Aging is something we do not often discuss, probably because we don’t have good role models for it. Instead, we focus on being youthful forever, rather than figuring out how to live with getting older. It’s time to remedy that and look to people who can point us in the right direction. My Uncle Jack was just such a guide.
My Great Uncle Jack died a few weeks ago. It was not unexpected, yet you’re never fully prepared. He was 90 years old (within a few months of turning 91) and had been experiencing failing health for the last several months, but no one thought the end would come so quickly. However, we should have known that Uncle Jack would die the way he lived: on his own terms.
Uncle Jack was in hospice care for the last week of his life, and it was interesting to talk with the hospice nurses about their experiences with death. Their wealth of knowledge and matter-of-fact acceptance of the details made me realize just how taboo a subject both aging and death are for us as a culture. Although it would be tremendously helpful to know more about the process, it’s something we avoid. I suppose the reality of it is just too much for many to bear. Yet since we know that information eases anxiety, it seems important that we hear about a process that all of us will eventually experience.
One of the things I’ll remember most about Uncle Jack is how accepting he could be about the limitations of age, while rejecting the idea that he was old. Long before he had any health problems, he made the decision to sell his house and move into an assisted living facility. As a single person, he knew that he would eventually need more care than he could provide for himself, so he took steps to ensure that happened. Uncle Jack gave up driving with minimal fuss, and ensured that he arrived early and stayed late to group events so that he would not be in the way of those rushing off to live their lives. And he made the choice to move to Texas when there was no longer going to be someone close by in Missouri to take care of him. This may not sound like a big deal but believe me, it was huge. According to Uncle Jack, Texas is the place you go when you are bad. He blamed Texas for everything. In fact, if he could, I imagine he’d blame Texas for his death.
Even though he accepted the fact that his body was failing, Uncle Jack would never admit that he was old and I have finally reached a point in my life where I understand why he felt the way that he did. One of the hardest parts of aging is that you don’t feel old. Your body may show signs of aging, but your mind does not. You may understand logically that you no longer look young, but you only see the ravages of age when you look at your peers. This ability to see age only in other people makes it very difficult to accept our own lost youth. For example, when my grandfather moved into an assisted living facility, we encouraged him to befriend some of the other residents, a piece of advice he resisted vehemently. “I don’t have anything in common with those people. They’re old,” he informed us.
So what does it mean for us to have such difficulty with feeling old, to struggle with the knowledge of how to age with grace, humor and acceptance? For those of us in the United States, it seems like it means a great deal of confusion, fear and avoidance. We reject the appearance of aging, we ignore the challenges of retirement (just Google avocational interests and see what kind of hits you get), and we don’t talk much about aging beyond the topic of healthcare. Thus, since we don’t know how to deal with our increasing age, we tend to focus on youth and living forever (see “Are You Afraid to Age?”).
Other cultures seem to have a better grasp of these things. They appear to understand that wrinkles and sagging body parts have their own kind of beauty, and that experience often results in wisdom. And with aging being venerated instead of spurned, maybe getting older is easier for them. Maybe those cultures don’t have sayings like “Act your age” because they understand that it’s different for everyone and that no one really knows how to act like 50 or 60 (even 40 was kind of amorphous). Maybe they wholeheartedly embrace such adages as “Age is just a number” and “You’re only as old as you feel” because they appreciate that getting older is more of a process than a destination. And maybe, just maybe, there is a place for aging in the national spotlight, an area in which decades of wisdom count for something, and there are rites and passages that you still get to anticipate rather than dread.
Time is different for those of us who are older. We no longer have to rush about trying to accomplish the developmental tasks that they make movies about (you know, getting partnered and having kids). However, because we don’t have a larger conversation about aging, many people don’t know what to do or how they should be. Perhaps it is time to change that.
My Uncle Jack understood much of this. He realized that aging meant giving up the goals of youth and moving toward a life of reflection. He was aware that, as Sophia Loren said, “There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.” Uncle Jack also knew how to age on his own terms. As was mentioned at his funeral, he managed to obtain what psychologist Erik Erikson labeled integrity, a sense that our lives have meaning and that we’ve made important contributions. Uncle Jack’s was indeed a life well-lived, largely because he accepted what came, and made the most of what he had to offer. We should all be so lucky.
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