading this treatise for more than 2,000 years. Cicero advises us that wisdom is to accept the limitations of old age and look for opportunities to work around them:
”Nature has but a single path and you travel it only once,” writes Cicero. “Each stage of life has its own appropriate qualities - weakness in childhood, boldness in youth, seriousness in middle age, and maturity in old age. These are fruits that must be harvested in due season.”
By the way, Cicero is also the man who said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
[EDITORIAL NOTE: This has been rolling around in my mind for several days and easily could have been 20 pages longer. I've spared you that and feel confident that you will add and subtract from it as you see fit.]