Posts Tagged ‘aging’

I’ve been able to attend two really beautiful funerals this year, both for people who were extraordinary, and who had wonderful families. I was struck both times by what a special experience it was to share in the remembrance and celebration of the lives of these people with their loved ones. At both, there were many, many experiences shared, sweet and tender memories and funny ones, recounted with laughter and tears.

But how often do you hear people say they enjoyed attending a funeral? That they looked forward to the funeral, that they cherished the time they took to be there?

Americans (and probably many in modern, Western cultures) are far behind some more “primitive” cultures: we do not appreciate the death process or anything surrounding it; we tread with great trepidation around death; and we don’t honor those who are aging, stepping ever closer to death each day. It’s a serious problem. We have become obsessed with youth, with appearance that speaks of youth, with the notion that all that attends death is blessedly far away from the young. I’ve written at length about the problems our image-consciousness (tied in part to the beauty of youth and unwrinkled, unblemished skin) is causing us as individuals and as a society. I’ve not written much about how it’s separating us from those in our culture who have the most to give and share with the rest of us: their wisdom, their fascinating experiences, their character.

Some cultures truly revere their elders. They hold them in high esteem, treat them with great respect, seek them out, not only include them in decisions but hold them as their highest decision-makers. Their middle-aged citizens and children look up to them and learn from them, seeking to be more like them.

In our culture, ageism is the rule. We hire young workers at the exclusion of older ones. We worry about the capacity for wisdom and clear thought of those who aren’t young any longer. We put them away. We don’t want them as leaders because we are sure they’re “out of touch” with “reality.”

And then there’s death. We fear it. We fear the process leading up to it; we fear what happens when and after we die. There is little of reverence and appreciation for the process, even when someone is able to leave this existence with a minimum of pain or discomfort. We are somewhat conditioned naturally to keep away from dead bodies, and we have very little cause to interact with them. I have had the opportunity, however, a few times in my church to help dress women for burial, and I have found it to be not “gross” or “weird” or “scary” but, instead, a privilege. I have found it to be a sacred experience and a lovely last opportunity to perform a service for women who have meant something to me in my church congregation. But, again, we hear little of this kind of experience and of reverence for those who have died.

One Foot in HeavenI was able to read a lovely book this year written by a hospice nurse about the experiences she’s had helping people and their families as they have passed from this life. In One Foot in Heaven, Heidi Telpner tells readers about “good deaths” and “bad deaths” and reminds us all that we all will one day experience death ourselves, and most of us will have to deal with family members’ or friends’ deaths in some way or another. As much as we may (mostly successfully) manage to evade staring down death during our lives, it is still there. It still happens to us all. And the more we are comfortable with it, the more we and our loved ones can experience “good deaths.” Telpner tells about the poignant experiences she has had getting to know good, interesting people with loving and supportive families and how their deaths have been sweet and calm. She also tells about the people who personally fought death or had family who fought the reality of impending death and made it difficult for them to die peacefully. It’s a fine primer for all of us, to remember that death is inevitable, but how we approach it can make all the difference in how we and our loved ones live — and how we prepare to die.

So I find myself still getting surprised looks from others at times when I mention how grateful I was to attend some really beautiful and inspiring funerals, that I have been blessed to be able to provide a service to a person whose body is being readied to be buried but whose spirit is still living elsewhere (as I believe). I’d love to see this change, to see our culture become more age-friendly and even elder-centric. But I’m not holding my breath: we have a long way to go.

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Recently I took my girls roller skating. The 12-year-old had been going somewhat frequently of late and had gotten pretty good but the 7-year-old and 15-year-old (my child with Down syndrome) hadn’t been in ages and were like baby deer out on the rink. But they got better and enjoyed themselves during our two-hour visit.

