Old Age is Not One Thing - Handel Behavioral Health
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Old Age is Not One Thing

Reflections on Aging: An 81-Year Old Woman’s Personal Essay

December 5, 2023

Amy Mauro

I am 81 and have been in this growing old process for some time (actually since birth, but not in the same way of course).

If there is one big truth I’ve concluded, it is that OLD AGE is not one thing. 

That may not sound like much of a big truth, but I used to think old age was just that one thing.

At 60, this body felt pretty much as it had at a more mature middle age. This mind did not. 

The 50’s had been a hard decade due to the illnesses and deaths of my parents and husband. Depression had wiped away stability both in work and personal life; nothing felt the same and nothing motivated. I tried to sign up for a clinical trial for depression treatment but was rejected as not being depressed enough!! How depressing! Desperate.

The Significance of a Spiritual Life

Then I enrolled in a class in Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (aka Mindfulness Meditation). Overtime that became a game changer in more ways than I could have imagined. In the almost twenty-five years since that class, meditation practice, silent retreats, lovingkindness practice and the teachings of the Buddha have been an integral part of my life. 

This radical perspective on experience, the truths of why we suffer, the realizations and insights that come from deep attention challenge conventional ways of thinking about who I am, about what is real vs. made up, and what truly matters in this life.

But I have dear friends who have differently named spiritual practices which they likewise benefit from. The significant thing is how deeply valuable some kind of spiritual life is. And particularly as we age because we have the lived experiences that prove the value.

The Rich Experience of Friendship

In my time of depression and despair, I was loved and cared for by women friends, mainly ones I had worked with. Those same women remain close friends now. We had worked together in an organization founded to support women, so already they were a special group. Now we gather together not only one to one but also in two groups (some overlapping people but some different). One group is a book club, the other we named 70+ (our age when the group formed). The book club has met well beyond a decade – the same people still avid readers; the 70+ group could now be called 80+. There was one other group – a dream group but Covid took its toll and we dissolved.

Why did the 70+ group begin? Individuals had begun asking each other: How do you feel about being 70? Do you feel the same as you did at 60 or 65 or even 69? 

Most said, “I feel different,” and thus the group formed to begin exploring together what difference meant for this aging thing. As women who already liked processing life experience, topics and questions quickly arose. Since we began meeting, life has changed us all – more losses, more illnesses (body and mind).

And yet we also experience resilience and bravery and savoring and laughter and fun also. We meet once a month, on zoom since Covid began. 

We care for one another and share our ups and downs. We provide meals for our friend who just had lung surgery, rides for another who no longer drives. 

The rich experience of women friends cannot be minimized in my life. The meaning they bring to this stage of life is beyond words. Ever more precious as we grow older.

Letting Go and Undoing Old Ways of Thinking

Part of this aging exploration for several of us has been through books and articles about older age, books by women of our generation – May Sarton, Florida Scott Maxwell, Margaret Atwood, Joan Erickson, Isabel Myers, