I was tucking my five-year-old granddaughter into bed the other night when, to prolong the moment, she plied me with a blizzard of existential questions: “Wait… granny, who are you married to?” “Who is mommy married to?” “Who will I marry?” And then a quick segue… “Are you old?” “When will you die?” “Will you die in ten days? In 100 days??”
I replied that it would be “a long time” before I died, then kissed her and turned out the light. Once outside her bedroom, I paused. Was I sure about that? I have no idea when I’ll die. But I do know for sure that I’m getting older. Which leads me to the topic of aging.
I’ve been thinking about aging a lot recently. Like Sam, I found hiking through Italy more taxing than anticipated. I’ve passed the milestone of 65, the official gateway to old age or at least the “young old,” according to Wikipedia. My new Medicare card is neatly laminated and tucked away in my wallet. (An agemate teased me about that – hey, I love laminating.) I’m freshly attuned to the banners in CVS and Rite Aid that say, “If you are over 65… you need X, Y or Z.”
And I am looking at my 86-year-old parents with newfound respect. They are moving more slowly but their mindset is still positive even as they enter the cohort of the “old old.”
Maybe old age isn’t… ugly
I’ve been loath to admit to being old or to getting old because old age seems so unappealing. I’ve got wrinkles and spots and I’m sagging in a lot of places. But recently I’ve started to look at this situation differently. I’ve begun to wrap my mind around the fact that I have been thoroughly influenced by modern culture’s subliminal messages.
The negative stereotypes around aging are so deeply ingrained we are almost not aware of them. We are told that aging is a negative. It’s ugly and undesirable.
Study after study shows that ageism (just like sexism and racism) is rampant. Getting old is equated in our society with becoming decrepit, incompetent, useless, and even invisible. When older people buy into this, the studies show, their physical and mental health deteriorates.
On the flip side, a recent Yale study on age discrimination makes the point that repeatedly exposing a group of older people to positive messages about aging (“adventurous” “creative” “wise”) improves their health and well-being.
What if we changed our perspective?
And I’ll add to that. What if we flipped around our attitudes toward the appearance of old age – expanding waistlines, crepe-y skin, knobby fingers (check, check, check) – and announced that those attributes are “different” – not ugly?
To me, changing perspective on how old age “looks” is a radical idea. This means not only accepting the inevitable signs of aging but affirming them – rather than fighting against them. By that I don’t mean celebrating wrinkles. I mean getting comfortable with them. They’re OK. They are natural. Maybe they are even a sign of beauty.
By “mindful” aging I mean accepting the positives and the less desirables around aging bodies just as you recognize and accept your stray thoughts when you are meditating. And then let them go without passing judgment on them.
As is our custom, I asked Sam to read over the above paragraphs before I published this. He was not sympathetic to my concerns about “appearance” and “aging.” It’s a mundane topic, he said. Not important and not interesting to him.
But looks ARE a big deal to many (most?) women, of all ages. Society tells us that old is ugly. And we believe it. And then we feel bad about the droopy flesh hanging from our upper arms. Remember Nora Ephron‘s book: I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman – ?
So to respond to Sam’s editorial oversight I have expanded my thoughts.
Maybe admitting to depression is OK and not a stigma
My thoughts about aging fit right in with my new approach to depression: stop keeping it a secret, admit to it, and talk about it in a way that is helpful to me and to others. I am aiming to challenge the stigma around depression just as I’m suggesting that we must challenge the ageism that so many of us unconsciously adopt.
The biggest hurdle for me is calling depression a mental illness. I really have trouble with that. I don’t think of myself as ill so much as human… and coping. In fact, I am coping better than ever because I am being more mindful about steps I can take on days when I feel myself slipping into depression.
My goal is to wrap my new attitude towards depression into the story of reinvention, which I now realize is also the story of aging. This is a bigger and more profound goal than talking about a gap year after 60.
I’d love to hear your thoughts
One thing I’ve learned is that ideas ripen and become clearer when you expose them to scrutiny before they are crystalline AND you ask for constructive feedback. Getting old and looking old are complicated topics. So I hope you’ll throw your thoughts about all this into the mix. I’d really like to hear from you.
Please email back or leave a comment about aging and ageism. Or depression. Or reinvention. Whatever strikes a chord with you.
PHOTO CREDIT: by Sam in Pisa
Part of what sparked my emerging consciousness about ageism is a book by author and activist Ashton Applewhite: A Manifesto Against Aging. I highly recommend.
Also check out:
What Old Age Is Really Like (The New Yorker, Oct. 1, 2015)
To Age Well, Change How You Feel About Aging (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 2015)
65: Learning to Love Middle Old Age (New York Magazine, April 9, 2014)