As for me, I love donning the wheels and racing around the rink. It was my weekend social activity when I was a tween, and decades later, I still can hold my own. It’s an interesting/frustrating kind of challenging to “race” around when the rink is full of little kids — it’s like a slowly shifting obstacle course. So I was excited when the DJ announced it was backwards-skate time. I can still do it, after all these years, and since most of the little people jamming the floor could barely move forward, let alone go backwards, the time meant I had a much emptier space for skating. Yes! Only difference at this stage in my life is that I wasn’t just focused on my skating: I was also looking around to see where my kids went. And that meant loss of focus on the specialized form of backwards skating. As Queen sang so often when I was skating socially, I bit the dust. Big-time. And falling when going backwards means a particularly spectacular, unbroken-by-arms fall. OUCH. I got up and kept on going and my lack of focus had me back on the hard floor pretty quickly. I could feel my brain shaking around in my head, so I decided it was time to remove myself from the floor for a while.

A little while later, my perceptive and sensitive 12-year-old looked at me with concern and said, “Mom, people were laughing at you.” I realized then that it just didn’t matter. It didn’t bother me at all. I told her so. Maybe it’s because they’re a bunch of kids and it doesn’t matter to me if a bunch of snotty kids are laughing at me, or maybe I’ve finally started reaching a point where it doesn’t bother me quite as much what other people think. I just told my daughter, “You know what? It doesn’t matter to me. I was having fun. Don’t you worry about what people think about me.”

It’s made me think more about how I’m at an age where I can and should stop worrying about what other people think. I’ve read so often about how older women say they live so much more freely and contentedly because they just don’t care about how they look or what other people think, and it seems like a great thing to me. But as our society holds on so tightly to youth and beauty, allowing/encouraging women my age and even into their 50s and 60s to still look “traditionally” young and beautiful, i.e., desirable, sexy, etc., I wonder if that transition into that delightfully free mindset will take even longer.

‘Cause here’s the thing: how long do any of us really need to be beautiful, to have that be one of our defining characteristics? On one hand, I felt uncomfortable in my skin, didn’t feel thin and pretty, when I was growing up, but then around the age of 17 or so I grew to appreciate that I was attractive, that a fair number of guys considered me pretty. And I realized I could use that, I could “work” it. I could flirt, I could be cute and attractive. I could just have fun dating. My attractiveness was a tool, one of the arrows in my quiver. The quiver also included my smarts, my talents, my wit, my personality, my character. But my “beauty” was almost of equal value at that stage in my life as any of my other arrows. I carried around that awareness of its presence for a long time, even past its “usefulness” in “securing a mate.” (That’s a topic for a whole other blog post, methinks.) Two decades into my marriage and my parenting life, it’s honestly just not necessary or important, definitely not like the other valuable arrows I have cultivated. But everywhere I look in our society, I still see messages that tell me my beauty should be treasured above all, should be curated, should be preserved. There are plenty of options for that preservation, after all, and whole multi-billion-dollar industries begging for my attention and money.

No, society today is not at all supportive of a gracious and peaceful acceptance of aging, of losing youth and “beauty.” We don’t get to just comfortably slide into older age. We fight it, we see others fighting it, we are encouraged to fight it. But eventually, whether we get to slide comfortably and willingly, or we fight it the whole way, all of us who make it to old age will be old. We will lose our youthful appearance. What if we actually just accept and embrace the inevitable instead of fighting it tooth (yellowing) and nail (thinning and cracking)? What if we came to appreciate all the other things that make us who we are and stop worrying about the thin veneer of attractiveness, of appearance? What a world that would be! Think of the inner peace! Think of all we could do in the world without using up our (yes, finite) energies on something ridiculous like how we look!

So I’m encouraged a bit by my reaction to my ridiculous-looking falls at the roller rink. Maybe I am just starting to accept the fact that I’m middle-aged. Maybe I’m starting to not worry so much about how I look and how I think others think about me. Maybe. Because I’d like to use my limited energies on the things that matter the most to me, and there are lots. My family, my friends, worthy causes deserve my full attention. And all they need of my appearance is my smile. I still have that, and the only thing I need to do to keep it in top condition is keep using it.

