The idea of getting old isn’t a happy one in our culture. Maybe in the centuries gone by the Chinese revered their elders; perhaps aging folk in other societies earned respect, a cozy place by a fire, and the finest tidbits of food. Certainly not true in our times. Even discussion about being old is abhorred by many of my friends.
In fact at a recent gathering of a small group, the others reacted like irate cats when I said we all are now old. “Don’t call me that,” one snapped. “I get around just as well as I did twenty-five years ago,” said another. “Old is a matter of attitude,” chimed in a third.
I admit that the term old has such a negative spin that I cringe every time I hear it, particularly since it’s usually associated with negative qualities. Why? At its heart, old is just a description, along the lines of tall or blond or thin. A state of being or existence, not necessarily to be associated with any value judgment.
I’m not naïve enough to believe my own statement. Descriptions most often carry an appraisal, a worth. So in an attempt to qualify old with some positives, I started thinking about what I’m finding is good about my increasing age.
I don’t have to pretend I care about nonessentials. I don’t like dogs, wasn’t raised with ‘em, am scared of them. My neighborhood runs rampant with the creatures, and some of them are aggressive, others bark or bound all over the walkway, most of them are irritating (shoving their noses up my privates). And, know what?, I’ll say something if they’re bothersome. Your babble about “he’s nice,” “he’s friendly” mean nothing to me. I never let my kids chew on people’s shoes or legs or lick them, and you shouldn’t allow your pet. Nowadays, I’ll tell you so.
My appearance isn’t the be-all and end-all of my personal concerns. Men don’t eyeball me whenever I’m out, and I’m relieved. So what if I failed to apply makeup or tint and curl my hair? The public doesn’t even register the attractiveness of aging women, and a little lipstick isn’t going to change this. Ditto about clothing. As long as I avoid flaunting nudity or dirt, that’s all that matters. I may have come by this attitude through genetics. My mother traded wearing bras for comfort at about 65. My dad, always eccentric, once wore rope for a belt. He opted for flannel and Hawaiian shirts as his uniform when he became eligible for Social Security.
Good nutrition often can be ignored. Within reason, my eating habits built over the years, including attempts at maintaining my weight, are so reflexive, they affect me automatically. I’ve stopped reading labels, juggling calories, wondering if an additive or preservative is going to negatively impact me. Thrown away my calorie and carb counters. Freedom!
In terms of the medical community, health care professionals tend to be laid back about tests, medications, and advice. Pap smears, breast exams, my Type 2 diabetes pills, the quantity and quality of my bowel habits, the push for dental implants, all have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps doctors realize, like a wise parent does, that I’m not making major changes at this stage of my life.
Also related to physical condition, some positives actually occur in the body. Oldies tend to get fewer colds. Not infrequently allergies lessen their impact on you. Mental capabilities for a number of areas can even improve–vocabulary, spatial orientation, verbal memory, and problem solving abilities. Age can provide a helpful perspective about what’s important and accumulation of certain types of knowledge.
Another good thing: age becomes a card I can play when I’m in a tough or delicate situation. When pulled over by a police officer years ago, I used to bat my eyelashes and flirt like crazy. Nowadays I do my best to emphasize my grandmotherly qualities. Who wants to envision a harmless little old lady being dragged to jail. Ditto on clumsiness, acting grouchy, forgetting an appointment or a fact. People have a great capacity for overlooking these errors once they realize I’m getting along in years. “Aaaah,” people breath in sympathy.
Perhaps the biggest benefit to me personally: I no longer feel a responsibility to resolve the world’s evils. Guilt no longer dogs my every thought. Used to be an incident of child abuse, domestic violence, international armed conflicts, starvation and failure of crops, the impacts of hurricanes and natural disasters, children isolated alone in armed encampments resulted in a round of obsessive thoughts. What can I do? What should I do? Why can’t our so-called leaders see what’s right the way I can? Evil has a finite limit. At the least it will come to an end for me when I die. And if I’m activated to do something, I can contact officials and call them assholes with impunity because I don’t worry if they think I’m impolite or stupid.
This comes down to just not giving a damn any longer. I know I can’t do much, so I give myself permission to stop worrying. Aging brings me a blessed relief and release. When I’m tempted to resume my burden, I recall a cartoon I saw years ago. An aging man sat at a table, his face wrinkled with apprehension. He said to his wife, “Don’t tell me I’m as old as I feel. I feel like I’m a hundred and seventy-eight.”
Something always hurts. If not my knees, then my back. If not a tooth, then a muscle. Each day brings a new insight into the limitations of the human body.
What’s causing this testiness? Age? Do our bodies simply start breaking down? Yes, to some extent. But even more, I feel dogged by the sense time is speeding by and the physical symptoms serve as markers, reminders. Once you pass a milestone birthday, be it 40 or 45 or 50, you realize more years are behind you than ahead of you.
So I get impatient with incompetence, idiocy, and ageism. Example: the young woman on the jogging and biking trail with two dogs, occupying the entire width of the sidewalk, who, after I’d TRIED to alert her to my presence, called, “You could say excuse me.” Used to be, I wouldn’t have responded. Nowadays I do. Loudly, and I tack on a frank comment on her behavior.
