The truth is that no one ever knows how difficult aging is until you get there. When you’re young, you don’t want to think about it. Besides, it won’t happen to you; everyone else, yes, but surely you won’t have to suffer all those indignities of aging: hearing aids, memory loss and not understanding how to use a smart phone.
A lot of the popular reading material (such as AARP’s magazine) would lead you to believe that your retirement years are golden: traveling where and when you want; fine dinners with friends; or playing endless rounds of golf.
It’s true there are advantages to being older. For me, the biggest is having the time to slow down and appreciate the parts of life I was too busy to notice when I was working, like taking long walks, more time to read or learning to draw. But there’s also a lot of downsides, especially physical problems. For me, I can’t see well at night, so I’ve curtailed my driving; my knees and feet hurt when I hike, so I can’t go as far as I once did. For many, especially single women on limited incomes, dining at fine restaurants or cruising the Danube is a luxury. While friendships become more important, because it’s mainly our peers who understand what we’re going through, we lose friends through death, moving away or their withdrawal from the world because of physical or mental issues.
After we retire, we no longer have a role or place in the world, especially as the world changes faster than we can keep up with, leaving us older ones in the dust. Increasingly, we live in a world not of our making. Baby boomers made history just by being part of the largest generation in U.S. history. We made more history by being part of movements that ended the Vietnam War and that promoted rights for women and minorities. Now I’m in a world that feels like it’s speeding past me (sometimes, literally, when I’m driving). I can’t keep up with all the rapid changes in technology; sometimes I don’t want to. New words (what the heck does “woke” mean?) sprout up daily on social media. When I sit down to watch TV, most shows are focused on dating, raising a family, getting ahead at work. Where are the shows and movies about my life?
In the college town where I live, almost all the restaurants I loved have been replaced by ones that are too loud for conversation and that offer food fare that’s not familiar (what’s the big deal with avocado toast?). A new generation has stamped its mark on culture— food, TV, movies—just like my generation did. It’s not my world anymore, and yet I’m not ready to leave it. I still want to be involved, but where do I fit in?
As elders, how do we navigate this new world? Especially a world that doesn’t especially want us? I understand the desire to push away the aging—and thoughts of death. When I was younger, I watched my parents and grandparents get older, but kept my distance. They were in a different world—the one of sickness and disability—while I was in the other world—where I could hike for miles, drive confidently and remember what I did three days ago. When you’re young, there’s a wall between you and old people, and you want to keep it up as long as possible
But suddenly I’m part of that other world, and I can feel the suspicion from younger people: when I’m checking out at the supermarket or when I’m in a restaurant where everyone is at least 20 years younger than my friends and I who still enjoy happy hour. It’s how you might treat someone who has the flu: don’t get too close to me; I don’t want to get what you have; and should you really be out in the world? Aren’t there places for people like you to live so we don’t have to see you?
The truth is that only the old have the wisdom and courage to endure aging. You need to have been tempered by decades of difficulties in order to handle the challenges of losing your physical capabilities, your independence and your place in the world. Only those who have weathered the ups and downs of life—being knocked to the ground repeatedly and getting back up again—have the wisdom and courage to face the end of our lives.
One of aging’s little secrets, or maybe it’s a big one, is that having all the free time in the world can be difficult, if not a burden. Not only do you have to try to figure out what to do with your day, now that you’re retired, but you need to feel useful. When you’re not part of the working world, it’s easy to feel useless. And for a lot of people, work was their social life, so you need to put together a network of friends. Creating a fulfilling life takes effort, one maybe done with a combination of learning new skills, volunteering or taking care of the grandchildren.
The other strange discovery about aging is that it’s not something you actively do: you don’t deliberately move into the role of being a senior, like you might seek a new job or take on the role of a parent. You think you’re standing still, immersed in your life, but then you discover you’re on a conveyor belt that’s taking you deep into foreign territory. Suddenly, there’s a couple of gray hairs, you can’t ride your bike as far, you develop a fear of falling, you turn the TV up louder and ask people to repeat what they say. People (that is, younger than you) start treating you differently, hold the door open for you and give up their seats on the bus. While you feel the same as when you were young, something unknown has marked you as different; you’re on a new plane of reality.
Aging has always been an uncharted terrain, but as more of us move together into this new land, and as the world speeds up, leaving us older ones behind, we need a road map. We need to share information and stories: what it feels like, what we can do about it, how we can support each other.
Please join this conversation.