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This past year as I’ve become more aware about the issue of self-image and how appearance dominates in our society, and as I’ve researched and discussed with other people, I have realized just how pertinent the topic of aging is to the discussion. I don’t think that this will be news to most people, but our society is very anti-aging. We don’t want to look old; ideally everyone in society should have the skin and shape of a 16-year-old. Twenty-somethings are still acceptable, but after that it’s all about thirty-somethings looking like they’re still 20 and “40 is the new 30.” Wrinkles are ugly and must be Botoxed and Juvederm-ed out of existence. Soft bellies must be sucked dry of fat. Saggy breasts must be perked up through surgery.

But it’s not just the look of aging that puts people off. It’s just being old. Our culture, unlike many other cultures, does not revere or respect the older members of our society. We are happy to shunt them off to the side and try to pretend that old age does not exist. No one likes to think about the inevitable breaking down of parts of our bodies. As long as we’re young or just somewhat young, we can eat right and exercise religiously and tell everyone (and ourselves) that since we’re doing all those things, we’ve earned our good health. Even with diseases like Alzheimer’s, which we still don’t know the causes of, there are still all kinds of “tips” out there to help us exercise our brains, too, so we can somehow fend off that kind of debilitation. Perhaps. But the fact is, we cannot fend off aging or death. They are a natural part of life. With all of the technology and resources we have today, we can put them off a little longer, but we still simply cannot make them go away.

I would love to be in a culture in which we respect and revere the elderly, in which we want to put them front and center, in which we seek their wisdom and yearn to be more like them. Rather than trying to emulate 16-year-olds, why don’t we emulate those who truly have something meaningful to impart?

After I broke my foot this week, I became pretty helpless physically. The day afterward, my husband had to help me shower. I used a walker to get into the bathroom, and I needed assistance toileting and getting in the shower, and he helped hold me steady while I shampooed and tried to soap up. Just having one foot broken threw me completely out of whack. I was unable to take care of myself, and I felt my body had completely betrayed me. Leaning over my walker and hobbling slowly down the hallway and being in need of my husband’s help in such personal ways just bothered me. I said, “I feel like an 80-year-old!”

It is very disorienting to all of a sudden not be able to do the things I usually do. It’s upsetting to have to lean on someone (literally) for so much help. It’s hard to lose freedom. And the things that happen to our bodies as they age lead to those outcomes. In our independent, “me” culture, having to be dependent on others goes against our very natures. But really, why should it bother me SO much to feel like I’m 80? It’s not a horrible thing. I know wonderful 80- and 90-year-olds.

Life is not all about youth. Life is about ages and stages. We weren’t meant to stay frozen as teenagers for our entire life spans. We were intended to become adults, to move through middle age into old age. We are built to change, in all ways. Our bodies change, and our minds change, and we learn and gain (hopefully) wisdom and knowledge. We are supposed to experience life in all of its varieties. There’s simply no reason for me at age 42 now to be wistfully thinking back on how I looked at age 16. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to relive those days, I don’t care how cute my legs looked. I love my age now. I love all the neat things I can do. And in 20 years, I expect that I will be loving the new opportunities I will be facing at that stage of my life. I will be even closer to my “golden years” (or IN them) at that point, and I will be that much further away from the fresh years of my youth when my skin was wrinkle-free and my belly flat(ish).

I have read several times about how women in their 70s or older say they just feel free and completely able to just be themselves because they just don’t worry anymore about how they look. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if ALL AGES of people could say the same thing? That we could just be who we are, the real us? Wow. That would be freedom, indeed. We expend so much energy worrying about how we look and trying to look young and thin and … whatever. I don’t mean we shouldn’t take care of ourselves, but we can stop obsessing about all the details and perfection.

