The following article consists of my answers to several questions about aging that were sent to me in June 2012 by Ernest Dempsey, the editor-in-chief of Recovering the Self magazine.
Three other authors also answered Ernest's questions. Those were Patricia Wellingham-Jones (73), Janet Grace Riehl (63), and Dave Scotese (42). I am currently 66 years old.
The entire article, entitled "Voices on 'Aging and Life,'" was printed in the July 2012 issue of Recovering the Self, Vol. IV, No. 3, pp. 78-81. The theme for that issue was "Aging and Elders." The ISBN-13 of the July 2012 issue is 978-1-61599-165-5.
This was the second article of mine to be published in Recovering the Self. The first was a 2011 article entitled "Two Terrific Blind Guys and How I Came to Be Their Friend." It was published in the July 2011 issue, Vol. III, No. 3, pp. 78-85. The ISBN-13 of that issue is 978-1-61599-105-1.
Here in the U.S., where people often live into their 80s, 90s, and beyond, many people who are even well into their 70s do not think of themselves as "old." They and their elders often remain quite active, even continuing to work for pay. That may be due to financial necessity, but often, it's mainly because the person wishes to stay engaged with society.
I think a person is "old" when he or she
A person who is "young"
At 66, I'm no longer young in years, but I'm not yet ancient and decrepit, either. While I do notice some unpleasant physical changes that have come with advancing years, I'm still very active and busy, working as a self-employed tutor of Spanish and German, a proofreader and editor, a translator, a writer, and a weight-training instructor.
My inspiration is the fact that many of my relatives lived well into their 90s, and almost all of them remained active into their 80s and beyond, variously farming, pursuing advanced degrees, teaching, or doing other work for pay. So, barring serious future health problems, I intend and hope to follow in their footsteps.
As we begin to contemplate our own mortality, I think that most of us learn to appreciate ever more all the good things in our lives and the good people around us. Aging also seems to teach us more patience with other people's foibles and weaknesses.
If we are lucky, we also find the courage and emotional maturity to forgive the people who have hurt us in the past, to move beyond old anger and pain. We can try to make old pain a part of our emotional past, as well as the actual past. We can try hard to set it all aside and concentrate ever more strongly on the present and the hoped-for future.
One rather amusing benefit of aging is that we learn to care a lot less about what other people may think of us. While young people are generally very concerned with fitting in with the crowd, being fashionable, and never looking ridiculous, older people feel much freer to be themselves, to do things the way that feels right and comfortable to them, and to dress the way they like. That change is profoundly liberating.
There are many things that older people commonly fear: ill health, being alone in old age, not having enough money to enjoy a comfortable retirement, having one's mind gradually grow feebler or even succumb to senile dementia or Alzheimer's, eventually becoming "invisible" to younger people and socially irrelevant, and more.
For me, the two most frightening prospects are widowhood and ill health.
David and I have been married since 1968, and we remain each other's best friends. Besides loving him more deeply than I have ever loved another person, I depend on him in innumerable ways. It is immensely comforting to me that his parents lived to be 90 and 103, and that he himself is in excellent physical health at 68, with no signs of mental aging. I think it is very likely that he will outlive me.
If I were to lose David, I would be inexpressibly sad and scared, but I suppose I could adjust in time as long as I had decent health. The value of good (or at least fairly good) health cannot be overestimated. I survived a bout of breast cancer in 1998 (and later wrote a book about the experience and its lessons), but I can't be sure that I won't get more cancer in the future. My parents' ailments have included heart trouble, osteoporosis, arthritis, breast cancer, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and more. It is not a comforting legacy. I'm trying to take good care of my health, but it isn't ideal, and I can't help worrying, sometimes, about my physical future.
I have very mixed feelings about this issue. On the one hand, I don't much like how often old people, at least in comedies and some TV commercials, are portrayed as out of touch and rather childish, or prone to do stupid and embarrassing things.
On the other hand, I really don't care to see older models in clothing ads, and I most certainly don't want to see scenes of on-screen romance between people who are middle-aged or older. Let's face it: younger people, as long as they're physically fit, are much more attractive and a whole lot sexier.
That is not to say that an older person can't look really good for his or her age, and some do. Many movie actors and other entertainers are remarkably well preserved. But they are the exception, and quite unlike your average elderly person on the street or in a nursing home.
Yes, maturity can impart a wonderful look of wisdom, compassion, and even strength, especially if the person also has wealth, power, and influence. Those last three things alone can be quite sexy, particularly in men. But I find it beyond ridiculous when an actor in his 70s is being portrayed as an object of desire to an actress in her 20s or early 30s. I think they should leave the romance scenes to the younger folks, and let the older actors portray other aspects of the human condition and life experience.
Well, of course the first silver threads can appear at remarkably varied ages. I've known people who had pure white hair before they were 50, while others, like my late father-in-law, retain some dark hair into their 90s and beyond. I started getting a few gray hairs in my late 30s, whereas my husband, who now clips his hair almost invisibly short, had almost no gray hair at all in his mid-60s.
I have to admit that I colored my hair for about a dozen years, but I stopped doing that when I got breast cancer at the age of 52. Sometimes I do miss the golden blond hair of my youth, but most of the time, I really like my rapidly whitening hair, and I have received numerous compliments on how soft, shiny, and flattering it is.
If you start to go gray very young, I can understand the desire to try to hide that, with the goal of not looking too awfully different from your peers. But if you start to go gray in your 40s or 50s, why not just accept that fact and let it happen? Why be afraid to be yourself? Dyeing your hair won't make you any younger, and as time goes by, it can even look harsh and very artificial. And if you are very old, dyed hair can even look rather pitiful, as well as pointless.
To me, accepting your gray hair, be you a man or a woman, is a powerful symbol of acceptance in general: of your own chronological age, of the fact that we all age, of the changes in our bodies that occur naturally as we age, of the fact that we are joining a new social stratum. And in my opinion, gray and especially white hair can and often do impart their own special kind of beauty.
So don't hide the gray; embrace it! It is part of you. Let it be a symbol of your courage, your self-acceptance, as you go bravely forward into the next stage of your life.