Creatively Engaging Aging; Judy Toth, Leader

Imagine the day you turn 45 — or have turned 45 for some of us — as the infancy of a new life. Sounds odd but a woman 50 today and free o cancer and heart disease can expect to see her ninety-second birthday. Forty or fifty more years can stretch out ahead for many of us.

Aging then, has become a longer, more fluid process in the nineties, but our hearts and minds have not caught up with our dramatic life expectancy! Society has a life plan to the mid sixties, but what about beyond? Where’s the plan for those years? I need to know more!

For a long time, I have wanted to come to an understanding about aging. No one ever explained to me how this most basic process of life would occur! Aging was not real for me until my mid thirties when I looked in the mirror and saw my first wrinkle. I thought I certainly was seeing things, for aging happened to everyone else — not me.

I remember a slight sense of panic and a rush of denial. A wave of rationalization came next — maybe I just needed more sleep or a better moisturizer. I’m too young for this to occur! So what that everybody grows older — there must be a way out of this one!

Well, twenty years later I haven’t found one. In fact, I have had to deal with ever increasing signs of aging and I have bravely tried to cope with “each new wrinkle.” — if you will pardon the pun — of the aging process. Indeed, aging signs have been part and parcel of my past two decades, and they usually come to you and to me with no notice, don’t they?

ll of the sudden without warning, you can’t read the small print in the phone books, your clothes mysteriously don’t fit, and certain peculiar aches and pains occur out of the blue! Some days my mind jumps out of bed while my bones and rest of my body think it over. And then friends, relatives, and members die and the facts of aging really face you down. You notice you read the obituaries more often!

Some days I find myself studying the obituary page with more than passing interest, as if the ages of the deceased carry a clue to my destiny. No wonder I laughed out loud when I saw the New Yorker cartoon showing a man reading the obituary page on which the headlines over the death notices say: “Two Years Younger Than You.” “Twelve Years Older Than You.” “Exactly Your Age.” “Five Years Your Senior.” “Your Age on the Dot.”

Many have written about aging and the passing of time. Ecclesiastes says: “There is a time to be born and a time to die.” Plutarch said: “Be ruled by time, the wisest counselor of all.” Benjamin Franklin warned: “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time.” Dylan Thomas wrote: “Do not go gently into the night!”

Some write with humor. Eda LeShan — “It’s better to be over the hill than under it!” Gypsy Rose Lee — “I have everything I had ten years ago, only it’s a bit lower.”

Some write with humor. Judith Viorst says in one of her poems:

It’s hard to be devil-may care
When there are pleats in your derriere.
It’s hard to surrender to sin
While trying to hold your stomach in.

Then there are the jokes about aging:

“You know you’re getting older when the person you sleep with refers to your water bed as the Dead Sea.”

“Middle age is when you finally get it all together and you can’t remember when you put it.”

Trite sayings about aging abound:

“You’re not getting older — you’re getting better.” I say,
“Better at what?” “Better than whom?”

“Fifty isn’t old — for a tree! Very funny.”

Some say we must see ourselves aging gracefully. Clearly an oxymoron — just try getting out of bed on a cold day! I must confess — I am aging disgracefully — at times complaining, moaning — noting each new wrinkle and gravity drop.

I remember reading the feminist literature in past times where they said: “Welcome aging — and there’s power and nobility in being the older female. We should view ourselves like fine wines, better with age.” Amen to that I said — just so it isn’t me! What a great idea for other women.

But inevitably we do age and new concerns develop. The truth is aging is at times quite difficult for us! We gain weight, wrinkles and potbellies, while we lose hair, body flexibility, endurance, energy and teeth! And time — well in the supreme irony of life — time seems to speed up while we are slowing down. We say, where did the time go?

Yes, aging gracefully as a concept, seems amusing and outrageous at times, but we are growing older and with any luck we can, with many of the current medical advances, overcome some of our physical issues. But what about our mental changes? For those of us who do not consider ourselves beautiful or handsome, and relied and counted on how smart we are — what towering intellects — what academic achievers we can say about ourselves! It’s a great leveler when the mind starts to slip like everything else, as mine did. Last week, I found myself standing in my walk-in clothes closet with my cordless phone in my hand with not a clue as to why I was there! Yet these moments — although exasperating — don’t reflect the real good health and mental strength that I truly have in my fifties and those around me in their sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties.

