Amazing Eighties

Eighty! You’re eighty? Eighty’s really old, right?

That’s how I used to see it when I was younger. Maybe you, too.

But now that I’m around 60, and involved with writers and writing groups, I have friends that age. Girl friends who will sit with me, drink wine, and whine about whatever. We discuss our writing, our dreams, other people, sex, wanting to lose a few pounds…

Here’s the news: Age is irrelevant. It truly is “just a number.” People age differently these days. We’re all over the map. You cannot stereotype based on a number, because people differ so substantially at this point in life.

One of my friends, MJ, is 82 and her hair’s on fire. She’s working on her second novel. Another friend, Ray, will be 90 next May. He’s published thirty books so far and there’s no end in sight. My mom is 88. She attends exercise class three times a week, has tons of friends, and loves the novels I recommend. (We had the best discussions after Water for Elephants, Cutting for Stone, and Two Old Women).

What’s going on? Weren’t these people supposed to be in rocking chairs, gazing vacantly into space? Whether due to better nutrition, changing societal expectations, or something else, elders have kicked it up a notch. They’ve been places, they’re doing things and they aren’t done yet.

And I think they have tons of information we’d all benefit from hearing.

The people who really have something to teach us are in their seventies, eighties, and beyond.

Mary McPhee

Mary McPhee

Mary McPhee, 87, wrote a book based on her blog. The book, called “Code Name Nora” is about moving to a retirement home. She is sharp, productive and independent, with her own apartment and car. Very unusual, I think, to move to a home under your own steam while you still have choices, but she did so because it was a nicer place to live at the same price as her mortgage, for one reason. I suppose the Midwestern winters had something to do with it.  Mary is thriving while enjoying the security and comfort of the home. In Nora, Mary reproduces her blog posts, most of them funny or lighthearted. However, she occasionally makes an observation that reveals the thoughtful elder behind the comedic persona.  For example, this is a reflection on a couple of her neighbors who are aging faster, mentally, than others:

It didn’t take much to amuse them. They were on leisure time; holding-pen time; lame duck time; they had no cares or worries in the world. Which of course was not true because they still had plenty – their families and their own health – but nature had relented a little, softening their brains so these things weren’t so sharp for them anymore. Or they had the ability to forget their cares and worries for long periods, if forgetting can be called an ability.

Mary has written twelve books so far in her life, and she’s still writing. Here’s her story.

Mary McPhee's first newspaper“As a child, I fell in love with words.  I read constantly and collected words which I inflicted on helpless people, often mispronouncing and using them incorrectly. When I was nine, I started ‘publishing’ newspapers for my father, who traveled Monday to Friday, to tell him what had happened during the week.

MMP newspaper page 2

“I got a degree in Journalism from Oklahoma State College, but lacked confidence in my writing so mostly did secretarial work before marrying. Five children later, in my mid-thirties, I began to write. I wrote casual, humorous pieces about raising children. Over a hundred of these were published in newspapers and magazines, each earning between $50 and $150. An article on the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s was featured in the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday magazine. $250 for this. But all the time I wanted to write fiction.

“I churned out twelve novels, but I couldn’t get an agent. Then I discovered blogs, and by this time, widowed and my children grown and gone, I moved to a retirement community, and began blogging Code Name Nora. I was eighty. Some readers thought I was a fraud, a much younger person. Writing the Nora blog helped me adapt to community living. I am somewhat shy, preferring mostly to observe, but living in the Twilight Zone, as I called it, helped me to be more outgoing. I moved to my new retirement home because it’s much nicer and the rent is the same as before.

“Then I discovered self-published ebooks on Amazon. It was difficult to learn the technical aspects but I finally managed to put eight novels on Kindle. I wrote several new novels and dusted off some old ones.

“I write early in the morning for an hour or so. I used to write by hand but now on the computer. I belonged to Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, a large group in Denver that offers critiques, but I don’t any more. I don’t have any beta readers but wish I did because writing is lonely.

I think existential angst is part of the creative make-up.  Art of any kind is a way to deal with it.