I’m thinking I should embrace all the good things about being 80, or at least just appreciate where I am now. Right now, I think I should embrace my SELF, who I AM. Right now, I should enjoy just who I am and where I am in my life. My teen years are past (thank GOODNESS); my 20s are past (those lean years); my 30s are even past. Now is what matters. I am 42, by golly. Today, I have a broken foot. This year, I’ve let myself eat too much, so my body is not in its best shape. I have plans to work on that, and thanks to the foot, it might be a few more months until I can really work hard on that aspect of taking better care of myself. But I have some quality time to read and plan how I will eat better and lose some weight. My house isn’t going to be as spotlessly clean as I like, but my kids are doing the cleaning and laundry. I’m not getting to cook a whole lot of the nice things I like to make, but we’re all getting fed. I’m reading a bit more and getting a chance to watch some movies, and my girls are learning a few more skills and how to take care of their mom. I’m appreciating how nice it is to be independent. I think this time in my life is just fine.

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As I have gotten older, I’ve realized just how much it means that we as human beings have choices in our lives. I believe God put us all here on this earth for a certain number of years for a reason, and he gave us the gift of choice. He allows us to do what we want to do, and we get to learn from what we decide to do and be.

In saying that, I think much gets made of that part of the equation: hey, we have free choice! Whee! We can do what we please!   It sounds so exciting, so liberating. And it is. But the flip side of that “free” coin is this: once we make a decision, we are faced with the consequences of that decision, be they “good,” “bad,” or “neutral” consequences. And part of those consequences is that once we open a door and go through it, we can’t go back through it the other way. Life is constantly moving forward. Once the door opens, it closes behind us, and here’s the kicker … if we’re standing looking at choosing among ten different doors, or just two, we can only pick one. And we can’t go back and pick one of the other doors once we’ve gone through the one we chose.

Let me try to explain and qualify: yes, we may face many doors during our lives that are pretty much the same ones we had to choose among previously, but they’re not exactly the same doors; time is always moving forward, and things change in small and big ways. We’ll never choose again, at age 18, 3 months and 5 days, which college to attend. We may decide a year later, at age 19, 3 months and 10 days, to switch to a different college, but it’s not the exact same choice. We’re not the same people, and we don’t have the exact same options as before.

I think of life as this path along which I walk. The path is constantly branching off, and there are forks always. Some are big, with large roads to choose among, and some are just little footpaths with grass tamped down by a few travelers. But we’re always at some kind of crossroads. And at each of those decision points lies a door we pass through, which closes behind us.

Me as a baby, with my mom: my whole life was ahead of me.

There are infinite numbers of paths the younger we are, from my experience. And as we choose paths and corresponding doors, we tend to have fewer big paths to choose among, and doors tend to shut more permanently the older we get. Sure, we hear “success” stories about people becoming athletes at decidedly older ages than usual, or becoming famous painters at 80, or some such thing, but those are well-known stories precisely because they are rare and unusual. (News means something out of the ordinary, and that’s what stories like this are: news.) For most of us, once we choose at 20 to pursue a career in business as opposed to chasing a dream of becoming a pro baseball player, the sports door is shut tightly behind us, and we won’t see it ahead again.

I think back on all the things I did as a young person. I acted in plays, sang, played piano, played French horn in band, went to various competitions for different academic pursuits, took all kinds of classes, dabbled in drawing, wrote, read like crazy, and baked and decorated cakes. I went to college as a chemistry major. I stood on the threshold of university life full of hope and excitement and the thrill of embarking on a grand adventure, a dream.

1988: My dad and I on our way to the airport to get me to college.

But once I was out of college, I had shut many doors behind me. Acting, playing French horn, academic competitions, drawing, even chemistry were all behind me. I still baked, I still read and wrote. I just changed my mind about being a chemistry major and focused on journalism. As life progressed and I made decisions to major in journalism, my other minor interests had to be sacrificed as I took more and more classes in my major. Then when I graduated, I worked 40 hours a week as a copy editor, further narrowing my journalistic interests, at least for the time, on editing rather than writing. As an adult and a college graduate, I had work to do. I had less time to explore and be general. Of a necessity, some interests had to be sacrificed.

