Reporters love to interview old people and ask how they reached such an advanced age. In theory this will be helpful. It never is. [Read more…]
My earliest memory precedes language. I was about 18 months old when I heard my mother crying for the first time. My therapist says we don’t usually remember things from that young unless we have post-traumatic stress disorder.
So that’s a bummer.
I am going to share something very personal with you today, in spite of the voice in my head telling me not to. As I considered deleting this post, October was designated Domestic Abuse Awareness month. What a coinkydink. The cosmic message has been delivered. I have to share my story, because it will help others. Maybe even you.
In this, my sixtieth year, I have embarked on a quest to find out the answer to a very scary question: why am I afraid to be alone? I don’t mean temporarily. I’m an introvert and love solitude. I’m referring to something other than loneliness. If you ever read Lonely by Emily White, you know what I mean. I am afraid to live by myself. The sight of a rural home out in the middle of rolling miles makes me shudder. I even started a blog, some years ago, devoted entirely to this fear of ongoing aloneness. You might say why worry, since I’m not alone now and may never be. Because it’s a dark place in my understanding of myself. Pretending it isn’t real doesn’t work for me. I would rather understand and attack it.
I tried, from time to time over the years, to explain it to friends, but never got much farther than sounding like I’m not complete without a man. Eventually, I stopped talking about it, tried to put it out of my mind, and hoped I would mature out of it somehow. Meanwhile, I made sure Bill got plenty of exercise, vitamins and sleep so he would live a long time!
But one day, I found myself back on the case. I was reading Dean Ornish’s book Love and Survival, and was surprised to learn he had been almost suicidal as a teenager. He says, “Like many people, I grew up in a loving family without many personal or emotional boundaries – what I affectionately call ‘The Ornish Blob.’ In every family there is a process of how each person individuates and separates from the rest of the family…I did not have a very well-formed sense of having a separate self…(this) can be terrifying, for it can feel like nonexistence or death.”
That was me. Finally, someone had described it correctly. I read more, and discovered the concept of enmeshment. As in, what happens when you’re raised in a dysfunctional family.
Remember the Borg on Star Trek? Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.
I was. As a youngster growing up with a violent father, I lost myself. I became part of the dysfunction, giving up my self to preserve the whole. Kids who live with violence can become enmeshed with the rest of the family, such that none of you have a sense of yourself except as a part of the whole. You don’t learn who you are or what you need because survival depends on other things, like how quickly you sense the abuser getting cranky. And you know when he gets cranky the belt will whip through the air. Things will break, glass will fly, blood will flow. Survival may require knowing that this is coming.
“Try to be good,” my mother would implore us kids. Even at a very young age, I understood that our job was to make sure HE wasn’t stressed out.
But we grow up and become independent, right? We leave those behaviors behind, right? Wrong. 110% wrong. If, like me, you grew up in such a household – and you probably did, because 1 in 4 women are victims of domestic abuse – you will develop certain behaviors that can rob you of a fully-realized life. Behaviors like people-pleasing, hypervigilance, an excessive sense of responsibility, and addictions like workaholism. Unless you understand this, you will behave like a tool until your death, and your kids, having learned tool-behavior, will continue the legacy of abuse for generations to come.
Not me. Not anymore. I feel stronger, freer and more empowered than ever before in my life. More next Friday.
I was talking with my friend Martin Rice, formerly of the Fifty2Ninety blog, about having a sense of purpose in the last third of our lives. He had been wondering what older people do if/when they lose that sense, and considered starting up a new blog dedicated to this issue. As we talked, it occurred to me that older peeps are more wedded to purpose than necessary. Maybe we’re addicted to the idea of productivity, unable to unhitch from the parental and career wagons we’ve pulled all these years.
If so, the alternative could be hedonistic and decadent! Just for fun, let’s consider.
When you’re a kid, your purpose is to grow up and become skillfully independent. Then, as a young adult, it’s to create a sustainable life for yourself and your dependents, supporting your part of the world (family, community, workplace, state and nation). Finally, as an older adult, your purpose is – what? If normal cycles play out, people aren’t depending on you as much anymore, and you have the luxury of free time and choice. So now, what is your purpose?