Yet I know I am aging far better than past generations — yet I wonder why. It’s hard for my generation, which is aging so well, to celebrate its achievements regarding age. We are, in fact, the healthiest, fittest, longest-lived people in history. We’re an astonishing experiment in species-wide self-improvement, a phenomenal mammal whose life span has nearly tripled in the blink of an evolutionary eye.

Let me explain: according to the National Institute on Aging, in 1900 the average American was dead by age forty-nine; fifty was considered old age, and only one person in ten survived to sixty-five, which was thought of then as extreme old age. But today, if you’re fifty, you can expect to live an additional thirty-three years (incidentally, thirty-three was just about the whole human life span in 1400), and if you’re sixty right now, chances are you have a quarter of a century left. Think how astounding this is. In less than a hundred years, the average life expectancy has increased by well over 50 percent. What’s more, in today’s world the longevity prognosis for older people is even better than it is for babies. In other words, the longer you live, the longer you will live. The average infant born in 1995 has a life expectancy of seventy-five, but those of us who have made it to middle age — and who manage to avoid addictive substances and random gunfire — will more than likely survive well beyond that!

Yet we don’t celebrate and appreciate the great age we live in. We fight age, and as a society we do not respect or revere it. Internalized attitudes about youth being better and old worse are rooted deep in our psyche and our society’s persona. Standards of beauty and attractiveness reign, that either directly or indirectly scorn or reflect the “aging with grace and dignity” ideal.

Where do these attitudes come from? When we were young, we internalized dreadful ideas about old people. As a kid — let’s face it — fifty was old. My own Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa were viewed by me as old by their middle years, and these ideas, I believe, are still our mental measuring stick for our own aging. Thus we don’t think well of the age group we’re in now as we pass into the fifties and beyond.

Psychologist Ellen Laugh says that when she constructed consciousness raising experiences to improve the physical and mental capacities of elderly people, the greatest obstacle she had to overcome “were the premature cognitive commitments about old age that people make in their youth!”

In Letty Pogrebin’s book: “We live in a society that places high premiums, on beauty and often reduces every woman to her appearance and men to being physically strong.”

Studies confirm this: Rutgers University psychologist Jeannette Haveland’s study of adolescent girls found: “being attractive at the top of average female’s concerns from age ten on.”

The Oregon Research Institute study of youths found “girls as young as twelve to be in a serious state of depression because of their negative body image.” This is why bulimia and anorexia are illnesses connected to this belief.

Tandem to that has been the growth of the “youth” culture, and beauty as ideal has lead to a boom in the cosmetics industry, with such products as age defying cream. Men too have joined the pursuit of youth. Men account for 28% of facial plastic surgery done in this country.

Arthur Marwich, a British professor and expert on beauty, claims physical attractiveness is more important today in terms of how a person feels successful than any time since the Renaissance.

For women it’s a lifelong psychological problem because the desire to be beautiful runs deep in the psyche; also because it is rooted in the tender praise of our parents who placed value on pretty girls, and irrigated by male admiration, we can become buried beneath the top soil of our society’s beauty propagandists.

We struggle with authenticity and artificiality as our bodies age. We ask ourselves these questions: Do I have worth if I am not attractive? What price would I pay to stay young? Plastic surgery? Where do I draw the line and accept my body the way it is?

Facing aging means — letting go of high beauty and handsomeness standards that define who we think we are — our success as human beings. We need to relax and deal with the basic challenges of aging!

Each stage of aging is difficult and unique. Each stage of aging for all of us has different challenges and possibilities:

  • Childhood — Our challenge is to master physical world and begin formal education, “deal with being too little or young.”
  • Adolescence — Our challenge relates to body changes, intellectual pursuits, autonomy from parents, continuing education, and social skills.
  • Twenties — Our challenge lies in career preparation and success, mate finding, and family founding.
  • Thirties — Our challenge is to create a solid base for family, career, and financial success.
  • Forties — Our challenge lies in dealing with signs of aging showing up, more body changes, children leaving home.
  • Then what I call the harvest years arrive.
  • Fifties and sixties — Mid century mark hits us, we may have dependent parents. We are not climbing the hill of life; we are on top or heading over. Retirement, medical issues surface as we approach these years.
  • Seventies on — Many of us are financially secure. Yet we worry, do we have enough for retirement? We may still be taking care of dependent parents. The fifties on provide the master test for creatively engaging aging.

The fact is no plan has been prescribed by society for these years other than retirement However, each stage of life asks us to rise to its challenges! At each stage, attitude is everything! At each stage, we have common laws of living that can help us!