Still nonsense like that is only the beginning. Even worse, seems as if it’s open season to bad mouth and mock older people. Ageism is the popular term. Since few comedians are comfortable belittling races or religions or social classes nowadays, denigrating older adults substitutes. I wouldn’t mind so much if the jibes were limited to actions over which people have choice and control. But all too often they’re simply physical traits no one can influence. Such as wrinkles or moving more slowly or failing to hear or see adequately, or simply looking old, meaning “ugly.”
Not fair. Not nice.Mean-spirited, rude, and deliberately hurtful. And duplicated not infrequently by the general public as an older adult is ignored in a store or restaurant. Or by a pedestrian who nearly knocks you down on the sidewalk. Or a relative who heaves a great sigh at another recitation of an old memory.
Yes, I can be grouchy, grumpy, or any other similar term you choose. I’ll continue to battle the actual impactof aging by getting involved in various physical and mental activities. And for the less obvious psychological repercussions, I’ll wear my “such a nasty woman” t-shirt with as adequate warning.
Like the weather or football, when health’s the topic, we always have something to talk about. Especially as we mature. One stereotype of aging is that people talk more and more about their health, and not in a good or positive way. Apparently, we drone on to the point of boring our listeners. Why? Two possibilities: health preoccupies our time and our thoughts to a greater degree, or because we have fewer other interests.
Decades ago, after suffering through regular rounds of extreme boredom at family gatherings during which senior relatives delivered lectures about symptoms and treatments, I and my friends took oaths decades never to prattle on and on about our ills. In our smug superiority, this was our promise, yet our practice nowadays is to rush into a room with a litany of languishes. This doesn’t improve our conditions, it certainly fails the test of conversational interests, yet each of us can’t wait for the other to yield the floor so we can launch into our personal spiel. I know one woman who complains frequently about older friends that discuss health to exclusion of nearly every subject. When done with this, she promptly indulges in a recitation of every ache and each therapy she’s undergone in the past several months.
Why do we do this? None of us are doctors, so we can’t diagnose or relieve or provide a service, although we’re never prevented from expressing our opinions. In fact, we usually wind up trotting out every particle of information or opinion we’ve stumbled over related to a health condition. These may be contradictory, erroneous, or pea-brained. Makes no difference. Still fascinating. To us if not you.
Perhaps in this manner we enhance our friendships. Or air our secret fears. Or simply pass the time in a more appealing fashion than discussing the climate. However there should be limits. When someone complains of indigestion, surely no more than five or ten theories as to cause and effect are reasonable to explore in casual conversation. Apparently not. Gluten, wheat sensitivity, irritable bowel syndrome, gastritis, appendicitis, acid reflux, lack of probiotics, food poisoning, various cancers, autoimmunity offer some of the possibilities. Every person we know has experienced one of these at some point. Even if not currently suffering from some ill, the equally interesting aspect of what we’ve done that’s led to our status.
Many suggestions (dare I say too many?) about what to do, what’s good, what’s a cure-all eat up as much chatter as complaints themselves. I’ve known supporters for a particular diet, say macrobiotic trot out an entire grocery list and menu plan, then threaten me with disaster if I don’t comply with their belief. Because health connects to all aspects of life, debates quickly expand to incorporate economics, government, art, and psychology, even death, because everyone dies from something.
My primary quarrel with heath as a topic of conversation lies in its tedium. People simply won’t turn off their repetitive, monotonous, self-centered spiels. I want to yell, “Someone turn on Wheel of Fortune!” I’m nearly ready to plead for politics as a replacement. Equally boring, but at least people get angry, hot under the collar, so the energy flows, and we just might be exposed to a new idea.
I’ve been an anti-drug advocatefor eons. It’s probably because I feel my grip on reality is so tenuous, if I started using, I’d be dependent. I also have seen the impact of drug abuse on friends and relatives, even worse the tangled, chaotic, destructive pain they dump on their supposed loved-ones.
Yet count me in the ones who advocate de-criminalizing the stuff. It’s proven we’ve lost the War Against Drugs, and these efforts don’t make a dent in drug use. Their impact—ruining lots of lives with long prison sentences, raising taxes, splitting families.
This stance opened the door and my eyes to the use of marijuana. As campaigns to legalize the stuff spread, I began to learn about people who have been helpedby their use—health concerns such as arthritis, epilepsy, cancer treatments.. I heard the scare tactics from decades ago, which created my intense paranoia about negative impacts, were very much blown out of proportion. Then my home state legalized use several years ago.
In what might be considered serendipity, I was suffering from an autoimmune condition that affected my legs. Discomfort, itchiness, restlessness kept me awake at night. My search for relief brought me to seven or nine kinds of skin creams and lotions, various over-the-counter pills, and sleep techniques, none of which really helped. During lunch with a friend, she mentioned she suffered from arthritis in her knees. Since she’s an avid hiker, she’d also been chasing a treatment that would enable her to continue her exercise. Turned out to be a marijuana cream and patches.
