senior-woman-skiing

I’m Not Aging “Well” — I’m Getting Old, Goddammit


“I’m taking a page from Martin Luther King: ‘I have a dream that one day elders will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the tautness of their muscles but by the content of their character.'”

People used to think of growing old as part of the natural progression of life from birth to death. Not anymore. Now we go directly from middle age to you’re-just-as-old-as-you-feel.
 “Old age” has been dropped from our vocabulary. “You’re not old!” people say when I describe myself that way. I’m 74 with an assortment of age-related ailments and a generous complement of sags and wrinkles. If I’m not old, who is?

Today, we’re supposed to age “well.” The term is fraught with expectations that I, for one, can’t meet. If I’d belonged to an earlier generation, I’d have been expected to retire to the proverbial rocking chair on the porch — but my age mates are not going gently into that good night. Older people in the 21st-century expect to be able to ski, play tennis, run marathons, bicycle, swing dance and even sky dive indefinitely. These days, if you slow down with age it’s your own fault. It means you’re not eating right, working out, taking the right supplements, thinking positive enough.

The Boomer generation was going to live fast and die young. We’re still living fast but we’re not dying young — so we live as fast as possible as a way to pretend that we’re not going to die at all. Unfortunately, those of us who are suffering the physical and mental ravages of age are an uncomfortable reminder to our more youthful peers that they, too, will one day grow old.

I am assailed daily with stories of elders who do amazing things at advanced ages — run marathons at 85, teach yoga at 90, bungee jump at 96. These stories are supposed to be inspiring. I find them depressing. I will never do any of those things. The rest of us old folks — those who actually suffer from common ailments of aging such as arthritis, heart disease or emphysema — feel left behind in the mad rush to never get old. I wind up wanting to stay home, because in this age-well-or-you’re-worthless world, struggling to keep up is humiliating.

Many people in their 70s do not have physical limitations. They can do everything they did at 50, and more power to them, but not being one of them makes me and a lot of other seniors feel like pariahs among our peers.

I have a 77-year-old friend with spinal stenosis, a common and painful ailment of older people. She is unstable on her feet and can’t get around without a walker. She is very sociable but refuses to go out because she’s ashamed to be seen with her walker. The ageism that makes her afraid to be seen with a walker winds up further marginalizing older people who are already segregated from the mainstream. It’s no wonder that loneliness is becoming an epidemic among seniors.

Even retirement communities advertise themselves as for the “active senior.” If you’re not active, you’d better find somewhere else to live.

It’s time that the media stop fishing for clicks with their stories of older people engaging in extreme sports and focus on celebrating seniors who find a way to live well despite physical limitations — people like Carmen Herrera, who sold her first painting at 89, or Barbara Beskin, who landed her dream job as an industrial designer in Silicon Valley at 90; or even seniors like Joe Bartley, who got bored with retirement and was thrilled to be hired as a waiter at a local diner at age 89.

It’s also about time we seniors stop judging each another by how “youthful” we act or look.

I’m taking a page from Martin Luther King: “I have a dream that one day elders will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the tautness of their muscles but by the content of their character.”

Erica-Manfred-Senior-Planet

 

Erica Manfred is a journalist, essayist and humorist who writes about everything from dentistry to divorce to fantasy fiction. Friend her on Facebook

 

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17 comments
  • Toni La Puma
    REPLY

    Just to say I oh-so-needed to read Erica’s article just now. I have nothing to add to the remarks already made except to second them, but want to tell this incident: I am 86 and have many troublesome ailments for which I am on a constant conveyor belt to various specialists. The most recent doctor I saw called me “Young lady” as I left his office. “DON’T DO THAT!” I yelled at him. “I’m sick of this ****!” Up until then I had been impressed with him, but that kind of patronization bodes ill; it is no doubt the tip of an iceberg of bad attitudes

  • Cassandra
    REPLY

    Great article! I oversee the Senior Services Division for a local government agency. I am so very guilty of pushing the “aging well” perspective. I often forget to stop pushing the idea and to just have empathy and understanding of a persons situation. I think often societies good intentions have a tendency to take it too far. I think you’ve sparked some ideas of workshops to do in the senior centers!

    I also often find myself being very short with my mother when she says “I’m too old for that”. That’s because I consistently see people 20 years older than her not even questioning what they can’t do. But I should really recognize that every person is different therefore they age different.

    Thanks for bringing me back to center!

  • Shirley G. Johnson
    REPLY

    ITS scarer to get old. I sometime ask myself how long will it be before I die? I don’t want to die any time soon,but I know its comimg. I am 80 years old this july I am scare!!!!!!!!!!