Must you have one?
Yes, because purpose is critical to quality and length of life, according to this article by Paula Span. But the research came from interviews with old people, who were raised in a time when we believed one must be of service to others. That Puritan work ethic still influences us, for good and bad. We feel more worthwhile, confident, and secure when we can say we’re struggling with some kind of load.
Not to go all Byron Katie on you, but is it true, or is it training?
When my father died, Mom felt she no longer had a purpose. She had spent her adult life serving others, first raising us kids, and then looking out for Dad more and more as he declined. After many years, his death freed her, but freedom didn’t look that great. Losing her sense of purpose added to her grief. As she and I discussed this, I asked if she might find purpose in showing us four kids, then in our fifties, how to age well. She shrugged, and I felt embarrassed at sounding self-centered.
Fast forward six years. Mom, now 89, lives a few blocks from me, in our 55+ community. She has friends, drives herself around town, exercises, and has hobbies and interests. She no longer serves the needs of others, unless you count the normal generosities inherent in living an ethical life. In fact, it seems she spends her time staying healthy and enjoying herself. I recently asked how she feels about the question of purpose.
“I wonder why I’m still alive, but God must have his reasons,” she said. “Maybe He figures I’ve earned a vacation.”
What does a person have to do to earn that vacation? I worked hard from a young age, volunteered a lot, and supported everybody and his brother (and his kids). Sometimes I fantasize about cutting loose from everything and just savoring my existence. When I said this to Martin, he replied, “Maybe that is your purpose.”
God, wouldn’t that be a relief?
I think older people might stay busy out of a sense of guilt, because they have all this freedom while their kids are struggling under the pressures of child-rearing and careers. But might we try to feel justified doing nothing beyond that which is required to preserve and savor our existence? Assuming the normal generosities, of course. Like stepping up to the plate when your community needs you, and not just being a selfish you-know-what.
What do you think?
So sad to think of this poor man suffering with the almost-insurmountable problems of addiction and depression (LATE ADD: and possibly also Parkinsons’.) He also had medical problems (and we’ve seen that heart surgery can bring on depression). On top of that, he had money problems, and Robin Williams wasn’t in his peak earning years anymore.
His death has prompted important conversations. According to this story in the Washington Post, white males die by suicide more than any other group by gender or racial demographic. The number is four times as high as for the next highest group, and it dwarfs every other demographic on the chart.
…Aging may take a larger toll on the male psyche. Older men who value their self-reliance may find themselves less able to cope as they age, when they are no longer in their prime physically, sexually and at work.
“I often refer to them as being developmentally unsuccessful, because they’re not equipped to handle the challenges of getting older if they are so tied into their masculinity . . . and making a lot of money,” said Christopher Kilmartin, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington.
“Things aren’t the way they used to be,” said Dost Ongur, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. . “The power you knew, the control you knew, aren’t the same.”
I want to tread carefully here; what I say next is not meant to minimize Robin’s physiological and psychological burdens. I’m not qualified to offer an opinion, but want to use the statistics as a starting point for discussion.
Many of us, particularly men,
are unable to accept have a hard time accepting the aging process and our own mortality. We’re swamped in a noxious wave of cultural messages that, at a certain age, we’re worthless, stupid, pointless…and we buy it. We look in the mirror and see the work of time, and it’s not flattering. We retire or get forced out of jobs. We wonder what the point is. What good are we?
After a lifetime of being brainwashed to believe bad stuff about old people, there’s new research that says people who believe negative things about the aging process die, on average, 7.5 years sooner. What a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Yes, physically, we’re on the losing end, but mentally and emotionally there is much to be grateful for. Here are a few tidbits worth celebrating:
- Myelination doesn’t peak until your sixties. Myelin is a substance that coats the brain circuits and improves neurotransmission. I wrote about that here.
- Positivity increases later in life, and you have greater control over your emotions – even though older people feel them more strongly. Something about changes to the amygdala. That’s in the same blog post, linked above.
- Bilateralization occurs later in life. It means you use both halves of your brain all the time, instead of just the right brain for art/left brain for analysis. This adds up to deeper, more creative, more out-of-the-box thinking. Have you ever heard this before? More here.
