This past week several patients fretted about their fears of looking old and unattractive if they stopped coloring their hair. This has provoked for me a lot of thought about later life and what it means for us and how we respond to it. Midlife has gotten lots of press. Midlife crisis is so widely known it is all but a cliche. As with many life issues, as the Baby Boomers turned 40, we began to write about midlife. And as we Boomer women reached menopause, we began to write about it. And now, we , those of us like me on the leading edge of our generation, have moved firmly into what is the last quarter of life. And apart from a lot of articles about how to live to be really old and pieces about retirement, there doesn’t seem to be much yet about entering the last chapters. Some of us may live longer, but this period, from 60-85, seems to be the place of late life issues.
Let’s look at this quote from Jung:
In the secret hour of life’s midday the parabola is reversed, death is born. The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death, since the end is its goal. The negation of life’s fulfillment is synonymous with the refusal to accept its ending. Both mean not wanting to live, and not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. Waxing and Waning make one curve.
The goal of all life, the end point, death is what lies in front of us all. And in this last quarter, it looms larger than it has before and is much more a part of consciousness. To be fully alive is to know that death lies ahead.
Between here and death, there is a lot of territory. Work to be done to deal with things left undone, to reconcile ourselves to our past, to seriously consider the story we have been living with an eye especially toward any changes we want to make in the remaining years.
For those of us near or past our 60s or 70s, the issues of midlife no longer seem so relevant. We wrestle with the conflict between the desire to do and the body that no longer wants to. With the bubbling up of creative possibilities that we do not know we can bring to fruition. We have to prioritize in a new way. If there is something I want to do, want to create, I must come to terms with the certain knowledge that I have to get down to work now because time is passing swiftly.
How do we to wrestle with these issues without succumbing to despair or melancholy and regret is a major concern. What does it mean to become old? How to come to terms with a body, a face that is not the face or body I carry in my mind’s eye of myself? Finding a new rhythm. Finding people willing to wrestle with me. These are the issues I see right off.
Old age is difficult to imagine in part because the definition of it is notoriously unstable. As people age, they tend to move the goalposts that mark out major life stages: a 2009 survey of American attitudes toward old age found that young adults (those between eighteen and twenty-nine) said that old age begins at sixty; middle-aged respondents said seventy; and those above the age of sixty-five put the threshold at seventy-four. We tend to feel younger as we get older: almost half the respondents aged fiffy or more reported feeling at least ten years younger than their actual age, while a third of respondents aged sixty-five or more said that they felt up to nineteen years younger.
Researchers have found a sizable difference between the expectations that young and middle-aged folks have about old age and the actual experiences reported by older Americans themselves. Young and middle-aged adults anticipate the negative aspects associated with aging such as memory loss, illness, or an end to sexual activity at much higher levels than the old report experiencing them.
One of the things that I find irritating is that those of us who are no longer young are now lumped together as “the elderly” or, what to me is worse, “seniors” — I really hate that term. Or strangers feel comfortable calling me “Dear” and may speak to me in that slightly sing-song tone used with those assumed to be less than.
Of COURSE, our bodies slow down. Some body parts stop working properly. Others give out. Mysterious aches and pains show up. It’s what bodies do. The key in old age is to adapt but that’s for another day. But it helps – a lot sometimes – to learn that other people are struggling through the same things you are. It doesn’t mean we don’t also laugh, read books, go to the movies and whatever else engages us that is still possible. But letting off steam together kind of clears the air. To be willing to be publicly old in our time is a bold act. We have a president who is 78 — that is old — but he is not at all free to be old. He must present as younger than he is. Nancy Pelosi is 80, which is definitely old, but she too must present as younger lest she be forced out by virtue of her age. I sometimes feel almost the rebel for having silvery white hair at a time when I have patients fearful of stopping coloring theirs.
Watch this space for an announcement in early spring for a group for women over 60 who want to take a deep dive into the issues and struggles of growing old.