    • Elizabeth Rogers
      REPLY

      I turned 80 in January of this year. The problem with being old is that it often interferes with doing what one wants to get done! I volunteer at a cat adoption center and do my own housework, shopping and errands. I like to garden in the summer, too, but in the past year I’ve noticed a decline in energy level and an increase in pain from osteoporosis, scoliosis, arthritis and nerve damage from long-past back surgeries. To quote the late sociologist Lillian Rubin, “Old age sucks–always has, always will.”

      I don’t think I’m scared of dying but I am scared of what may await me in the process. Even though I have paperwork in place including a Healthcare Directive/DPA and POLST, plus a detailed 3-page letter to my survivors, I still worry about falling into the hands of the Medical Industrial Complex at the end of my life. I do NOT want to die in an ICU tethered to tubes and a ventilator. I can only hope I’ve made clear that if I cannot care for my own basic personal needs and there is no chance of recovery or that I ever will be “me” again, let me go. In fact, I might even appreciate some help!

      Seriously, I live in a death-with-dignity state. Should I become the unfortunate victim of a terminal, painful and/or debilitating condition, I hope to qualify under my state’s regulations (although they are quite restrictive). I strongly believe that I should have a say in the time, place and conditions of my demise.

  • Joan McCambridge
    REPLY

    Thank you, Erica Manfred for writing an article about being older. I had polio when I was two. My lower body was paralyzed. I am 90 now. I consider my self a warier. Many people living with the late effects of polio call themselves survivors. Since I have spent my life working to be able to do what society expected, I prefer to be called a “polio warier”. Up until a few years ago I walked with braces and crutches.
    We lived in NYC where good health care was available. I attended grade school at P.S. 41 in what was called the Crippled Class. You can imagine how pleased I was when I graduated and went to a regular High School. Over the years I earned a B.S. and a Masters. I taught school and then was an administrative assistant. Eventually I stopped working full time. Then I worked part time and did volunteer work until I was in my eighties. I was still walking and falling. My balance was poor. Please don’t mention exercise for that problem. I lived alone and drove. A couple of times when I fell I broke bones which required surgery and rehab.
    My daughter and her husband invited me to come and live with them. They turned their dinning room into a lovely room for me. They have made my life wonderful. I have company and care.
    One day after watching my struggle to walk my daughter said, ” Have you ever thought about not walking any more.” This was said after I had been receiving therapy for several months. That day I took off my braces and we put them and my crutches away. It was the right decision for me at that time.
    I spend part of the day in my wheel chair and the rest of the time in bed. I have my computer and phone to keep me entertained . I have come to terms with my situation. Not having to worry about falling has relieved me of my biggest worry. I no longer spend time thinking about what I am not doing. I like my life. Joan

  • Maurice Hodgen
    REPLY

    For Deborah Burcham: Keep looking in that mirror every morning, Deborah. The woman you see and feel there is the woman you ARE. That vision, feeling and conviction is certain to get radiated in your behavior and keep you vibrant inside, where life is lived.
    I do hope you are never invisible!

  • Brenda Dyck
    REPLY

    Although Monica Manfred hits the nail on the head (in many respects) with this article I would have liked her to delve more into the end part of her revised Martin Luther King quote (“I have a dream that one day elders will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the tautness of their muscles but by the content of their character”.
    Here she alludes to the importance of exploring, in these senior years, the “content of character”. This is no small thing. Thankfully author David Brooks addresses what she began in his article “The Bucket List”. Here Brooks suggests that after a life time of collecting professional accolades, now is the time to explore how to finish well, to spend time learning how those unique individuals (from history or today) who radiate character got that way.
    I highly recommend reading article it will make you think differently about eldering.
    mobile.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/david-brooks-the-moral-bucket-list.html
    – Brenda

  • Elizabeth Rogers
    REPLY

    I skip the “aging well” stories now–hooray for the 90 year old mountaineers and skydivers, but they’re not me. I think it comes down to “aging as well as you can”, and that’s different for each individual. I’ll be 80 in a few weeks. Except for a couple of minor nuisance ailments, I was doing pretty much as I always had up until about a year ago. Then, I developed a few semi-major nuisance ailments like spinal degenerative disorder, scoliosis and osteoporosis (the latter had been developing for 5-10 years, but my stomach can’t take handle any of the black-box drugs advertised to treat it). The doc says I have no rotator cuff in my right shoulder and the left is “iffy”. It’s getting harder to do almost everything, and that’s just a fact. I do NOT much like this situation, but it is what it is.

    My husband (87) and I still live in our own home with our 3 cats and do most of our own housework, grocery shopping, errands, etc., so we’re luckier than many older people, so far. However, we can no longer do the heavier yard work without help. I still walk most days, try to do my back exercises and be as active as I can. I wasn’t particularly athletic in my younger years, although I was definitely a high-energy person. Where that woman went, I have no idea but I miss her.

    I hope your daughter-in-law reported that young doctor. Sounds like he’d be an enthusiastic supporter of Sarah Palin’s “Death Panels”! I think he’s in the wrong profession.