So we’re on the short end of the mortality stick, but from what I hear, the older you get, the more at ease you are with the prospect of death.
Robin Williams was a generous benefactor to many causes, and even now, he’s helping humanity by raising difficult subjects. I ask that you consider the positive aspects of aging, and talk about them. Give your kids, and the rest of society, a reason to feel good about the last third of life, because there is good. Why not celebrate it?
Rest in peace, Robin.
I just finished Your Life Calling by Jane Pauley. The objective of this book, according to the author, is “to inspire people…to imagine their own future in powerful and positive ways.” Pauley weaves her story into the telling of those anecdotes. She’s cheerful and self-effacing, and uses her broadcaster cadence in the narration. Unfortunately, the result is a kind of tonal flatness, no controversy or gravitas, no real highs or lows. This is probably because the book is an advertisement for her show and she wants to attract the largest audience possible.
So that’s the downside, yet there was enough in it for me to feel it was worth reading. I enjoyed the anecdotes of the many fine people who are following their passions and doing good in the world by bringing fresh water to Africa or school books to the inner cities. And Pauley offers snippets of wisdom, her own or gleaned from interviews with reinventors. For example:
*The concept of “packing for your future.” What might you take with you into very old age, that you can look back upon and think, “I’m glad I did that. I’m at peace because I did that.”
*Instead of empty nest syndrome, one woman viewed the newly available time as “a gift box that I could fill somehow.”
*Being willing to give up on some things, like running a marathon or learning a foreign language. (This is the basis of the popular “F*** It List,” a topic previously explored here.)
*”Self-discovery is not a prerequisite for reinvention. It’s the payoff.”
I like the idea of reinvention, but there’s something about it that bugs me, and that’s the only real knock on this book. It’s the largely-unacknowledged truth that only a certain economic group will ever be able to indulge in unpaid dream-chasing. This is especially true in the aftermath of the Great Recession, in which many older people decided they would never retire, and it’s not because they love their jobs. If you’ve got a nice pension or enough Social Security to support your wanderings, or your kids are cool with you living in a trailer in their back yard, you might be able to quit working and follow your interests. However, many people will never have that luxury, and I think we should recognize that. Otherwise, it’s tone-deaf of us to pretend reinvention is universally accessible.
Now, if somebody would come along and write a book about “How I Reinvented Myself While Working Three Minimum Wage Jobs and Enduring Chronic Illness,” that would be noteworthy. What do you think? Am I being too cynical?
Sometimes we perpetuate our own victimization. Cultures promulgate Big Lies. We tell each other a certain thing, repeat it endlessly and it becomes true. We don’t even hear our words anymore.
Let me provide an illustration. It’s extreme, but it makes the point about culture – in this case, thankfully, not ours.
The people who live in Afghanistan today believe that the current status quo represents reality, the natural way of things, but do they know any different? Some women are probably alive who remember the days when they could put on a skirt and heels and head out for university to continue studying to be a doctor. I fear that the majority believe the converse: that women are ignorant beasts suitable only for breeding and domestic labor.
Like I said, it’s an extreme example. Here in America, we have in the past chosen to put youth on a pedestal. We chose to imitate them, and we chose to say things like “senior moment,” “60 is the new 30,” and use the word “old ” as a description of something bad, negative, unworthy. We did this voluntarily. Nobody held a gun to our heads. We were so far into the Kool-Aid we were in danger of drowning.
But that’s changing. Judging from your comments, you’re as sick of it as I am, and you’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. You’re standing up for yourselves, refusing to spend the next thirty years of your life bowing, scraping, and apologizing for being old. You’re not as willing to emulate the young. You’re incensed by the ageism that’s so acceptable today, refusing to ignore the profound cruelty in what ignoramuses consider humor.
We have begun to celebrate the glory of the second half, and we’re excited about our potential. For an uplifting view of turning eighty, check out this essay by famed neurologist Oliver Sacks. And notice the title: “The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding)” – as if you have to be KIDDING to think there’s anything good about old age. Good article, stupid subtitle.
