Last week, a post titled Old Age: Reinvention vs. Reflection drew a lot of good conversation. I came down on the side of reflection and a couple of people disagreed, wanting to continue to reinvent themselves. From their comments, I think that is more a question of semantics than disagreement. Many agreed that, so far, this is the best time of their lives.
As often happens around here, it was Marian Van Eyk McCain, a woman wise in the ways of aging and life itself, who eloquently summed up the question:
“I suspect that when people talk about 'reinventing' themselves they are in fact describing the continuation of [Jung's] individuation process. It is a misnomer of course. We are not re-inventing. Reinvention implies replacement. We are not replacing. We are adding.
“Until we die, we are all growing, learning, individuating, becoming all that we can be. Not in the striving, goal-oriented way of youth, but in the same slow, natural way that a flower unfolds to its fullest extent and, as the petals fall, the fruit quietly swells and ripens.
“Even in its last day on the tree, the fruit is still absorbing sunshine. Not reinventing itself, just continuing to deepen its flavour.”
Kathi, who blogs at My Sister was a St. Bernard and is five years into retirement, doesn't think old age is as rosy as Marian and many others of us claim:
“I find it often hard to just relax and enjoy and validate myself in retired activities. A chronic illness which has cropped up mostly post-retirement adds to the challenge. I exercise 3x a week, volunteer 5 days a week at the Humane Society, and read and watch good Netflicks a lot. But I still worry if I'm doing "enough" with my energies.
“My question to those who've retired a decade or more is, Does it get easier to define yourself in internal, retired-type endeavors as the years go on?
“Even as I write that I think of the external influences of lack of finances, poorer health, etc. which no doubt affect many folks. The mostly cheerful and positive comments to this essay make me a tiny bit suspect. How come we don't hear from more readers who are really struggling with elderhood?”
A number of answers to Kathi's question come to mind. In terms of this particular blog, elders who have not made peace with getting old are unlikely to stick around for long. I regularly receive notes from those who unsubscribe from TGB telling me they will fight aging to the day they die with Botox, face lifts and whatever else it takes to “remain young,” and they will never, ever refer to themselves as “old” because they are not.
TGB readers who do stick around, however, live in the reality-based world where aging is a fact of life and who see it as another adventure, another learning experience, as Marian Van Eyk McCain wrote, in “becoming all that we can be” even while dealing with inevitable difficulties of health, money, and a culture that does everything possible to marginalize old people.
It is not that we don't struggle (see Okay, Now I'm Pissed Off About Being Old). About defining ourselves when we no longer have a career, I was lucky to learn when I was still quite young that we are not our job titles.
It may have changed in recent years (or not), but on trips to England during the 1970s and 1980s, I found that it was considered rude to ask what new acquaintances “do.” In the U.S., it is one of the first questions exchanged on meeting people. In London, I got through uncounted numbers of dinner parties having had a wonderful time without ever knowing how the other guests made their living. It was an important lesson in learning to define myself.
That is not to say it was easy to make the transition from working woman to retiree. For the longest time, when asked what I do, I choked on the word retired. But repetition works – the more I wrote about retirement here and forced myself to say the word when asked, the more I accepted my new status. Nowadays, I look old enough that few ask.
Another reason some struggle with approaching elderhood, I think, is that from the cradle we are bombarded with only negative images and words about getting old. Language matters and when everything we hear sounds like “over the hill,” “decrepit,” “out to pasture,” “geezer,” “fogey,” “past one's prime,” “out of date” and it is rare to hear such positive descriptions as “wise,” “sage” or “learned,” we arrive at old age primed to dislike ourselves.
That was the genesis of Time Goes By. Everything I had read about getting old was about decline, debility and disease, and I did not believe then, nor do I now, that those three Ds could possibly be all old age is about, although they can be part of it.
I am coming to believe that courage is an overlooked attribute that elders share. In the face of the three Ds, along with often reduced financial circumstances (I doubt there is a TGB reader among us who did not lose a large chunk of life savings in the 2008 crash) and a culture that would like us to disappear from view to not remind them that they too will get old, we persevere.
It is hard, sometimes, to make the transition from midlife to elderhood. Most of us do it in fits and starts as we struggle toward acceptance in our individual ways. The biggest help for me during the past six years of this blog, is reading and paying attention to the many wise elders who participate here.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, P.J. Davis: Turtle Story