The New Work of Age: Deep Thinking

Dorothy Sander

Dorothy Sander

Good Friday morning, everyone. My friend Dorothy Sander wrote today’s post. Dorothy blogs for the Huffington Post, and her blog, Aging Abundantly, is another joyful resource for those of us in the second half.

This is her response to “I Don’t Want to Live Forever”. I felt empowered by Dorothy’s words. Hope you do, too.

How very sad that advancing years seems to spawn despair and a sense of hopelessness and fear. About ten years ago, in my early 50’s I watched my parents journey through their last days, one dying at 89, the other at 97 and the thing that struck me then was exactly that. They couldn’t figure out how to live without “doing” something. I vowed then, that I would try to figure out a better way to die so that I don’t have to die in despair.

I have been wrestling with my own version of this issue and at sixty two I now see things very differently. I have never felt more at peace with life than I do now, and while the numbers say otherwise I feel like my life is just beginning. I’ve begun to think of the first half of life as “boot camp” for the good stuff. What we are missing in our western culture and  perspective is the big picture. Is life really about “doing”? Is it about thinking, planning, executing?

For me, I now see it as a process of being and becoming, of transformation and personal and spiritual growth which is more of an inward journey than an outward one. Sure, we will live in the world, enjoying all that it has to offer until we can no longer do so, but perhaps what we are meant to do in our last years, no matter how long they last, is to do exactly what people like Erikson, Kubler-Ross, Dr. Estes and others have been saying for years, go inward. Aging is a transformative process that, when we choose to embrace, rather than fear, deny or avoid it, we are gifted with the ability to offer wisdom and perspective to a world that has grown mad with doing.

No one looks forward to living in pain and losing one’s faculties, but it’s just another change that we can choose to embrace or fear. I want to live in this place of transformative aging until I die and I want to resist falling into the trap of fear or despair to the best of my ability. If it is 70 years or 170, I don’t think I will have learned or experienced everything there is to learn or experience and I will be sorry to see this journey end, but I plan to leap, to the best of my ability, into the next world, whatever it is.

Lynne again. I’ve written before about how we might need courage in the second half to allow ourselves to ratchet down a bit, sit quietly and think hard of a day, and that may be one measure of productivity. In this TedX video, geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas talks about how we judge older people according to how closely they imitate the physicality of youth. And in this post, I talk about how a group of retired/retiring psychologists and therapists, all female, all feminists, all with the ability to think deeply, appear stuck on the productivity standard.

As my Dad used to tell me, “Use your thinker.”


Adulthood: One Size Fits All?

I was filling out a form the other day, and had to select an age category. Here were the choices: infant, toddler, adolescent, teenager, and adult. And I wondered, is that all there is? They break down the first twenty-one years into four stages, but after that, we get one?

Guess we’re all the same after age twenty-one. No need to make distinctions based on the amazing, challenging, heartbreaking, inspiring, devastating, and empowering stages during the sixty-some years many of us are blessed to live, once we reach “adulthood.”

I disagree, and propose we assign four categories of adulthood, based on emotional development/wisdom/maturity rather than a number.

  • YOUNG ADULT, when you’re just getting started in your independence.
  • MIDDLE ADULT, when you’re more settled and your life seems on a path (you think so, youngster, but ha ha! Just wait.)
  • GROWN ADULT, when you’re past child rearing or nearing retirement/menopause/independence/scary new changes. Now you’re all up in the air again, trying to figure out the second half.
  • SENIOR, when you’re pretty sure of yourself again. Hopefully you’re now feeling settled and wise.

Dr. Bill ThomasDr. Bill Thomas suggests there are two phases of the adult stage: adulthood and elderhood. He’s a geriatrician, one of only six thousand in the USA at present. (Yes, I’m worried about that number, too.) But anyway, he started out as an OB/GYN guy, and says he’s so lucky to have had a career that began with welcoming little humans into the world, and now helping them when it’s time to leave.

Here’s a wonderful TED talk he did about the categories thing, called Elderhood Rising. Isn’t that a great title? He makes so many great points. Here’s one:  society – and that includes us – judges older people against the standard set by youth. The more we’re like THEM, the more value we have. So if we’re not STILL driving or waterskiing or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, we “are disappeared,” Dr. Bill says. The video is about twenty minutes, so if you’re in a hurry, skip to the halfway point and you’ll get the gist.

So, what do you think of my proposed categories, and where do you think you fit? And BTW, have a happy Valentine’s Day next Thursday. See you on Friday.

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? (October 2014 update: my uncle LOVES the place. It is a beautiful facility which Mom and I visited, and the people there are caring and kind.)

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
With hooded
If there really
A path ahead
& Whether
There really
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.