I beg you: don’t accept a low ceiling. With our numbers, we can make headway on this. I hope you will continue to spread the word about empowerment after age 50. We are free thinkers, we’re experienced, and we are deeper than we’ve ever been. We have to talk about it, with joy or anger. Too many of us are on the verge of myopic despair when we could be on the verge of enlightenment.
So keep talking. Keep asking why we use the word “old” as a pejorative. Because old is one of the most lovely things I’ve been.
Late add: It’s 7 a.m. and I’m happily reading your comments when this appears in my inbox from Huffington Post: 7 Easy Ways to Avoid Looking Old. *sigh*
Most of you know that Bill and I spent the last school year babysitting two of our grandchildren. Our “assignment” ended a week ago, and I’ve enjoyed time to reflect. This past year has been as fabulous as it has been draining, and now that it’s over, I feel a bit lost, as if the babies are leaving us behind.
Each one of the benefits is worth the whole year to us:
- We know the little ones almost as well as do their parents.
- They act excited when they see us.
- We were privileged to spend each morning with our son and DIL, getting the day off to a good start. I’ll never forget arriving before dawn, letting ourselves in, hearing the baby fussing as he awoke. Then a few minutes later, us four adults chattering in the kitchen as everybody rushed about. I’d get the toddler to the table for her breakfast while Bill gave the baby his bottle. Dan and Amy got organized, prepared lunches and did minor chores. We felt like the extended family of yore, when multiple generations worked together for a family’s success.
- Dan and Amy appreciated our contribution to their family’s welfare.
- We have a new understanding of and compassion for parents of small children.
The challenges have been significant:
- The toll on our bodies, most of which is temporary. Not temporary are the surfer’s knots I acquired on my knees from crawling (happily in and out of large boxes turned into forts, for example. Or changing the baby on the floor, because he’s so wriggly and strong we don’t dare change him on an elevated surface.)
- The time away from marketing Dakota Blues, and from the world of writing in general.
- Finding time for doctor, dentist, and other appointments – just like working people!
- Concern that, as parents, we shouldn’t be so intimately involved in the lives of our kids. Our son and DIL benefitted, for sure, but they gave up a ton of privacy for the duration.
In spite of it all, the babies came through okay. They are now 14 months and two-and-a-half years, bright, happy and healthy. Dan and Amy completed another year as elementary school teachers. Bill and I are already feeling like our old selves again, although we feel guilty for being so free, and we wonder almost every minute how the little ones are doing. We miss them! But fulltime parenting is for younger bodies than ours.
Professionally, I’ve managed to keep up with our Friday visits here at Any Shiny Thing; sales of Dakota Blues have been fantastic, thanks largely to good reviews and an award for women’s fiction from Next Generation Indie Book Awards. I also found time for five public speaking gigs and three book signings during that period. I’ve drafted some short stories and put together a compendium of my best blog posts for an ebook, Sometimes You Feel Like a Sandwich: Reflections on Caregiving, that I hope to release by Thanksgiving.
I wrote this post today to celebrate a milestone – that Bill and I are returning to our normal life after taking a one-year detour for the good of our family. We feel so blessed, but we’re also sobered by having lived the life of young adults trying to balance career and child-rearing. As a result, our lives are fuller and we have much more appreciation for the younger generations. We are back to being retired and the skies are a brilliant blue.
This is the second in a four-part series on your amazing, aging brain.
More good news: midlife crisis and the empty nest syndrome don’t exist. There is no scientific research to support them. Not that people don’t suffer at that time of life. I don’t mean to make light of the changes. But statistically speaking, there is no scientific evidence of either syndrome.
In the 1970s, a Yale psychology professor handpicked forty men to study. He then concluded they were suffering from midlife crisis. That’s about it.
Although people still believe in it (try Googling “midlife” and see what comes up), there is ample evidence to the contrary. In 1999, for instance, one of the biggest studies of middle age, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, concluded:
Between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-five, people across the board reported increased feelings of well-being.”