She accompanied me to a marijuana dispensary and helped me through my first meeting with a salesman. In a candid interchange, she told me what helped her and what I might consider. I walked out with a salve which turned out to relieve my aches and pains. Every person is different, and some aren’t helped. The treatment doesn’t cure me, isn’t uniformly effective, but does more than anything else has.
After my little sampling of this psychoactive drug, I’m most pleased to find that I’m capable of changing my mind. Many people, me included, feel the older you get, the more rigid you are. How you are at about 30 pretty much sets the pattern for the rest of your life, except you get more inflexible in your opinions. Not a good position to be in, for we all should be able to face new situations, learn new information, and adapt for our own benefit.
I’ve spent years avoiding the suburbs. To me they represented what’s wrong with humanity. urban sprawl, consumerism, tawdry artificiality, conformity. Why then do I find myself at this advanced age living on the outskirts of a major city, struggling to rationalize my choice.
Relax. An advantage of maturity lies in perspective. You come to see the relative unimportance of nearly everything, such as the length of your hair or hemline, the gain or loss of weight, the size of your bank balance. None of these labels for sociological topics, which frequently lead to heated debates and too often to useless legislation, are life and death.
As we mellowed though, we discovered we were tired of mowing lawns, shoveling snow, and cleaning a huge house. So we decided to downsize.
Soon we were forced to face one fact, in addition to the deteriorating condition of our bodies: inner cities lack reasonably priced housing with the full range of architectural options. We wanted a smaller place with no yard and a higher density population. Hence our move to a townhouse. But the styles we favored were unattainable in the city core. We expanded our search to the periphery.
The area we chose isn’t in truth a suburb because it’s located in the city proper. But it feels like a suburb because the housing and businesses all are relatively new, many of the trees are short enough to allow a view of the sky, and most residents must commute elsewhere to their place of work. Used to be suburbs left housewives isolated for all the waking hours, creating their own sub-culture. Our suburb relies heavily on nannies and preschools to handle childcare, creating a different category of people. But that’s a story separate from this one.
I moved willingly, perhaps even eagerly. But not without some qualms. Perhaps I was remembering the song from the 60s, by Malvina Reynolds. “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same. . .And they’re all made out of ticky tacky, And they all look just the same.” Anathema to me in my counter-culture youth.
So I decided to create a pro and con list of traits for our new residence. We all work through a process similar to this whenever we make a change, weighing what we hope will be good versus the negatives.
• Good: Change stimulates you. You open yourself to different experiences and learn from them.
• Bad: Big-box stores abound. These are large retail establishments, part of a chain. I feel they tend to encourage a robotic approach to employment and thought, as well as lack variety in the goods they carry.
• Good: I no longer need to feel guilty for shopping at Wal-Mart since it’s close to me and the wisest environmental choice.
• Bad: Because housing has restrictions, we’re forbidden from leaving useables and recyclables in the alley, a practice that helped homeless and poor as well as residents in our old place.
• Good: I get to undertake a lifestyle exercised by the majority of Americans. As a writer I find every experience, every detail to be valuable in my craft.
• Bad: Nearly every restaurant and major store is part of a chain, franchises which I dislike on principle, that they are solely profit-driven and rob people of their individuality and humanity (yes, I’m biased).
• Good: our town house has ten times the number of light sockets of our historic residence. Life is easier, as is relaxation, work, cleaning, etc.
• Bad: Homogeny is the rule in types of businesses. Because this is an upper-middle class enclave, this means cheap restaurants don’t exist.
• Good: Our house is smaller and newer, making it easier and faster to clean.
• Bad: We’re too far out to get quickly to big institutions I love, like the art museum and central library. I know we’ll be using them less frequently.
• Good: Surprisingly, the air is cleaner and fresher than our central city location.
• Bad: Diversity in range of residents’ income is negligible, resulting in our isolation from low income and poor people, immigrants, and accurate proportions of ethnicities. It’s far easier to ignore points of view and social concerns if you don’t even see people who differ from you.
• Good: We have a much better view of sunrises and sunsets because buildings and trees are lower and don’t block the view.
The worst thing about our new situation, as well as suburbs in general: their existence is predicated on constant growth. Developers, politicians, economists, and the general public equate economic growth with quality of life. Untrue. In my city, as across the country, people scurry to start new businesses, expand housing, launch economic efforts. My hometown is now a clone of Southern California and the East Coast. Structures stretch from sidewalk to sidewalk, with almost no natural or green areas. Autos clog the streets and pollute the air, despite attempts to encourage mass transit.
How much is too much? Will we fail to be content until every square inch of inhabitable land is covered with works of man? Then what?
We must find another method for evaluating what we mean by “improvement,” “quality of life,” and “excellence.” I have no objection to seeking progress. But, please, don’t define that as constant growth.
We need to realize that social phenomena like my new place in the suburbs with green buildings or utopian farming communities on rooftops and in the middle of urban areas are stop-gap measures. All well and good for the meantime. But they’re comparable to recycling plastic shopping bags. Regardless of the pride we take in carefully toting these items to the market to use again, they’re less than the weight of an eyelash compared to the tons of waste storming down on us daily, the hordes of new humans pushed out of wombs annually, the even-more urgent cries of the poor and war-torn to have some safety and security.