“Despite what we might have to offer, people my age are frequently left out of discussions with younger people, which is hurtful. This is ironic for me because

I have never felt as creative as I do now at the age of 87.

“But then I remember when I was young and felt older people wouldn’t understand or would be accusatory. And of course, many older people have trouble hearing. (I do, and wear hearing aids.) I mostly listen but when it seems a good time to speak up, I do. Sometimes younger people laugh at what I say, and I’m not always sure what that means. Older people appreciate being listened to but they shouldn’t talk too much or about their ailments.

A Fresh Start cover

“I have ideas for new books but none coming out just yet. I’m busy promoting the eight books I have on Kindle. A Fresh Start in a New Place, my memoir about dropping out of big-city life at age 53, to live in a tiny Vermont hamlet, is my next promotion at which time the price will be discounted.

“My blog is MaryMac’s Booktique and my Facebook page is here. The cover for A Fresh Start uses a picture one of my daughters painted when she was eighteen and spent the summer with me in Vermont. The other image is one of the front pages of two of my childish newspapers, yellowed with age. You may need a magnifier to read them. I just include these for fun. Oh, and my blog is kind of a mess. I need to work on it.”

Lynne again: I’m 59. I admit, sometimes my sisters and I feel anxious about getting older, but then I remember people like MJ, Ray, and Mary, and I relax. We have these awesome trail-breakers forging the way for us. They are powerful role models from whom we can draw strength. I am grateful for them.

You Are More Powerful than You Think

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*

Amour, the Movie

imgresAmour is a difficult film to watch, but worth it. If you’re feeling discouraged about mortality, Amour will put things in perspective.

It’s a stunning film, one that stays with you. Depressing? Actually, it didn’t hit me that way, maybe because I was a bit confused about the ending, so went online to gain clarity. There I found an essay asserting this isn’t the way most of us will end our days, and the film is ageist in painting elderhood with such despair. I hope so.

The rest of this post contains some spoilage, so you might choose to stop reading here.

Anne and Georges love each other deeply and in spite of their advanced age enjoy a rich life. Then she has a stroke, at which time both of them reveal their strength and in his case, heroism.

After the first stroke, Anne reveals to Georges that she would prefer to die. She tries and fails to refuse food and liquids. Then she has a second stroke and loses the ability to enforce her decision. This is one of the main aspects of the film that resonates with me, what most of us fear – that we’ll wait too long to make the choice, or that we’ll have no choice and will have to live out our final days (years?) regardless of the impact on our loved ones.

The upside of Amour was that it put things in perspective. My aches and pains seemed laughable and my existential fears no more than childish superstitions compared to the reality portrayed in this movie. I was also left with the determination, should I ever be struck by a horrible terminal affliction, to move immediately to a state that permits me to end my life when I chose.

Did you see Amour? What did you think, and/or how did it make you feel? If you haven’t seen the trailer, here it is.

POLL RESULTS: If you’re interested in the poll results from earlier this week, click here. Thanks again for your input.

How Does It Feel to Be 82?

Dory by Sallie Bailey

Dory by Sallie Bailey

I asked my friend Sallie Bailey that question because I think the more we know about aging, the less chance we’ll waste a lot of time being freaked out when we get there. Sallie is an award-winning artist and writer (here’s a link to her website). She’s practical and smart, and she said I could quote her, so here goes.

Frankly, it’s a pain. Literally. Arthritis has taken its toll. Joint replacements help but there’s a lot that brings me up short, limiting my mobility. I’m very fortunate that I’ve dodged all the major bullets – no serious health problems. The brain still functions. I firmly believe that creativity is the answer – I think we writers/artists have an enormous advantage. It’s my opinion that our ceaseless brain activity keeps that organ healthy – keeps it young. I have more ideas than I can carry to fruition. Time can be a problem there – but it’s always been a problem.

That brings up another facet of aging well – curiosity. Many of the normal occurrences of aging surprise me. Physical changes – some small, some more pronounced. I observe and reflect on them.