The feminine version of midlife crisis is empty nest syndrome. Here again, there is evidence not only that this “syndrome” doesn’t exist, but that the opposite is true. According to Barbara Strauch and researcher Karen L. Fingerman,
…no one has ever been able to find a true empty nest syndrome in a scientific way. Instead, even among women who devote all their time to raising their kids, studies find mostly a ‘great deal of satisfaction’ when the kids become independent. ‘They feel they have done a good job and they suddenly have the freedom to do new things,’ says Fingerman. ‘They feel great.’
I won’t deny that some people feel unhappy or lost over the reality of the years passing, or the newly-quiet house that used to ring with the sound of a happy family. Of course that could be discouraging; it may even cause depression. My point is, serious psychological impact from those changes is not a given. To learn more, you might want to pick up a copy of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch, whose words I’m using in this post.
Now that you’re all warmed up (flex fingers, crack knuckles here), let’s talk about the power of the midlife brain. Last week I mentioned the brain in midlife powers up instead of gearing down. There’s a particular trick your brain learns in midlife, and it was only accepted as scientifically irrefutable in the late 1990s. It’s called bilateralization.
See, when the younger brain needs to solve a problem, it tends to use the factory settings. If it’s a logic problem, the left brain gets a workout. Creativity? The right side lights up. Young brains are so powerful, this works fine. However, when you’re older, your brain realizes that in order to do the best job possible, it’s going to have to reach across from one hemisphere and borrow circuits from the other. Thus, both sides of the brain are engaged in a task where in the past, only one side would have been. In addition to pure processing help, there may be an almost magical benefit from this strategy.
As we age, and the two sides of our brains work together, we are able to see bigger patterns, have bigger thoughts, reaching – according to one researcher – the level of art. According to Gene Cohen, who studies the connection between art and neurons,
The brain’s left and right hemispheres become better integrated during middle age, making way for greater creativity…The neurons themselves may lose some processing speed with age, but they become ever more richly intertwined…”
Last week we discussed the fact that as the brain ages, it begins to default to its daydreaming mechanism to process new data. Unfortunately, this is why it takes us longer to learn new things. On the plus side, some scientists think that tendency to daydream, combined with the ability to use both sides of the brain in an integrated way, might result in better problem solving, deeper insights, and more creativity. And I’d say that’s something to celebrate.
This is the first in a series of four posts celebrating the aging brain.
I’m looking for my glasses, but I can’t find them because they’re on my head. So I find my backups and try to put them on, but discover I’m already wearing a pair.
I would feel stupid except at times, I feel downright brilliant. This has probably happened to you, too. Maybe you’re listening to a younger person explain a problem at work or you’re reading an article in the news, and suddenly all the facts connect and you come up with such an awesome solution you want to call the Nobel commission.
Except you don’t quite trust what happened, because only yesterday you came home from the grocery store and put the bananas in the hamper. Maybe what you’re having is some kind of brain flair before the cells die. You never shine so brightly as just before, you know – pffffft.
Stop worrying. Both things really are happening. New research confirms that you’re both more addled and more brilliant than ever before in your life.
If you’re a typical middle-aged* person, the glasses and bananas are real, and so is the intellect.
The science of the aging brain is quite new; conclusions being drawn just in the past few years prove that we have more to be excited about than ever. For example, it wasn’t that long ago that we were told brain cells only died; none were regenerated. However, that has now been proven false. The brain DOES produce new cells, primarily in the area relative to memory.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In a great new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, author (and science editor for the NY Times) Barbara Strauch produces tons of evidence that, while our older brains definitely have some weaknesses, they also develop amazing, surprising, even beautiful workarounds. In fact, the older brain is gearing up, not slowing down. All during December I’ll be telling you what I learned, and – plagiarism alert! – excerpting heavily from her book. That’s because I can’t say it any better than Barbara did.
Here’s some good news: in older age, you’re smarter. This is because you’ve accumulated such a wealth of data, and the human brain has a special talent: deduction. Per Ms. Strauch:
The brain builds strength (over a lifetime) by building up millions upon millions of patterns, allowing us to “recognize even vaguely similar patterns and draw appropriate conclusions.”
One researcher, E. Goldberg, calls it “mental magic.”