  • Charlotte Dion
    REPLY

    Finally! Thank you for writing this As an early boomer, I am sick to death of articles about second careers, marathons, beauty contests etc. I am much happier having breakfast with a friend than standing on a packed commuter train, ,or that I am grateful to the younger person who offers me a seat on the train when I’m tired. I have osteoporosis and arthritis and though I do moderate exercise, I adjust to avoid risks. And where once I did six things in a day, I’ll now do three. Above all, I wish society would focus on the needs of those oldest Americans who are sick. isolated, often without family nearby, and going broke trying to pay for care not covered by insurance. There is a tsunami coming at us. and we are too busy chasing our youth to pay attention.

    • Elizabeth Rogers
      REPLY

      Amen! Me too! At 80, I’m “beyond Boomer”. I was working and doing fine physically until I hit 78, at which point “stuff” began to happen. Nothing totally debilitating yet, but let’s just say that I no longer feel young. The nonprofit I worked for went bankrupt and I lost my job at the end of 2013. Now I’m not sure I could keep up physically even IF I could find another job which, realistically, I have zero chance of doing. I live in a high-tech area where anyone over 35 is “old”. So, it is what it is. . .my husband and I have enough income to survive (we hope), but there’s not much left once the bills are paid and essentials are bought.

      I SO agree that our society is not elder-friendly and will be considerably less so under The Orange Apparition who will take office as President in a few days. At 70 he should be more attuned to elders’ needs, but I see no indications that he is. He and his superrich family and Cabinet, as well as many wealthy members of Congress, operate under the Ayn Rand philosophy, “I’ve got mine–too bad about you.” I’m very concerned about what Paul Ryan has in mind for Medicare and Social Security.

  • sharon brenard
    REPLY

    I love aging well stories and people that avoid the stereotypical old lady/old man issues. At any age, there are people who can’t be physically active or become physically challenged due to aging and other medical issues. Personally, I rather like t\hearing about those people as well as the ones you mentioned in the article who sound a lot like the aging well folks you say aren’t everyone.

    • Deborah
      REPLY

      I so agree with you Sharon. Congrats to all the senior super heros but some of us are seniors just trying to survive. Financially I will be forced to work until they kick me out due to a lifetime of money related mistakes and missed opportunities due to bad choices in men and helping my kids. It’s a struggle every day to get up and go to work and hit the treadmill at the gym and try NOT to worry about how I will live when I do stop working. There will be many of us in this same lonely, physically challenged and medically forgotten world very, very soon. I think people just don’t realize this country is not concerned with their elderly and they just expect us to pass on due to fighting the system and existing the best we can. Good luck sweetie.

  • Deborah Burcham
    REPLY

    I just turned 65, and considered that Birthday to be the day when I officially became invisible. It’s been a gradual progression, and has it’s advantages, but it’s quite disconcerting at times.
    I’ve not aged well over the past decade due to health problems and the stress of care-giving, and I feel embarrassed that I don’t look 40 or 50 (by today’s standards) and see constant ads on tv showing seniors looking young and vibrant. Now don’t get me wrong – I get around just fine and can do most things I’ve always done., but I’m a bit clumsier, a lot heavier, have lots of wrinkles and my hair is graying. The woman that looks out through my eyes into the mirror every morning, however, feels the same as she did when I was very young, so it’s difficult to find that I’m treated differently now. I’ve developed new interests in art journaling and mixed media, and have a desire to get out there and interact with others who have similar interests, but find myself reluctant to reveal myself as “older” on Instagram or other online venues for fear of becoming invisible there as well.

    I actually think of my gray hair and wrinkles like “battle scars.” I’ve earned each and every one and should be able to wear them proudly instead of wishing to have them covered up, pumped up or surgically removed, like so many people do these days. I read about the days when “crones” , or “elders”, were respected and considered wise and sage-like, and I chuckle to myself, because back then a crone was probably younger than I am now. Our culture has rendered “elders” irrelevant, and even sometimes a nuisance. Nuisance example – My daughter-in-law’s dad is 69 and suffering from a very debilitating disease as well as a heart condition after being a firefighter for many years. At one point when in an emergency room, he and his wife were told by a young doctor that he, as a Baby Boomer, is part of the problem with health care today. I suspect that young doctor and many others like him would not even be here we’re it not for Baby Boomers.

    But I digress into unintended bitterness. I’m not really bitter. Aging is a natural part of life and it sucks that I’m not pulling it off as well as others, but I’m here and will keep on learning and trying new things as long as I can. Im sure my “invisibility cloak” will come in handy now and then.

  • Maria pena
    REPLY

    This are interesting stories. I retired 2 year ago . I am learning to drow . I enjoy gym and dancing, I want dedicate my self probably to write. I am learning many thing now.

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