Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On aging

After reading this blog-- Age and Its Awful Discontents (?), I was going to write a comment there. My thoughts were so lengthy that I knew it'd never pass muster as a comment and decided to put it here instead as a blog on the topic. Ronni was writing about an article in NYT-- Age and Its Awful Discontents.

I felt torn on what I would say there about her thesis and the original one by Louis Begley. On the one hand, I do believe it's better to be positive. On the other hand, he's living his truth. He is openly saying what he feels is ahead for him after a very good life. Should he deny what he feels because it makes someone else  more comfortable? Should he pretend he's happy to be looking old? Denying their reality is how many people feel about those suffering from depression-- take a pill or pretend you don't feel it to make the rest of us comfortable.

The thing he is experiencing is what elders do experience-- if they are aware. He's just admitting it. Whether it has to depress you, that's another story and I didn't feel he said it was depressing him. Just he could see the road ahead. He now better understood what his mother once felt. Today the talk is that 60 is the new 30. No, it's not. It's different. Going under the knife won't change that.

Recently I read a blog where the writer was feeling down on knowing things wouldn't get better. It wasn't whining. It was his honest feelings after some major health problems and knowing with old age, it wasn't going to be better as so often in life, he had felt it would. Now he might have been wrong on what would happen, but I didn't try to tell him that.

What I said (more or less) was when I get to feeling some of that, I think of this as part of a stage and cycle of life. Yes, the aches and pains of age won't be going away-- aspirin and glucosamine do help with it. The lessening of strength won't disappear-- although some of that can be temporary after an illness and will be better. We won't be back to what we were at thirty no matter what we do. Youthful, physical beauty won't come back-- not even with plasticating our faces.

What Begley was saying was he could now empathize with his mother as he finally understood more of what she felt. I understand what he felt about his regrets as I have some of them regarding my mother.

Mom lived on our farm in a mobile home. We took her to doctors and shopping as she had macular degeneration which meant she could get around but she 'read' through audio books from Oregon State library and she could no longer drive. Mom was not a complainer, but I was busy during those years. Kids in their teens. Often driving to town (20 miles each way) several times a day.

Then the kids were gone, but I still did not do for my mother what I could have done in being with her more often. We had holidays together, saw her daily, but she was alone a lot. There is no use in thinking back and bemoaning it; but I think of it now and then. I could have related more to her needs but Mom was not one to go to doctors nor to complain. I had my own life to lead...

Now my kids have their own life to lead, and I try to remember how it was with Mom and understand this is no time to get my feelings hurt. I have things yet to do before I sleep also. I do live an exciting life right now. That won't last. That's not depressed talk. It's reality. How long the good energy years last will differ for us all.

I related to what Begley said not as a whining but as an awareness. He's a writer; so he uses those awarenesses.  He also was trying to put out that there are two sides to this last stage of life. Half the time the oldsters want to be taken as though they are as good as they ever were. Half the time they want special compensation for not being as good as they ever were. I think the best way to look at it all is be who you are and where you are. Live it fully. Don't anticipate the future in a negative fearful way and don't live in the past. The moment is all we have, any of us-- at any age.

In my own life, I have seen a lot of growing old-- with my older relatives (who are all dead now), with the livestock we raise and keep until they are geriatric, and with the many pets I have had throughout my life.  What I think is that old age is different. It's not middle age. I can see and feel those differences beginning. I feel I am lucky to have gotten here as many I have loved never did.

For each of us, it is what it is. I could try to deny it, not live it fully, live in a fantasy about what it is-- negative or positive-- or I can do what I did in all the other stages-- live it fully, every bit of it and that means owning the aches and pains, the aging body, but also the many experiences and the wisdom I have accrued through those years. There is so much about it that I am enjoying to the nth degree. Some parts are less fun. But it's all real.

If Begley was to be a curmudgeon (the article didn't say he was), he probably won't find people wanting to be around him, and if that's okay with him, then it's his choice. But it won't be because he's old. It'll be because people like to be around someone pleasant.  And frankly even if he was acting pleasant (even when he didn't feel it, his family still might not want to come around as they are busy with their own lives).

If an elder wants to live in their past, they can do that, repeat the same stories over and over, but again, they better be the type who enjoys solitude as most people will get tired of the stories they heard so many times. That's not because that person is old. It'll be because they are boring.

Elders who live actively in the present are interesting to be around because they are still doing things. I think young or old people search out certain kinds of people with whom to spend time. Elders don't get a pass on that. If someone is a person who likes to be around people, young or old, they better develop interesting topics they can talk about or be a great listener and share wisdom-- when asked.

