I was struck today by this thought: I may at times, with a sideways glance, look for a way around the inevitability of aging.
This lit up my thinking recently after trying to find a decent and authentic photo for my Facebook account. They tended to look a bit pasty, and as if some stealthy tilling was done along jaw, neck and eyes and then hadn’t tidied up well afterward. I gave up and used the one that is above. It’s authentic–I adore being outdoors! Plus I like seasonal photos. And it’s casual, my basic style these days. And not posed, really, a simple smile. I have a couple that I call my “semi-glamour shots” and they are kind of stagy/cheesy, as if I am expecting to appear on the jacket of a bestselling book shortly. I even took one of me at the computer. Well, that’s where I am much of each day, working on writing. (Pros must photograph those lovely other authors.)
But this was only the first of the triggers for my current ruminations about having once been younger (for quite a good amount of time) and getting older (I am so pleased I made it). And finally, what comes next (hold on awhile as I cram a lot more into my living). But I will get to the other reasons this matter visited me. (It’s not another essay on health issues.)
I realize this thought–that I may be avoiding the reality of aging–is not shocking in youth-centric societies. At least, US culture daily accosts us with a barrage of messages stating that appearing or even acting over the age of 30 or so (i.e., an adult)–or is it now 21?–is undesirable. Perhaps one day to seem more akin to a crime. This brings to mind the seventies film, “Soylent Green”, that disturbing sci fi story that determines various people quite expendable, primarily the aging. Charlton Heston did a bang-up job as our film hero in that year of 2022 (five years away…), a time when overpopulation, environmental crises, and food shortages are deemed of paramount importance. Sound familiar? I read there may be a new version coming out for our pessimistic pleasure.
We are, one has to agree, exhorted to be young– please fake the appearance. Until one’s dying breath, if possible. Our looks, habits, clothing, interests. People remain socially more visible until we start to age discernibly, so the goal is to fool the human eye. (Though I heard someone remark that by late thirties she felt already less visible, was called “Ma’m” as if verging on matronly so required the kid gloves of customer service reserved for older adults). But I am not needing or seeking public scrutiny so this is a relief in the end. I have shone and tarnished, have often rejuvenated and been laissez faire. It’s important how I feel about my life, not the best shot. Yet this culture insists that, as a woman, I am not expected to allow myself to age gradually, naturally and without rancor. It is admittedly a pressure I half-yield to some days. And then I consider that men have so few demands in this regard. I’m for a more level playing field. We are persons first and last, are we not? My husband isn’t forever young, either, and it doesn’t concern him much, if at all.
If it was only young people who were making these rules I might have more conversations with them about it all. I do recall once vividly thinking that “over thirty” was the end and there were moments I did not expect or desire to pass that line. Little did I know that this was the actual start of vaster and better beginnings. But I might ask today’s kids why age seems such a clear marker of human acceptability as well as desirability–and what do their ages actually mean to them in reality, and also to me? How does this impact our respective perceptions, except to bring into focus that we all are at blurred crossroads of one sort or another? But it’s not just young folks, it’s all of us. And it’s such big business, the attempt to stall one’s aging. Companies scheme and undoubtedly shout hurrah as they make their products a little more affordable to a greater population. I personally shop for bargains in face moisturizer but if Lancome (not even close to the most expensive brands) gets cheaper…well, there you go. If only we spent as much time on our insides as we do our outsides. Hopefully, we do, a vast amount more.
Growing up with parents who were older than almost anyone else’s when I was born was not a big deal. I rarely gave their age a thought. They were busy, ambitious, thoughtful persons until they died at 83 (Dad) and 93 (Mom). I did feel there was a more “ageless” atmosphere at home than in many of my friends. It might have been also due to being last to get born; my oldest sister was thirteen at the time. The age span was fine; it was what I knew.
My parents entertained and my father taught private string lessons after his day job and Mom did alterations on the side so all ages came and went. I was as at ease with older people as I was with younger, perhaps more so. I early learned how to be conversational and courteous as I served coffee and cookies at bridge parties. But I also was included in discussions around a dinner table with astute grown-ups, many of whom were scientists, musicians and educators. Later, I could identify as well with them as with my funky or firebrand friends. It seemed a good thing. Adult interchanges were interesting, whether or not I agreed with or fully comprehended topics. I could ask probing questions; I could offer opinions and be counted.
That inter-generational style of living was repeated, though, in many friends’ homes, as well. We were not as segregated as we are now. Family dinners with as many as possible were common. The truly old were respected, beloved, looked after. They were not left to their own devices or shunted off willy-nilly. Who could afford fancy nursing homes? Who even sought them? They weren’t another part of the big business of aging yet. People took care of their own.
My parents seemed and appeared fine to me in their fifties when I became a teen and far beyond. Their hair was always grayer, then white by the time I hit 21–but there is an early grey-to-whiter hair gene. One niece had long, lovely and mostly white hair by late thirties or so. Others got a characteristic white streak in their twenties. That gene skipped me, the only one to yet have some auburn brown hair striated with silver. Siblings razz me about it. (And by the way, have others noticed young women are lately stripping their hair of natural pigment, then coloring it white-to-silver?–What is that about? A practice run? We older gals should be flattered to be so imitated.)
The parents we had did not grouse about aging. They did not tell me to beware the gnarly ills that awaited me. They were not complainers, true, but they also were lively spirits. I recall my dad sailing a small craft for the first time again in decades when in his sixties. He played tennis with me in his fifties. He took up photography when I was a teen, engaged and bored us with his indexed slide shows of travels they–and we–loved to take whether across the ocean or around the bend. They made music, designed attire, invented games, volunteered at church and elsewhere, went pop-up-camper-style camping until early seventies. I got breathless trying to keep up even though I ran close to the same pace. Their health was problematic at times. Heart disease is the family affair, but that didn’t slow them for long. And they remained lucid as they aged, luckily. How they enriched peoples’ lives, as their friends did, as well.
