Entering Old Age

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.

Finding Home

My dad was in the Army when I was growing up. My brothers, who were much older than me, spent their childhoods among extended family in Massachusetts and Connecticut. I grew up moving every two to three years, first to Japan then to Kentucky then to New Mexico then to Germany then to Pennsylvania. 

Where was home? Was it where my grandmother lived? But she died when I was not yet 14. Or was it where I was born? But we moved away from there when I was 5 and never lived there again. People would ask me where I was from, what place I called home and I would freeze with uncertainty — because I didn’t know. For me, home had become where my stuff and I lived; my stuff made home for me.

So I have thought a lot about home over the years — what it means, what makes home.

In December I was asked if I would like to offer a program at the Maine Jung Center. I immediately jumped at the chance and told them I wanted to present on “What is Home?”. And so on 3 Sundays in March I will meet with folks to talk about and write about Home (follow the link if you’d like to attend — it will be on Zoom).

I have lived in Maine since 1972 — it just hit me that is almost 50 years! If home is to be had in my life, then it is Maine. I lived in and not far from Portland for almost 30 years. I loved Portland and especially loved the duplex I lived in there my last 7 years — in fact when a fire destroyed it around 5 years ago, I felt its destruction keenly. In 2005 my husband and I moved to Belfast, Maine. For the last 16 years we have rented a house with perhaps the best view in Belfast, though the house itself is, to be charitable, a bit funky. The view of the bay has been enough for all this time to make the quirks of the house tolerable. But things became a bit difficult when the steep stairs began to pose problems for me. Then came the knowledge that the owners hope to sell it. Through the network of friends we have here we learned of first one possibility then another. And so it has come to be that in a couple of moths we will move to another house, less than a mile from where I am writing this today. We will lose the view but gain a house that is less quirky and easier for us to live in. The sixteen years I have lived in this house has been the longest I have lived anywhere. I’ll miss the view — the house not so much. 

After all these years it seems home is still in large measure where I live with my stuff, so long as my stuff and I are in Maine.