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.