Friday, August 30, 2013

Engaged Elderhood

One day recently, two things that came into my email inbox at the same time set me thinking about the way old age is commonly portrayed in our culture these days. The first was a post by that indomitable blogger, Ronni Bennett, whose 'Time Goes By' blog about aging is read and relished by hundreds of people every day. In this post, headed 'An Old Age Better Than I Ever Expected,' Ronni wrote: "I never expected to feel as alive and vibrant and spirited and vital as I do at this time of my life." She was remarking about something that many of us have often said and felt but probably don't proclaim loudly and publicly and frequently enough, i.e. the discovery that elderhood has the potential to be one of the most enjoyable and satisfying of all life's stages.

Why should we expect it to be otherwise? Well, as Ronni goes on to say: "There is little if anything in our culture that would lead me to believe I would feel this good about being an old woman. The media relate to old age almost entirely via health, poor health - and mostly about dementia."

And she's right. The awful image so commonly presented by the media seems to be that once you finally give up the (obviously futile) effort to 'stay forever young', all that is left is just a slow countdown to death. Old age is portrayed as a time of sharp physical and mental decline, withdrawal from the world, misery, illness, incontinence, loneliness, incapacity, feebleness and dementia.

Which brings me to the second item in my mailbox. It was a helpful suggestion that since I edit a newsletter for elderwomen and have a website about women and aging I might like to add some links to useful, elder-related websites about...yes, you guessed it: illness, medication, incontinence, incapacity, dementia...

What the writer seemed not to have noticed was that my books, websites, newsletters—and sometimes this blog—are all focused on the hundred and one far more important aspects of this section of our life journey: our attitudes, our feelings and experiences, the role of elders in the community, the culture and the world, our personal and spiritual growth...and so on. Not on indigestion remedies.

Yes, for sure if we can no longer walk upstairs we may need to install a stair lift, but if so we simply Google 'stair lifts,' read some reviews and do some comparison shopping, just like we do for every other major purchase. We may want to find out more about prescription drug side-effects but the Internet is full of info about those (and also full of good advice about how to live healthily and drug free at any age). Why on Earth should I want to fill up my links page with info about the relative merits of various brands of incontinence pads just because my readers are all over fifty?

As William Thomas says in his brilliant book What Are Old People For? getting old does often necessitate a search for work-arounds that enable us to keep functioning optimally—in fact he sees elders as walking advertisements for the wonderful human capacity for endless adaptability. This ongoing process of adaptation to each change in the ever-changing body doesn't begin at 44 with the first pair of reading glasses however. It begins in toddlerhood, with shoes to protect our tender feet, bibs to catch the drool, high chairs to keep us from falling on to the floor and pull-up pants for toilet training. It continues through orthodontic appliances, tampons and nursing bras, dental crowns and hiking poles and all the way through to Zimmer frames. Humans are clever animals and we have become really good at finding ways to augment our bodies' functions and deal with their impairments and inconveniences. But these logistics of our lives are not what defines them. It is meaning that defines them. It is meaning that gets us up in the morning and meaning that makes our hearts sing.

Rather than being preoccupied with what we are losing, the key to an old age full of meaning is to look at what we are gaining and also at what we are giving. As Jung taught us, the second half of life is about individuation, about growing fully into our potential selves. And it is about sharing with the world the fruits of our personal harvest. Elders, rather than withdrawing from the world outside their skins are at their happiest and most fulfilled when they are engaged with that world. I call this 'engaged elderhood.' Our beleaguered planet, right now, needs all the engaged elders it can get.

So if there is anyone out there who dreads getting old and really does believe that old age is nothing but dyspepsia, aching joints and damp knickers, let me assure you that it doesn't have to be like that at all. Honestly. And if you don't believe me, read Elderwoman. Or, if you are male, pre-order this great new book by my friend Alan Heeks called Out of the Woods: A Guide to Life for Men Over 50. Alan's book is due for publication on September 19 and can be pre-ordered now from the author's website in the UK or from Amazon in the US.


Kate said...

Another great post, Marian; thank you. I had to look up Zimmer frames, though. :)
I'm finding the same things are true about my own aging; it's becoming a fabulous time for me. I bought my first hiking poles at age 63, took up disc golf that same year. Now I've gone totally nutty over Karaoke, to the point of getting a really good set-up for home. We get together weekly and have a great time.
Crazy good times for me mostly. And yes, the yard work takes a bit longer to get through, but I don't have a rigid schedule anymore, so I don't care.
Guess you really don't need that info; I'm just bragging. These 'kids' just really don't have a concept of what's ahead for them. I think that mostly, it will be a pleasant surprise. :)
Thanks again, Marian. I appreciate what you do.

Ronni Bennett said...

Hi Marian...
Love your section on all the adaptations we make throughout life from infancy. What an important insight.

Great post and thanks for the shoutout. I'm so pleased to have helped inspire this.

Elderwoman said...

Thanks Ronni and Kate. Oops, sorry Kate, 'Zimmer frame' is Brit English for a walking frame. Gotta remember I have an international readership here!
Although-as I now know-disc golf is played here too, I had never heard of it till I looked it up just now. So we have both learned new phrases today!

Sarina McEwan-Bell said...

Hello Marian.
Maybe I don`t quite fit into the elder frame just yet, but I do so agree about being an engaged elder when I get to that stage. Not sure when that is meant to kick in, but I`m already practising for it. I`m quite sure I shall never dread old age as I always have far too much to do. As long as we don`t forget to engage the mind as well as the body as much as possible then one sense should be able to compensate for the use of another. Meaning, if we find the body lets us down a bit as we get older we should still be able to fully be present with the mind. Early practise to fully engage should prepare us then for any type of loss, and we might be able to ajust to the new situation far easier. Hope this makes some kind of sense. The more interests in life we can surround ourselves with should be helpful to us when some of it has to give at some stage in our elderhood. That`s what I`m hoping for, anyway, so I keep busy and enjoy whatever I`m able to engage in as long as possible. I`ve very much enjoyed this blog post and your endorsement for Ronni Bennett`s book.

Elderwoman said...

Yes it does make a lot of sense Sarina. You are absolutely right. And the Internet is a real boon as it enables even the most disabled or housebound person to stay connected with the whole wide world.

Kim M said...

My friend, you give me hope!

Here we have magazines with ageless Hollywood celebrities (Over 50 - Can you believe it?!?) on the cover and a parade of adverts for must-have products and prescriptions on the inside. Not many examples of elders aging naturally and living full and enjoyable lives.

Thanks again for another great post.

willow said...

Interesting post. I have been visiting your blog for six years (I wasn't in the over 50 category when I started but I am now) and although the world Elder is in the title, I've always thought of it more as a simple living blog. I like to read of your travel adventures, travelling over land, about the things you notice on your daily walks - funny but I've never really thought of it as a blog by or for old people.
If those adverts had popped up I would have been most surprised!

Karen B. Kaplan said...

You so correctly talk about finding meaning by being engaged with the outside world (as well as our inner one, I think you imply). Even people near the end of their lives can be thus engaged and live fully in the moment. Since that is true, then all the more so is it true forthe middle-aged and elders prior to that time. For an example of a hospice patient living in the moment, see my post, -Karen, hospice chaplain

Anonymous said...

Hi Marian:

I love your blog. Great advice and travel stories.

We share a passion for nature, gardening and travel.

Thank you for your kind comments to me on Ronni's blog TGB.

Brenda Henry, author of Jive Chalkin.