So what was undesirable, what was wrong with getting older? I truly didn’t see it a liability. We each had our own place, skills and talents and energy and caring to spread around. It wasn’t near what you’d term idyllic. I am not all that nostalgic; there were several trials and losses. They were people who carried burdens, too, as we all can do.
But now I am beginning to think of aging differently. For one thing, my husband has begun to speak of retirement, not yet but sometime in the not-so-distant future. Five years. Perhaps. I stopped working awhile back but he’s a tad younger than I am. It’s a shock to hear him say it, however. From the start of his then-unplanned career when only 20 and still in college he has had a passion for engineering, later landing in management with expertise in quality assurance. I’m not sure how he does the long hours he does. It can worry me. I left my career as a counselor at 63; now I am looking towards 67. It took us awhile to get here. We are supposedly going to soon just hang out together… until those sunset days and nights wind down? Seems like someone else’s story line at times–and will until it materializes in full. I am big on not borrowing from the future when we can inhabit only this moment.
I mentioned a second reason the light bulb went on about avoiding aging: one of our daughters just landed a nice chaplaincy job in management. It’s at a fine assisted living facility. It struck me that she is close to the age, early forties, when I finally left my position managing a thriving home care department in a senior services agency. Whereas she may be edging toward a pinnacle of her career. It seems funny it ended up like this.
I felt pretty young back then. My 350-plus older clients were often frail, with serious health crises and multiple life stressors. I had a calling for that work in much the same way our daughter does. But she is a chaplain while I was just a somewhat besieged mother and wife needing work, then discovered a knack for human services (but still wrote in ragged snippets of time). I fast took to the work as they were some of “my people”; i.e., familiar to me after years of enjoying many older aunts and uncles, my parents, neighbors and family friends. I found myself eagerly absorbing their colorful life stories and worrying about them after work. I wanted to help make their lives safer, more comfortable and valued so they could remain at home if they desired. It was a privilege and it altered my direction; it felt as if God had drawn me to service. My next work was with high risk, addicted, mentally ill youth and adults and it, too, was a passionate commitment. But I never forgot those older adults who gave as much or more than they required of me. I think of them, still, long after they’ve gone. Muse that I’m so close to the ages they were when I was with them.
Now here I am, smack in that part of the process forward and it is like entering some foreign portal I hadn’t mapped out.
When I got the news of her great job I checked out the place she will be working. It looks swanky to me. It is very different from the places I saw while visiting various homes to assess my clients’ needs. The text states it is “a life plan community”–it was previously called a “continuing care retirement community”. It serves a few hundred people. I studied the attractive grounds and wondered at the money it cost, marveled at the diverse services, the recreational options. The gym was chock full of cheerful persons with pleasing wrinkles and crowned with gleaming white hair. They looked classy on stationary bikes, vigorous in the bright swimming pool. The lawns are very green, houses and apartments uniformly in good taste–it’s clear why people gravitate to such a place. I can see how it might stay a fear of fragility.
It’s a great place for our daughter to work, I’m sure. Still, the lifestyle it espouses alternately fascinates, perplexes and repels me. Plus I could not afford it, I’m sure. But would I want to live there? Set apart from a greater cross section of people? In such an organized and pristine environment? My innermost being resists it. I would rather have a refuge of unbridled countryside and the grit and creative vibrancy of a city–each close to the other as possible, as it is now. Retirement community settings appear limiting to me–at least now– whereas to others they may appear to abound in happy, healthy options at one’s back and call.
But mostly, it seems exclusive and finally lonelier. I want to be all hands and feet in the greater realm of living until I can truly no longer be so. And then, who knows? I might even live in an RV, a studio apartment downtown or in a small room at the edge of a grown child’s abode. I hope to not be an aggravating burden to myself or others; I’d hate to leave this world with a bad reputation.
Alright, the rest of it may be that I don’t yet want to think about where this aging business will take me. It appears to be a bigger jog in the journey. I do know I don’t want to fake it. Nor make it more or less than what it is, another movement through a short time on a small planet. I don’t need to be anything more than who I am, just a better version, I hope. I barely feel much older than I did a couple decades ago except for a monitored, repaired ticker. Surprisingly, I even feel a great deal better despite those telltale lines on my face that reveal my life. An elderly woman told me once that is a marker of aging: our deepest personhood not matching up with external changes.
I will get to the end, whatever that is. Right now I never feel as if there is enough time to explore all that captures my scanning attention. There are people to admire and love and learn from, many of whom I do not even yet know. There are scads of books to read and stories to write (I can barely keep up with either), forest trails to hike, bodies of water to get wet in, visual art to make. Places that might use my hands, some care. And, ah, music to bring into heart and mind, to hum and sing. Today I bought two new CDs and played them at a good volume as I wrote, then danced about a few times. I have a mind to put on a long swingy dress and videotape the swooping about, pretending to be an interpretive modern (or let’s say “contemporary”) dancer again. For my children and grandchildren. So they’re assured I have always managed to have fun–and they remember to do so, too.
Life is a place I’ve made a decent, often very good, home and aging seems simply one more thing to accommodate. I am not one for the prosaic as much as for invention. I may not change much of anything. And I am more apt to plan for today, not tomorrow. I have had personal experience with life being taken in a flash and then having it returned just in time. Best to take it a step at a time, see what unfolds, what I can do. Soul, heart, mind and health the priorities. Broaden those horizons as I move right along. Being old will feel like me, likely with all white hair.