I consider myself very fortunate to have been gifted with a fine sense of the ridiculous. Laughter certainly helps. My father, mother and brother lacked that. Our youngest son and my brother’s oldest daughter have it. (The niece, knowing I’m partial to art glass, sent me on my 80th birthday an art glass marble on a little base along with the note that it was to replace any marbles I might have lost!) My husband has it – actually both arthritis and a sense of humor.

Death? I don’t like the idea of dying at all. I don’t don’t believe in an afterlife and I don’t like the idea of missing anything. On the plus side – people like us leave footprints. They may be lost but they’ll always be there to be found – art, writing, whatever. Another plus – at least someone else will have to clean out our dresser drawers………

I love what Sallie said about being curious and having so many ideas that time is a problem. As long as we’re hungry, life is good. I have another friend who’s in her early eighties and when we get together to talk about the novels we’re writing, we get so excited we talk over each other. We drink wine and rant about our ambitions and dreams.

Want to feel inspired? Here’s a short video interview with a 94-year-old artist who’s making money on his paintings. Thanks to David Kanigan for the lead.

Readers, I’m curious. What is it like being your age?

FastCompany to Old People: You Must Be Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

“A Tablet So Simple, Even An Old Person Can Use It

Technology can be scary, with its buttons and beeps and boops.”

That’s the exact wording in a review by FastCompany of a new Claris product. (Update 7/6/13: the writer, Zak Stone, is not responsible for the headline.) It’s in poor taste, obviously, but it’s worse than that. I don’t think they’d ever say, “A Tablet So Simple, Even a Woman Can Use it,” because that would sound sexist. Or “A Tablet So Simple, Even a (insert ethnic minority here) Can Use It,” because that would sound racist.

But it’s okay to stereotype people due to their age, apparently.

Why FastCompany would choose to look so  unsophisticated and dense is beyond me. We’ve tried calling it to their attention. The Yo, Is This Ageist blog talked about it, but nothing changed. I thought it would be fair to email the editor, Morgan Clendaniel and tell him I planned to run this post with the above “stupid x 3″ title, hoping he’d reconsider. We went back and forth a few times and then he stopped answering, so I have to assume he’s cool with it.

Here’s what he said.

You are, I think, unfairly putting into our mouths the most offensive option for why the tablet needs to be simple for seniors to use it. At no point do we say it’s stupidity, nor–emphatically–do we think it is…it was created for older consumers who are not so-called digital natives and who may be uncomfortable with the various bells and whistles–not to mention small type and ungainly interfaces–of the current crop of tablet computers and would like something more simple.
A
You should also note that in a recent Pew Survey, only 1% of adults aged 66-74 and 74-85 said they owned a tablet. Nearly half of adults aged 74-85 don’t even own a cell phone. So the idea of technology being an alienating factor for older Americans isn’t just a myth made up by some snot-nosed kids. It’s a fact that Claris reader is trying to address. I assume they think they can sell a lot of tablets to that 99% who still don’t have one, and that they think that the reason those seniors don’t have one yet is that they’re too complicated.

Clendaniel’s statistics aside, he’s missing the point:

The headline is ageist.

What is ageism? Here’s a very brief definition that cuts to the chase:

…Another common instance of ageism is in the case of older adults or senior citizens, when they are portrayed in the media as being feeble or weak-minded (from the Southern Poverty Law Center.)

Clendaniel seems not to get it, but he’s not alone. Negative stereotyping of older people is the rule, not the exception. It’s so common it’s not even noticed. This concerns me; society seems oblivious. We’ve become quite knowledgeable about mistreatment of other protected groups, but not older folks. That should change, because ageism isn’t just stupid. It can lead to a waste of talent and resources from older people who can’t get hired and then have to go on the dole. That’s just one example. Ageism is discouraging, unfair,  cruel, and it can be illegal. You’d think big, fast companies would know that.

Are You Downsizing?