My life further was changed when I decided to marry and when I decided to have each of my four daughters. Each of those choices opened up gorgeous paths with all kinds of interesting and beautiful plants along the road (not to mention some thorns and hills, let me add). But when I chose those doors, many others closed behind me. There were just certain things I would never do.

As a mother with children all at home, some teens, one just about to start school, and one in the middle, I have a road full of carriages to push along or to supervise. I can’t leave this path and try another one. When they’re all grown, I’ll have some different paths open up to me, some different doors to try out. But they won’t be the exact ones I might have tried before I went down those paths at ages 18, 23 and 26, for instance.

Sometimes I feel the loss of those paths never taken, considered but left behind. I admit I do envy others on different roads, on occasion, when my choices and their choices have put us past very different doors. Some have what I might consider “exciting” or “glamorous” lives. No, I am not talking about celebrities or anything like that. But I might have really enjoyed going into the foreign service as one friend did. I love to be in different places and get to know them, as well as the people populating them. I love languages and find different cultures fascinating. I would have loved to be a book editor at a big publishing house in New York. But either of those options would have been very difficult either with children or with the lifestyle I have decided is the way I’d like to raise my children, and where and how. (Yes, there are diplomats with kids or editors with kids, but I don’t see myself doing either of those jobs the way I’d like to do them at the same time as raising my children the way I’d like to do it. It’s as simple as that.)

I know there are still some interesting doors ahead of me, and I look forward to them. But I am now trying to really come to terms with the fact that the doors coming up are not going to be as plentiful or the same options as the doors I had ahead of me 20 years ago. I think that’s much of what aging and maturing and growing up really means. We come to grips with the naked truth that we are not who we were when we were young. Life is not an endless stream of possibilities anymore. We’ve already chosen many of those possibilities, and they are no longer dreams ahead of us but memories behind us. Our bodies are not the same as they were, our faces and hair not the same, our hearts and minds are not the same. On the first count, our society today, unfortunately, doesn’t allow us to gracefully accept that our bodies and faces are going to age and not look “fresh and young” anymore. In fact, society is urging us to do all we can to fight that fact. But all we can do is postpone it for a bit, not ignore it or stave it off entirely. On the count of our hearts and minds, however, I would like to think that despite missing some of those fun things I dabbled in as a young person, and just having the entire panorama of possibilities still ahead, that now I can be mostly satisfied with the paths I’ve chosen and where I am now. I got a good education, I’ve done some interesting work, I’ve traveled and lived in a variety of places and met many wonderful people, I’ve raised (so far) some amazing daughters. I’ve loved and been loved. I’ve experienced life, and I’ve been happy.

Me and my daughters, 2010. So much promise, so many doors.

Now, I see all the doors standing open to my daughters and feel pangs of memory of how it feels to be in their shoes. But I am excited for them and all that lies ahead in their young lives. I’m doing what I can not just to make interesting choices among the options available for me, but to support my girls as they make their own choices. What a gift that is.

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I’m not a beer drinker, nor do I hope in any way to promote drinking. But when I watch commercials, I have to admit I do get a kick out of beer ads.

I’ve been thinking about Dos Equis’ popular character, The Most Interesting Man in the World. The ad agency’s idea was that this man would be “rich in stories and experiences:” so says Wikipedia. But I’d like to elaborate and list a set of characteristics of this fascinating male specimen.

  • “Man’s man”: the epitome of masculinity
  • Ruggedly handsome
  • Experienced, well-educated, well-traveled
  • Sophisticated
  • Suave
  • Ladies’ man (implied he could have or has had as many women in his bed as he’d like)
  • Sexually desirable
  • Discerning, tasteful
  • Well-dressed, sense of style
  • Strong, well-built
  • Everything he says is compelling, so people hang on his every word
  • Accomplished — at everything
  • Sought-after — by everyone
  • Mature, even “old” (the actor is 73): gray-haired, wrinkled, bags under his eyes

Now. Let’s look at these set of qualities as applied to a “most interesting woman.”

