Old Age Better Than I Ever Expected

Ronni Bennett

Ronni Bennett

I never expected to feel as alive and vibrant and spirited and vital as I do at this time of my life.

These are the words with which my friend, elder blogger Ronni Bennett of Time Goes By, began a recent post. It seemed so powerful I asked if I could reproduce it for Any Shiny Thing. The following words are Ronni’s. Enjoy.

“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.

“There are more news and feature stories about Alzheimer’s, for which no prevention or treatment exists, than reports on all other elder health issues combined.

“The New York Times publishes what is now a long-standing, daily blog about and for elders titled The New Old Age. Day in and day out over several years now, it is exclusively about being sick or frail or demented or all three at once as though there are no other states of health in “the new old age.”

“Someone ought to tell The Times that 80 percent of old people live independently until they die.

“Then there are the politicians. Elders are a big topic for them because we are more frequent voters than younger people and our numbers are ballooning.

“But the pols see us exclusively in economic terms, wringing their hands over how expensive we are, a bunch of greedy geezers who they would rather starve than allow a Social Security cost-of-living increase.

“Is it any wonder nobody likes old people?

“The only positive words about us involve freaks who jump out of airplanes at age 85, reported by the media either as a joke or as an object lesson to all other old folks to get off our duffs and climb Mt. Everest.

“As regular readers know, I think about these things a lot and frequently rail against them…

But that doesn’t stop me from being amazed at how good old age feels. This is the most interesting time of life I have known.

“It seems to happen when I’m not paying attention that a lot of former imperatives fall away, making life easier and far less fraught with shoulds.

I am done improving myself. Self-help be damned. I am what I am and so I shall remain.

“My ambitions these days are about how I might be able to contribute to my community and not the next better, higher-paying job. I’m not competing for work or recognition or awards anymore and that takes off a load.

“My concern about myself has shrunk to little more than a daily mental checklist on well-being rather than how I compare with others. I have less to prove to them and to myself.

“I’ve almost learned that there are good days and bad days, good and bad moods, and that’s all right. Each is as much a part of living as the other.

“And, as I’ve mentioned here before, I have lost my younger sense of urgency, the need to do, do, do. I still find it odd that as my days dwindle down, I more frequently say, “I’ll get to it tomorrow.”

“I still don’t understand that but it sure feels good and for a bonus, I suspect it helps keep my blood pressure in check.

“There is time now, finally, to be. Time to follow my interests and instincts, to investigate those avenues – internal and external – I was too busy for in the past. Or not. I get to choose and the freedom I’ve arrived at to do so thrills me.

“Whatever the rest of the world thinks about being old, from my vantage point of 72, it is unexpectedly better and more exciting than I ever guessed it could be.”

Lynne again: Are you surprised to find yourself happy at an age when we expected to be bummed out?

Elder Wisdom Needed

I humiliated myself, but it wasn’t my fault. It was the fault of my elders, who play things so close to the vest.

One day when I was in my mid-fifties, I was having lunch with friends who are twenty years older. We were discussing a very elderly couple in our writing group. The husband was 90, the wife 85. They still wrote and published, and were incredibly vibrant. “They probably still have sex!” I said.

My friends were appalled. “Well, why wouldn’t they?” one asked.

But how was I to know? Who talks about the intimate details of life in the oldest years?

Okay, now I get the sex thing, but here’s what I really want to know: how do very senior peeps deal with mortality? I apologize for sounding stupid; yes, I DO in fact realize that I, at 58, could go any minute. I’ve almost “gone” three times already (1 car accident at 17, and 2 surgeries later in life). But I want to know how to deal, when I get to be eighty-plus. Getting very old must be existentially challenging. One loss after another, one medical scare after another. How do you manage it emotionally?

We just learned that my uncle, who is 85 and has Parkinsons’, has to go live in an elder care facility. To quote the renowned geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas, my uncle has been given a life sentence for the crime of frailty. Later today I’ll ask Mom how she’s handling it, because if it were my brother I’d be flattened by grief. But Mom’s been through so much, I suspect she’s stronger than me. Is that the answer? That we grow stronger in old age?

I see all these vibrant eighty-plussers living happy lives. They must have a strategy. I’d like to know what it is.

Recently, my husband, who is 65, said he figured he had about ten more “good” years. A few years ago, I would have bitched at him about that comment, but now I accept the logic of it. Maybe he’ll be wrong but we don’t want to take a chance. So I say, HELL YEAH, LET’S PARTAY. Let’s go on cruises, let’s go on road trips. Let’s golf, make love, go out to lunch and a movie. Let’s drink too much and eat two desserts.

Alice Walker, in her poem “Until I Was Nearly Fifty,” said of this inter-generational wisdom-sharing:

Those who sit
Skeptical
With hooded
Eyes
Wondering
If there really
Is
A path ahead
& Whether
There really
Are
Elders
Upon it.

Yes. We are there
Just ahead
Of you

Looking back
Concerned for you…”

So in that vein, ladies and gentleman of the forward wave, do you have any advice for coping with the upcoming blows to body and heart? Any words of wisdom or strategies to share? I for one would be so grateful, and I doubt I’m alone in my desire to learn.

Aging with Grace

I asked my friend Nanci, at long last retired from her career in K-12 education (as a teacher and principal) how she is adjusting to all her free time. Nanci, in her early sixties, has a brilliant, introspective, ethical and spiritual mind. You might remember her from these skydiving pictures. She’s no wuss. Here’s what she wrote recently, and I think it exemplifies transitioning with grace as we age:a
 
Last week I went to a kayak class in our local Ocean Kayak Clinic. It offers lots of classes from kayak surfing, rolling, expeditions, crabbing and rescues. My neighbor, Roy, and I thought that we might take rescue together, since we often kayak and it would be good to be able to help each other and ourselves should we capsize. I had taken the same class 8 years ago and felt that it was a good class to have and to repeat.
a
It was a cold, rainy day… there were eight of us in the class. I was one of two women and the oldest in the class. I feel that I am a pretty accomplished kayaker, but in this class I was terrible. I was able to help others, but every time it was my turn in the water I could not get back into my boat, except with a ton of help. I remember being in classes with other “lame” (IMO) people and was embarrassed for them and wondered why they were even in the classes.
a
Eventually the class ended and I took my very chilled and soggy body home. I then ruminated on what exactly this means for me. Should I work to regain upper body strength (although I do yoga regularly and it’s not usually a problem for me) or should I just not do any hard kayaking where I might get in trouble or perhaps there may be some other ways to think about the experience.
a
I hosted a Tapas Party a few days later with a bunch of “foodie” friends, including my wonderful yoga teacher. During the conversation, someone asked me about my class…I laughed and said, “True confessions”, and told the group of my struggle.
a
Laura, my teacher, said, “Well, Nanci, what I hear is benevolence of spirit.”
A
And she was right…and this is my real learning from this experience. Because for most of my life I would have been totally humiliated and would have slithered home and berated myself for days. I would never have shared my experience for the sheer embarrassment of it.  For once, I had accepted and loved myself enough to be able to just contemplate what this meant in the realm of my life, without severe judgement. And it felt good. I’m not sure if this is a gift of age, or if it is a late learning for me. It is something I wish I could pass on to young people who live in the shame and embarrassment that I have carried with me all these years. Imagine what we could accomplish as humans if we could be self loving.  Benevolence of spirit, what a wonderful term and a life expanding concept!
Nanci, I’m inspired by your words, and happy you’ve found that sweet place of self-appreciation. Unfortunately, it probably is something the kids will have to wait and work for, because I think it mainly comes with age. Thanks for letting me share your story.