I am coming up on a pretty big birthday this summer. Certainly, there are many people who are older than I am, but there are a lot more who are younger. When I was 64 years old and with a family history of longevity, I realized that I could have about 30 years to be productive. That’s when I decided to go back to school, add knowledge to my own aging experience, and bring that learning back to help my family and friends, my community, and me.
That was more than 15 years ago. Now when I look into the future I realize somewhat poignantly that even if I continue my lucky aging, I have about 10 to 15 years – not 30. I also know that the older I get there is greater potential for a decrease in wellness. So I am again thinking about how to use those years in the best way possible.
Since I began that journey of learning and helping, I discovered skills within myself that I never realized I had — writing, for example. I remember the moment at my computer when it dawned on me that I was a writer. Wow! I’ve learned that the best part of being a writer is hearing people say they like what I write. As they tell me about their lives, they say “you are writing what I am thinking” or “you have helped me through a difficult time with my old and sick father.” I think that people respond in this way because I write from reality — not from a theoretical place.
I know about being a caregiver — both the daunting and the rewarding parts. I have dealt with illness and death, but I know the deep gratification of helping someone who is in real need. As I cared for people, I continued my own aging. Fortunately, I have not had serious illnesses or injuries, but I have had some relatively minor health issues that left me incapacitated and in pain for short periods. I got better, but I understood how even small assaults on my body could make a major impact on my ability to do the simplest things – like walking the 25 feet from my bedroom to the kitchen table.
Just as I continue to age within my body, I am aging in my community. I would like to think that I have a role in raising awareness about what it’s like to get older and how important it is to get through the fear and denial-of-aging barrier so that we can begin to prepare wisely. If we as individuals acknowledge the aging process and the need to plan, that will help communities think about this also. The places where we live often don’t have adequate systems, structures, and attitudes to support all of us elders: not enough all-income-level housing for downsizing and safety; not enough simple ways to get around; and not enough opportunities to help people avoid isolation and loneliness.
At a more overarching level, I’ve had a mixed experience with ageism. Since my hair turned completely grey, I am called “honey” or “dear” more often. I never know how to respond. People are just trying to be kind, but at the same time they don’t realize that those seemingly innocuous words can imply that I’m more like a child than a proficient adult. It has taken a while, but I am beginning to feel some respect for my increasing age. Perhaps this is because I have been proactive in making decisions about my own future to maintain control over my life as the birthdays piled up. For example, I decided to sell my house and move into an accessible condo building before “as long as possible” caught up with me and before someone else starting making decisions that overruled my judgment. Also, I have learned not to be afraid to speak up in public and to write about issues that are of great concern to me, and to the community.
I reflect on how I may have changed especially during the last 15 years. In addition to grey hair, I have a few more annoying pounds, and I am really careful as I walk on uneven sidewalks or down the stairs. I have seen what can happen with a broken hip.
But at the core, I don’t think I have changed all that much. Certainly I have gained more knowledge and experience. My circle of family and friends keeps changing. Many people I love have died, and they are integrated into my spirit. But I now have grandchildren. New friends come into my life because I step out of my routines to try different things. But I think my basic personality has pretty much stayed the same. Underneath it all I am a learner, an advocate, a helper, and a planner. This is who I am and want to continue to be until who knows when. So those of you who call me “honey” or “dear” and make assumptions about my capability, acknowledge that I have an intricate, thoughtful life. Just know that I am still me.