At our age, some of us are beginning to feel material possessions are a burden. Maybe we’re returning to our sixties roots, or maybe we’re tired of the family-sized house, the multiple sets of dishes, the appliances. We’ve had it with closets full of clothes, linens, and seasonal decorations that now feel like a job to take out, set up, pack up and put away. With our kids grown and careers not so much of a consideration, it’s easier to lighten your footprint.

When the local storage unit raised our rates, Bill and I shipped the footlocker full of baseball cards back to our 30-something son, donated the extra set of golf clubs, recycled what we could and merged the rest into our garage.

My personal challenge was the fake Christmas tree. It looked good for many years and we enjoyed it. Now it’s getting raggedy and I’d been playing around with the idea of replacing it with a table-top model. I’d still have the wreath to hang on the fireplace, and the seasonal tablecloths and candle holders. I told Bill about it, and we realized that day was recycling day. So we broke it down and stuck it in the bin with giving ourselves any more time to think about it. If in a couple years we start feeling deprived, we’ll buy a new one.

But that’s just me. My friend down the street has twenty boxes of Christmas decorations in her garage. It would kill her to get rid of one bulb.

I have a cousin who dreams of renting a quiet two-bedroom apartment in a community with a pool, clubhouse, ready-made friends and no yard. Some of us are tired of  home maintenance. Much easier to call the landlord with your problems. Some Boomers sold their homes and went to live fulltime in RVs or even on boats. I Googled “tiny houses” and you wouldn’t believe how many websites came up.

I’ve often thought it would be cool to live in a city apartment where I could take the elevator downstairs and walk everywhere; to get coffee, groceries, whatever.

And if it were just me, I wouldn’t mind living in this. I’d want patios and porches all around, a few trees, and a community to keep me from turning into a hermit.

Z-glass house

Tumbleweed Z-Glass House

What about you? Are you downsizing and if so, how and why?

We Look Old? Big Deal.

Lauren 3

Lauren Hutton looks great, doesn’t she? She’s featured on the cover of April’s Elle, where the words translate to “Women Who Make You Want to Grow Old.” Hutton is around seventy. She looks fantastic. Sharp jawline, great hair, etc. Doesn’t it make you feel like you should be doing something more with your sad old self?

Before you make an appointment with Dr. Plastic, you should consider that Ms. Hutton really looks like this:

Lauren 2

For the first photo, Elle airbrushed her to within an inch of her life because they’re selling stuff inside the magazine, which you’re not going to buy unless you feel uncomfortable. Advertisers cut you down for a reason. They use smoke and mirrors to undermine your confidence so you will give them cash. Of course, you know this.

It’s hard to resist, though. Recently I was getting my hair cut and colored. For all the niceness of the salon, the lighting is a bit harsh. There I sat with my silvery roots, jowls, and turkey neck staring back at me in the mirror. To complete the look, I had a broken blood vessel in my left eye.

I looked old. Is that a problem?

I’m serious. Is it wrong to look old? Is that some kind of crime for which we must castigate ourselves, writhe in shame, and vow to try harder?

Appearances are very important to humans. Animals have other means for judging who’s strong, who’s sick, or who’s to be feared, but we can only go on looks. Somebody told me recently that I look tired. I asked why she said that. She stammered, “You have bags.”

I am tired. That’s what happens when you run after a couple of toddlers for eight months. But maybe the bags are there naturally, and won’t go away after I get rested up. Will the world now assume I’m tired? If I go for a job interview, will I be seen as slow, unmotivated, or unproductive?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes. You may be awesome in every way, but still have a face that’s got a hundred thousand miles on the odometer. Society will then assume you are pointless, ineffectual, and stupid.

Until society grows up and gets a life, you’ll have to be ready for this. If you can’t fix the externals, or don’t choose to, work on the internals. We People of the Second Half must practice finding reasons to hold ourselves in high regard. We can celebrate triumphs other than looks, like the fact that we wowed everybody at a recent public speaking engagement, or we’re finally accomplishing our dreams, or we’re an amazing resource for our family or community.

The more unhappy we are with our aging looks, the more we deny ourselves the joy we deserve. Let’s aspire to be at peace with our looks. Let’s aspire to be free.

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.