Experts in gerontology make a clear distinction between passive aging and successful aging. To engage in successful aging you have to make a career choice at each stage. Your job is to revive and maintain your life energy as you age. People who have a positive outlook about the future and marshal their energy to engage that future, live longer. We need new ambitions, interests, and passions. The decision to renew ourselves from the sixties on, requires a real investment of faith, risk, and physical discipline.

Here’s a good story about attitude: Two women turn seventy years old. One “knows” that her life is coming to an end and starts winding up her affairs. The other decides to take up mountain climbing. For the next twenty-five years, she devotes herself to this new adventure in mastery. Now in her nineties, Hulda Crooks has become the oldest woman to ascend Mount Fuji. It’s not the events of our lives that shape us, but our beliefs as to what these events mean.

When Eric Ericson and his wife Joan were in their eighties, they co-authored a book, Vital Involvement in Old Age. They said:

“The life cycle does more than extend itself into the next generation. It curves back on the life of an individual allowing … a re-experiencing of earlier stages in a new form. Like climbing a mountain, it’s finding something vital and important for you to write on the blank slate of your life.”

We need a new ambition or purpose that we grasp passionately! For Jimmy Carter it was being ready to drop everything and offer his skills as a political wise man to mediate world conflicts. For many grandparents it is caring for and supporting their grandchildren, some financially support and see them through college or others take them into their homes to raise. For others it’s climbing mountains, running marathons, working on a Ph.D., or painting — volunteer work that makes a difference. Finding your passion is imperative as we age. Society has no script — we must write it!

At eighty-eight, William Fulbright, founder of Fulbright scholarships and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, wore a button — “Aged to Perfection.” I would say aging to perfection for as the years fly by, the world presents us with a rich cornucopia of events, interests, and opportunities. Are we going to say, “We’re too old for that,” or are we going to create our own Mount Fuji experience?

Thus we see ourselves “as a work in progress!” With that attitude I see many wonderful things to do and be: caring about loved ones and oneself, deep friendships, and meaningful work; appreciating solitude, nature, and reading and writing — all ways to experience life intensely.

Aging gracefully appeals to me and with luck and strong intuition we can grow smarter and stronger and more creative in the process of life as we are engaging aging. My experiences can benefit others as they age.

  1. The challenge for us is to maintain control, confidence, and a sense of humor in the face of creeping or galloping body and mental changes! Face each day anew, using all the modern technology we know about aging such as vitamins, exercise, stress management, and other means to support our aging well.
  2. Maintaining a strong sense of dignity and self-worth in the face of the “youth culture” orientation of our culture is essential.
  3. Experiencing a sense of hope and joy and acceptance in the face of mortality and death. Developing the ability to see it as yet another part of life’s process.

Although death is inevitable, the way we age is not!

First, by maintaining the discipline of daily mental exercise. Maintaining the spiritual discipline of forgiving and forgetting others and enriching the lives of those around you. Maintaining physical discipline — getting those bones moving even when we don’t want to is essential.

Second, by cherishing where we’ve been — both in terms of the good and the bad experiences of life. We can let go of the bitterness and anger that can age us quickly.

Third, viewing life with no regrets, for our life history can’t be altered. Strive to live in the present and accept our physical limitations. (No Boston Marathon for me!) Value what we have and keep ourselves open to learning and new experiences. Our river of life will flow joyously and we will cherish the future with all its uncertainties for its sweet unfolding of life events.

Fourth, by being part of an Ethical Society Community where shared experiences of aging with others can help us and where the deeper values of life such as “honoring the worth and dignity of each individual” (no matter what their age) are cherished and experienced. Aging alone is tragic — aging in community is revitalizing.

Now I reap the harvest of my years before. Grandchildren — springing up like flowers — number seven on the way. A loving marriage and a beautiful home and work that is deeply satisfying and gives me the opportunity to creatively engage aging.

Yes! Living well can be the best revenge.

As we pass through the fifties, sixties, seventies and on:

  1. Let self-denial up till now become self-indulgence as we travel on down the path of life.
  2. Let us pursue our chosen delights and relish special moments.
  3. Let us have new experiences that enrich the mind, such as travel, new interests and hobbies, or service to others.

Willa Cather, the writer, saw the task of every life to be to fashion an existence that would free the expressive self, so that we focus on marking our moments instead of focusing on time running out. The present never ages. Each moment is unique and filled with possibilities. Each moment is an opportunity to love or be loved. Life purposes then seem clear: To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth!

If every day then is an awakening of love and self, we never grow old — we just keep growing!