“Frequently,” says Goldberg, “when I am faced with what would appear from the outside to be a challenging problem, the grinding mental computation is somehow circumvented, rendered, as if by magic, unnecessary. The solution comes effortlessly, seemingly by itself…I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight…”
According to Barbara Strauch, when faced with new information, the older brain might take longer to assimilate and use it. But faced “with information that in some way – even a very small way-relates to what’s already known, the middle-aged brain works quicker and smarter, discerning patterns and jumping to the logical endpoint.”
This is an evolutionary triumph. We’re not called homo sapiens – thinking man – for nothing.
Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that we’re more easily distracted and more likely to lose focus as we age. This is because as you get older, new information comes into the part of your brain that’s good at daydreaming. So when you’re trying to read a newspaper in Starbucks and somebody’s jabbering loudly on his cellphone and you can’t concentrate, it’s because the daydreaming mechanism is doing a crappy job of managing the new info.
You can mitigate this with discipline and practice, but you have to work on it. Personally, I think daydreaming is a treat, and I’m not sure I want to curtail it.
*Definition of middle age, per Barbara Strauch, is that long period between youth and old age. I like it. I like it a whole lot better than assuming you’re at the halfway point. Because as vibrant and kick-ass as I am, I’m sure as hell not going to make it to 116.
I feel bad for Demi, melting down and all. According to the tabs, she’s distraught over turning fifty. It must be horrifying when Ashton Kutcher takes a good look at you and realizes you’re no longer young, and then your life is over. Because what’s next, granny underwear and black whiskers that spring from your chin overnight? You might as well be dead.
Here is where being a movie star doesn’t help you. Demi might have a villa in France but even she can’t stop the clock.
What a surprise it would be for her to learn that average people like me are facing the very same aging process. Of course, we’re not making a career of having a preternaturally youthful body, but still, it’s hard. For Demi it’s hard because she’s in an unforgiving market. For the rest of us, it’s hard because we have so few cultural role models. Okay, there’s Hillary, she of the big brain and ample backside, who after bringing countless world leaders to heel will soon amble pantsuited and serene into retirement, excited about entering the new phase of her life. That’s a nice thought.
For any of us, moving into menopause and beyond is big. We should maybe take a sec to acknowledge just how big. Think of the other transitions we celebrate: first word, first steps, turning sixteen and driving, getting married, first jobs, kids – we celebrate all these moments. They are achievements! Accomplishments! Positive developments!
Then comes perimenopause, menopause, turning fifty…what rituals do we engage in to mark these transitions? We give each other black balloons and wrapping paper. With a big laugh and a nudge, we spring a wheelchair on the birthday girl at the office party. Ha. Ha.
This whole stupid cultural denigration of the great accomplishment of aging really pisses me off.
If I had my way, we’d call all the post-menopausal women up on stage and hand them an award for getting to this point in life without losing their minds. I mean, think of all we’ve done by this age. We’ve sublimated our natures to a guy (maybe more than one) so we could get pregnant and have a peaceful nest in which to raise our babies, while holding down fulltime jobs and managing said nest. We’ve been served up thirty, forty, fifty years of magazine covers at the grocery store telling us how we can be hotter, cuter, thinner, sexier, better cooks and lovers, more organized, and better balancers of work and life – and we read the articles and tried, oh Lord, how we tried. What did we get instead? A sense of failure, a sense that we’re not cutting it. Oh, and maybe also breast cancer, fibroids, prolapse, stress incontinence, hot flashes, wrinkles and whiskers. We learned to deal with increasingly frequent deaths and illnesses, we held our girlfriends’ hands at their husbands’ funerals, we shrugged and said the hell with it.
Maybe that’s our mistake. Maybe we should make a bigger deal of the courage inherent in aging thoughtfully, gratefully, sublimely. We could talk about how we’re not phased anymore about the changes to our bods, or the losses we suffer. We could revel in the maturity, self-knowledge and sense of “been there, done that,” that keep us on an even keel when younger women would be freaking out.
Those are the things we should be talking about. There’s something ahead to be excited about: power and grace. This is our reward for getting old. Maybe if we talked about this, young women like Demi wouldn’t be so freaked out because they would see aging as something less to be afraid of, and something more to aspire to.