My mother was that kind of old woman. When she found out my husband's mother loved a particular soap opera, my mother who hadn't seen soaps for years, she watched them to have something to talk about. When a person is old, they can read the newest book and be able to discuss it, have seen a good movie (assuming they can see) and doing those things in order to share is part of the key. It helps to draw people to them (if that's what they want) and also to stay interested in what's going on themselves.

Learning to listen to others can be a real key. Telling someone younger what to do, or not listening to what they say and only trying to turn each conversation to ourselves, none of that goes over well-- at any age. Stay interested and even if nobody shows up, life will be better.

I think this guy was sharing what he saw and he will be jumped on by those who want to deny the full experience of aging and turn it all into something enjoyable. I think it's more that way for some elders than others. Some of that is a person's temperament to begin. Some is their health.

Old age has its fun aspects. I felt it rewarding when I reached a point (when I turned 60) where I felt wow, I did it. I had a life. I lived it all mostly as I wanted. Some would say you should have done more. It depends on what they consider more. I followed my path. I raised children to adulthood who became responsible adults. I got to see my grandchildren. I had my share and then some of experiences and now it's my turn to come to the last act. The last act can have some misery attached. It is all important but it won't all be a pleasure.

Begley is a writer, something that encourages introspection. He uses what his life is and what he observes for his fiction. I saw the movie based on his book, About Schmidt, and thought it was wonderfully done but wouldn't want to see it again.

For a film on aging, I preferred Water for Elephants. We saw it last night. it began with an old man, who had had a full, rich life and didn't want to stop living it even though his kids weren't going to be any help. He shared his story, which is the bulk of the film, with a young man as a way to keep leading an active life. Hal Holbrook played the elder, and he got it.

Before I write a book here myself, I'll end but this is a topic that is, of course, of interest to me, since I am living it.

15 comments:

Tabor said...

I was watching one of the episodes on PBS in Bill Moyers new series which I find an exceptional program as was his older series. They had on a poet who was diagnosed with a rare and serious cancer in his mid-30's. His attitude, approach to the rest of his life and a look at his past life were certainly something this old man could have learned from. The young can teach the old if they are willing to listen. The poet was Christian Wiman.

Annie said...

Good points. I hear you.

Rain Trueax said...

But for every person who dies with nobility like the physicist who did the video (CRS for what his name was) there are those who go screaming. It's life and we don't like to hear from those who don't tell us what we want to hear. Which is what I thought irritated so many people about Begley. I didn't even feel he was whining. I saw him as expressing what he felt and he's not alone with that.

One thing I learned with my own mother living next door and being dependent on us, having someone dependent on you makes them resentful of you. They can't help it and you cannot do enough to change it. I can look back now and think I wish I had done more but it was tough as one other thing I learned is some people change with age. Now some people do not. Those who change with age aren't necessarily changing because of Alzheimer's. It's just what happens but not to all.

Having been around a lot of very old people at one time or another, I've seen how it isn't the same for how aging is for us. But I don't want to become dependent on my kids because it seems to me it doesn't end well. They need to live their lives and I need to live mine.

When I was in my 30s is when my parents moved onto our farm. I was talking to my father and mother and said I hoped we could be friends. That was not at all what my father wanted and he said as much. He was a father and wanted to stay a father. Some of this was that generation's belief that kids should take care of parents. It came out of an era where that was necessary without SS or Medicare. We might head back to that kind of living but I hope not as it's not why I had kids-- but back then many did and for a very practical reason. I never once imagined I would have a child so I'd have someone there when I got old. It was to help them be all they could be. They are doing that. I have to be all I can be which for me includes accepting old age with grace but for now my health is good; so who knows how I'll be in the future years.

Unlike many who read Begley's column I didn't see it as negative. I just saw it as what he felt. What offends me is people who try to deny others that right. Basically I think some of this-- we must be positive about whatever happens-- is our culture.

Old age is not the same for us all. I know at 69, I am not yet to where my mother reached her time of 'changing' (for wont of a better word). I don't know if my having seen that will help me to avoid it. She didn't choose it.

janinsanfran said...

Friend, you are a realist.

I liked "I related to what Begley said not as a whining but as an awareness."

But we still have choices about what we do with what we are aware of. I think that is why I found Begley annoying. But of course he has a right...

robin andrea said...

I probably should read what Begley wrote, but I think I'll just comment on what it's like to be growing old. I'm going to be 60 in May and Roger is going to be 70 in August. We are not young. We don't have the same energy or stamina we had 15 years ago. That ain't coming back. My gray hair won't be brown again. I find myself wishing sometimes that I were stronger, that I could shovel dirt and move compost the way I used to. There are too many months between the heavy work of a good garden and the fall and winter of good reading. We're all moving in the same direction, some of us go kicking and screaming... some of us enjoy the ride.

Rain Trueax said...

