Aging is inevitable, growing old is not.
We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we are born.
Somewhere in the middle of your life, you meet an interesting new person. Yourself.
If I’d known I was going to live this long I’d have taken better care of myself.
I harshly judged the elderly man in his walker as he made cautious progress down the sidewalk. “If I ever end up like that old fart, take me out and shoot me,” I quietly grumbled as I briskly strode past. Yet on another occasion, I felt the sting of witnessing my great aunt being treated with disrespect—her grandchildren, my cousins, talking contemptuously about her as if she weren’t even in the room. And though I lacked the courage to speak up in that moment, I thought, “Be careful of the example you set for your children, for you could easily be in Aunt Callie’s shoes a few decades from now.”
Recently Dr. Wallace Matsen, former minister at the North Congregational Church in Woodbury, Connecticut, and current Asheville resident, sent me a copy of his book Old Is Not a Dirty Word. In his book, Dr. Matsen talks about ageism, a cultural agreement in which we lump all of the elderly into one group, make false assumptions about them, and treat the group members as if they have no individuality at all.
Dr. Matsen goes on to discuss the root causes of this bias against the elderly in our culture: (1) we glorify youth, as seen in the use of botox injections, plastic surgery, and hormones to appear younger than one’s years and (2) we place a great deal of importance on productivity—getting things done, producing concrete results. Thus, those with wrinkled faces and bodies that sag in a few places and those who are not doing as much as they once did are now judged to be of less value.
But Matsen asserts that the core of ageism is the reminder that the elderly provide of our own mortality, that we too are going to advance in years and that we are going to die. Somehow we believe that if we can avoid confronting aging and death (and thus the elderly), we’ll live forever.
Tomorrow I turn fifty-nine. One more year until I reach sixty. Three years from eligibility for Social Security benefits. Certainly closer to the end of my life in this earthly manifestation than to its beginning. And, having been one who has preferred the notion of death to becoming old, I approach this era of my life with some trepidation.
For I too have placed a lofty value on my youthfulness, on being a person who could get things done, on being an athlete, on being able to move with grace and ease. And I have lived as if these youthful attributes would go on without end.
Let there be no doubt: The passage of time does alter one’s body, and, perhaps, one’s mind. But certainly not one’s spirit. Slowing a step or two does not mean that a full life is not possible. Losing the ability to instantly recall the word one is searching for does not mean that dementia is just around the corner.
As we advance in years we find that we are more capable of going inward and living out of who we really are rather than relying on the judgments and beliefs of others. We find that we do not have to surrender our dreams, that we are capable of creating fulfilling lives based on something more solid than physical appearance and the accoutrements of so-called success. We find that we do not have to retire to the rocking chair, that we have miles of trails to be hiked in western North Carolina and, for me, many more handball games to play at the YMCA. We have our stories to tell. We have our artifacts to create. We have relationships to nurture. And we have time to just be still and take pleasure in this life that we have been given and the glorious world around us.