“I haven’t told myself I’m getting older because I hoped I wouldn’t notice.” — Ashleigh Brilliant.
I remember, some years ago, seeing myself in a mirror shortly after I got up in the morning and startling myself. It made me think of Lady Jane in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience.” “My charms are ripe, and already they are decaying.” And then she laments in song:
“Silvered is the raven hair. Spreading is the parting straight. Mottled is the complexion fair. Halting is the youthful gait. Stouter than I used to be. Still more corpulent grow I. There will be too much of me. In the coming by and by.”
So now that I’m a senior senior citizen, I look back and laugh at my concerns at that “ripe old age” of 20 plus years ago. When I’m with my friends and relatives that are near my age or even older (yes, it’s possible), thoughts come to mind like: “So here we are having reached that stage of ‘wisdom,’ feeling we have learned a lot in all of our years of life and hoping that there’s someone interested in what we have to say, trying to pretend nothing has changed but facing losses of various kinds at an increasing rate, looking to each other for community and support but feeling oddly out of place in a society that worships youth and disdains old age, realizing an increased respect for those who have traveled this road before us, and hoping that as we approach the end of the journey, we can travel with grace and dignity.”
Even though we had parents who had passed this way, most of us are propelled into old age before we have any real idea how to respond and relate to it. In some ways, it’s like adolescence. “Here we are,” we think, “thrust into this unfamiliar stage of life, wondering how to handle this changing body, anxious about what the future will bring, unsure of how to adjust to the losses that are inevitable and wishing we could remain in familiar territory.”
When we were young, most of us heard little about growth and change in adults. We were under the impression that the stages of life were baby, child, teen and adult. Once a person reached the magic age of, say, 30, we thought that was it as far as growth and change were concerned. But now we know that adults go through passages, too, that growth and change are necessary to a complete and fulfilling life no matter what our age. We know that if we go through the stages of adulthood meeting the challenges and coming out better people as a result, we grow into old age much wiser, more loving, more complete and better able to cope and adjust. If we neglect to open ourselves to new ways of being and to new ideas, we become like stone — hard and cold and resistant — monuments to inflexibility and stagnation.
As Judith Viorst wrote in “Necessary Losses”: “While good health and good friends and good luck — and a good income — certainly make aging easier to take, it is our attitude toward our losses as much as the nature of our losses which will determine the quality of our old age.”
We need to let go of many things as we make the transition — like forever trying to make situations (and people) turn out the way we wish them to; the idea that we can change the world; all the striving; roles that we were playing according to society’s and other people’s expectations; pretense; and finally the toughest one — the belief we are immortal. Then the growth and change of the late stages of our lives can come about — the kind that move us more toward wisdom and integrity and acceptance. As Gordon Livingston wrote in “Too Soon Old and Too Late Smart”: “Our constant challenge is not to seek perfection in ourselves and others, but to find ways to be happy in an imperfect world. We are impeded in this effort if we cling to an idealized vision of the past that ensures dissatisfaction with the present.”
And finally, as Eda LeShan wrote in her wonderful book, “It’s Better to be Over the Hill than Under It”: “What I hope is that you feel thankful to be alive because you still feel like a person, no matter what the changes. At any age there is only one reason to be thankful to be alive and that is that you love your closest companion, yourself, and you know who you are and you are glad to be who you are.”
Ashleigh Brilliant covers it pretty well: “Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.”
Since 1984, Dorothy Dimitre has written more than 700 columns for various local newspapers. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.