Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thoughts on being old-old

It is now 21 years since I retired from college teaching and moved to the next stage of life. I recall feeling eager, yet a little shaky. I was like a baby learning to walk -- ready to explore this new life stage, yet concerned. Life without a daily assignment looked too daunting.

I faced one of the biggest challenges of my life. Two thousand discretionary hours had been handed me for the coming year and for each year thereafter I stayed alive. Do the math. Actually it's more than two thousand for someone like me who put in many hours beyond the required forty hours per week. I recall that, at the time, the main resources to launch me into this leg of the journey were tons of advice about eating right, doing my daily exercises, and managing finances. Gerontology was a new discipline. Among this plethora of advice I found little on how to ward off the lions, the Richard Parker's of Yann Martel's novel, The Life of Pi, crouching at the other end of the lifeboat,ready to pounce at the least sign of weakness.

When you retire, people at once shift you to the "old" slot. Now, 21 years later, I know I am there, well, actually, in the "old-old" category. Young-old or middle-old no longer applies. Not all organizations even have an 85+ category for people like me. We get dropped off the chronological map.

When I retired people were called old only if they had been born before you. At the first conference on aging I attended in Pennsylvania early in my retirement, I recall that presenters and participants only used the nebulous pronoun "they" when speaking about the cohort of people classified as old, never "we." There was no warm "we, the people" feeling here.

"Old" was a four-letter word. People avoided it. When I wanted to talk to friends about their feelings at being in this category,they refused to discuss it, as if just mentioning having birthdays over a cup of coffee might infect them. Old age and leprosy were in the same category. The warranty ran out at age 65. You were useless, kaput. I gleaned it was essential to good mental health to invest time, money and energy on looking young. Wrinkles, gray hair, bags under the eyes, were signs of this disease, signs to flee from. Treat them soon, fast. Aging is a medical problem. However, the birthdays kept coming, and coming.

In the intervening years, I have studied aging, written about it in several books (Border Crossing, Prayers of an Omega, Bless Me Too, My Father, and so forth), and lectured far and wide, to convince others --and myself-- that aging is part of God's plan, not a mistake.

I thought of that again this week when the oldest member of our congregation died at age 102 and a great-grandchild was born into our extended family. I tell myself that the challenge is to accept with grace and as much vigor as I can muster that this last stage of my life with all its strange feelings, misgivings, moments of great courage and bursts of energy but also times of weakness and withdrawal are all normal. To say good-bye to what can't be sustained and hello to the blessings of this time is a daily task.

Young people talk about having fun. Aging is not usually fun in that sense, but there are treasured moments I would never want to forgo. The last twenty years have been some of the best in my life. I appreciate being able to view life as if from the mountaintop -- the whole cycle of life. I relish the times I have to meditate, to ruminate, to enjoy my own company. I rejoice that I have been able to finish some long-term projects. Yet there are times when I worry about that tiger at the opposite end of the boat, but those thoughts are best left for another blog.

1 comment:

  1. Katie, I don't care for retirement, period--that word. It's as if your job was who you were, and now, zilch. No! You're still working, up until overall physical incapacity, at which point you ought to get a a special medal daily thereafter--so long as you've not turned into a self-absorbed old coot. (Sadly, depression can render the hardiest of survivors powerless, along that line.)

    I like your "infect" line.

    Isn't Life of Pi terrific? Have you read Beatrice and Virgil, too? Devastating.

    (I wanted to ask you earlier, after you posted "What I've learned on my way to becoming 87," does #8 mean your brothers and sisters in the Lord would go for the nudist camp too?)