I would be surprised if anybody enjoys it as much as earlier years no matter what they say. The thing is make the best of it as it is what is. The good thing about it is it's different, interesting but it does take thinking -- work smarter not harder (got that one from a cowboy). For some there is fear of what comes after death to add to the mix. If we live the old years well, we can add that to our feeling of living it all to the fullest we can (which will be different for each of us).

For those who have had to use their muscles a lot through life, it takes more adjusting than maybe for someone who had a more sedentary life all along. Farm Boss is in therapy now to try and work a locked shoulder into more mobility without (hopefully) surgery. It involved doing the kind of thing he did all of his life but as your body wears out, you can get it hurt more easily (not that young people can't damage a shoulder).

With our culture going through so much conflict over health care, over taxes, over this 'every man for himself' mentality, I think there is more fear again for older people. SS can hurt them a lot through inflation. Old age used to involve more of that before the 'socialist' programs gave elders more security. Some want to go back to those years. Most of them are well off, have some other system they think will make them immune from the problem, or just don't think what is really going on. I hope we don't go back to the period where old age led to fear of being dependent on the kids (if they even have kids).

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

A very profound post Rain.

"....it's just how he feels..."
Indeed! That's the key sentence. This time of one's life is different for everyone, as you said....I hesitate to say how really crappy I feel my "old age" is, at this point...But it is so much because of HEALTH reasons.
No one can know any of this for themselves, till they get there---I didn't know...

And, What I feel because I am who I am, may be 180 degrees different from someone else. Each of our lives are unique, because WE are unique in our life experiences, etc., etc., etc.
It's just how HE feels...It's just how YOU feel....It's just how I feel....Denying that, is to deny that person. One feels alone---no matter what---To then deny them their "feelings"...Well, you might as well kill them,, because, in a way, that's what we do when we deny someones feelings.
No, I don't share ALL that I feel about what is happening to me at almost 81..(Very different from my 71 by the way)...I don't share it because I do not want what I feel to be belittled, critcized, OR denied, in any way. There is so much loss happening already, PLEASE, don't deny me my feelings too..!
As I said at the start---This is a very profound post, in my humble opinion.

Ashleigh Burroughs said...

be who you are and where you are.....

You've left this (or similar thoughts) on my recovery posts over the last 15 months and I come back to it time and time again, Rain. We really don't have much choice, do we. We are there and can't escape it. I've found that embracing it all - the pain, the loss, the joy of surviving, the relief when aches disappear - and owning my ups and downs, as OldOldLady of the Hills says, "don't deny me my feelings".

Then again, as my delightfully demented 89 y.o. mother tells me when I applaud her upbeat attitude: Who wants to be around a cranky old woman?

Wonderful post.
a/b

Rain Trueax said...

Thank you, a/b. I also really appreciated what Naomi said as it's how it is but so often people fear saying it as that's not what others want to hear.

When someone goes through what you did, they have a right to lay it out there, the whole cost, as trying to buck up others denies a part of reality.

Hattie said...

I think you are right that very active people find old age more exasperating than those of us who have led relatively sedentary lives. Not that we have been sitting around, but we haven't depended on physical labor for our livelihood. Unless I have one of those very low energy periods that hit sometimes, I'm pretty content with what I can accomplish in a day.
I am very interested in what you have to say and have put you on my blogroll.

Gina said...

I agree with you that everyone has a right to their own feelings and experiences, including a right to express them.

My problem with Begley's column is when he proclaims that everyone feels like he does. He says, "But it has taken me until now, at age 78, to feel in full measure the bitterness and anguish of my mother's solitude--and that of other old people who end their lives without a companion."

I'm sorry, he doesn't get to decide that all elderly people (without companions) feel as despairing as he does.

Rain Trueax said...

It is true he doesn't have the right to tell everybody how they should feel. His situation is unique based on the loss of all those relatives to the Holocaust. I didn't understand what he said that way but if it was how he said it, then I wouldn't support that. What I thought he was saying was just to be aware of how he had not been sensitive to his mother as he now regretted and perhaps as a warning to those still having that chance. It's possible he didn't mean it that way.

gigihawaii said...

Interesting blog. I came here via Hattie's blogroll and have also added you to mine. I like what I have read so far; it resonates with me.

My mother is 96 and my younger, divorced sister, age 59, is her caregiver. I think my mom is very lucky to have her, and my sister is fortunate to have free room and board as well as a $12,000/year stipend. It's worked out well.

Angele Style said...

I think Advanced Style has the best representation of aging in America. It is all about ATTITUDE!!! I have never felt better in my life than at age 72. I have more energy more adventure no partner and loving every minute of it until I get sick. And then I go into all kinds of questioning of conditioning I have learned that when you get sick and you are old you are done.

Nance said...

"I related to what Begley said not as a whining but as an awareness. He's a writer; so he uses those awarenesses."

Apparently, he's done us a service.