Elderhood

ElderhoodI’m old.

I’m also healthy, happy, and enjoying life, so this is not an announcement about health issues.

It’s not a declaration that I’m giving up on having goals and ambition. Hell, I’m younger than most of the leading candidates for president. If they can have ambition, so can I.

Nor is it an effort to get people to tell me I’m not old. I’m not fishing for compliments. I know that I don’t look or act like the stereotype of an old person (and I’m not planning to start, either). I just also know my date of birth.

I’m still doing things that matter to me. I have lots of projects and they aren’t hobbies, though if I can find time for a hobby or two I might take one up.

But I just read Elderhood by geriatrician Louise Aronson and it’s helped me put my age and my life in perspective. I’ve also noticed of late that when I hear about what middle-aged people are doing it makes me grateful not to be that age or have their struggles. (And I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be young again.)

I’ve had to work at acceptance of age, though, because I still haven’t accomplished all the things I hope to do in life, and also because I have spent time with dying and frail people in recent years and learned enough to be scared of what can go on. Alzheimer’s sucks. So do strokes.

Aronson’s book made me recognize that acknowledging age has both practical and psychological benefits. For one thing, medical interventions that are appropriate for people in their 50s often don’t work well for people in their 70s (not to mention for people in their 90s). By understanding my physical age. I can make more reasoned judgments as to what kind of health care I need.

For another, it’s not just young people who can bring fresh ideas and perspectives into our culture. There’s a lot to be said for the wisdom that comes from experience, assuming one can keep what we call “beginner’s mind” in martial arts. That combination of knowledge and openness can be rich.

I’m also fortunate in that writing is an art that can be practiced at any age. There are professions and vocations that cannot be done with the same level of skill as you age, particularly ones in which the body is vital. Ballet dancers are old by their late 30s (though some modern dancers continue dancing into old age).

I can’t train in Aikido the way I could in my 50s. While I miss flying through the air, I notice I don’t really enjoy highly physical classes any more. My body feels the strain. I have settled for knowing that I can fall safely if I have to, and seek out classes where I can work on internal Aikido, which fascinates me.

I’m also taking my years of experience in martial arts and pouring them into teaching and writing about and recruiting others to empowerment self defense. This is another kind of elderhood.

Aronson’s book is both affirming and frightening, because she wrote it in part to illustrate how badly the health care system deals with aging. Despite the large number of older people — as a boomer, I have been part of a group of people that has been the largest ever at every period in my life and old age is no different from kindergarten in that respect — geriatrics is not a well-established specialty in medicine.

Her stories about bad decisions by doctors who either assume that an illness is just due to old age and don’t treat it properly or who provide treatment that is, in fact, dangerous to old people are chilling.

And, perhaps worst of all, few doctors really listen to old people. Also, sometimes they don’t listen accurately, don’t hear the undercurrent.

There’s a balance between intervening in a old person’s life because they really can’t take care of themselves anymore and allowing them to live the way they want to even if it’s not the choice the doctor would make. There’s no easy answer; it’s always a complex decision.

Learning how to age well, to give up the things that will get in your way while still pursuing the things that matter, and to fight for the kind of care you want and need (and to have family members who will help with that), that’s the key here for me.

And, as with all things that involve our health care system, it isn’t easy. Hospitalization is bad for the very old, especially those with dementia, so avoiding it unless it’s absolutely necessary is important. At the same time, treating a condition that is giving someone symptoms of dementia but which is actually caused by a different kind of physical condition or bad mix of medications is also vital.

There are no simple answers here.

Aronson argues strongly for an increase in geriatricians and the practice of geriatrics. And she’s very persuasive when she says that such a practice should include the “young old” like myself as well as the frail elderly with multiple medical conditions. Doctors need to be as aware as everyone else that age alone is not the cause of ill health.

Meanwhile, I’m going to work at hanging onto beginner’s mind while acknowledging my age and experience. Should make for an exciting rest of my life.

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Elderhood — 3 Comments

  1. I certainly wouldn’t mind being young again– I’d love to be able to leap six feet in the air and do the split again–even just walking around pain free was a pleasure I took for granted. But not at the cost of hard-scrabble experience and learning. I make utterly no claims to wisdom, hah! Not even! But my head, sorry as it is, is on straighter than it was fifty years ago.

    • Yeah, I’m not sure about wisdom, either. I still make bad decisions. But I do have an understanding of things I lacked when I was young and I don’t want to give that up. Also, I don’t think I took full advantage of what I had in my 20s, and I intend to take full advantage of everything I have right now.

  2. Thanks, Nancy Jane, for summing up my own situation. (And, Sherwood, I’d also give a lot to walk around pain-free again!) I will check out Aronson’s book!