  • Beautiful
  • Experienced, well-educated, well-traveled
  • Sophisticated
  • Feminine, ladylike
  • Sexually desirable
  • Great taste in everything, whether it be home furnishings, cars or houses, jewelry, clothing, etc.
  • Impeccable sense of style
  • Lean, takes care of her body by going to the gym every day or, better yet, working out in her home gym with her exclusive personal trainer (yoga, Pilates, Zumba, etc.)
  • Compelling person to listen to
  • Accomplished
  • Sought-after
  • Mature, even “old”: a 70-year-old woman with gray hair, wrinkles, and bags under her eyes
  • Sexually experienced, bedding hundreds of men over the years

And here is where I have a hard time finding a photograph that would work, that any advertising agency would grasp onto as a winner, as a surefire way to get positive attention and loyal followers. The sticking point is age. Yes, there are a few women still busy as actors, but most of them are being cast as someone’s grandma or as a hilarious old lady who shoots off one-liners but is still endearing and mostly happy to hand out hugs. My husband told me, “Betty White, of course.” Yep, that amazing woman is still getting lots of work and making millions laugh. But she is not held out as a universal sex symbol, even though she does like to make naughty jokes. Can you really see Ms. White being used in an equivalent Dos Equis commercial (NOT for laughs; think the Snickers commercials)?

Here is where it really hits me just how much of a double standard there is in our culture regarding age. For men, age is desirable because it makes them wiser, more experienced, more fascinating, even mysterious. Some gray hair and wrinkles make men appear “distinguished,” not “old.” Men who look distinguished and have experience are sexually desirable, and even young women will hang all over them. (Are there any 50-year-old or 70-year-old women surrounding the Dos Equis man? Noooo. Those females are all in their 20s.)

Women, however, are not allowed, let alone encouraged, to grow old naturally. There are plenty of women in Hollywood who are being praised for “aging well,” which generally means they are touted for looking 30 when they are biologically 50. They modestly proclaim that their regimes of a vegan diet, drinking lots of water, avoiding the sun, never missing Pilates, and faithfully moisturizing have kept their faces and figures looking youthful. The women who look 50 when they’re 50 end up either being pushed out of the profession or playing someone’s grandma because looking your age is NOT “aging well;” it’s embarrassing and shameful. And 70? That’s a small club of actresses indeed. They never get to be surrounded by young, hot men hanging on their every word, hoping they’ll bed them (maybe for comedic purposes, but not in any seriousness.)

I’d like to propose that we women fight back. Let’s make ourselves the Most Interesting Women. I’ll use myself for an example, but I’d encourage each of you female readers to put a photo of yourselves somewhere with a list of your best qualities (or post that list on your mirror).

  • 40-something, middle-aged, wiser than I was at 20
  • More stylish than I was at 20, I have a better sense of what I like, what reflects “me” and what looks good on me.
  • Great, authentic, winning smile. That hasn’t changed, no matter how old I am. I love to smile and I love to make other people a little happier by shining it on them.
  • Attractive, especially to my husband, who thought I looked beautiful even when I was about to give birth and looked like I’d swallowed a torpedo.
  • Well-traveled, at least throughout the United States
  • Well-educated and well-read
  • Accomplished and well-rounded
  • A very talented cook and baker, I feed everyone well, and I do it on a budget. (“We eat well aboard the Tweedledee.” Guess the movie.)
  • Musical
  • Humorous (well, in a geeky way)
  • Not as lean as I once was, but softer and more classically beautiful, I still love to exercise. It just feels good.
  • Versatile
  • Sought-after (for getting things done)
  • Desirable (and you are not getting any details here)

What do you say, ladies? Tell me how you are fascinating.

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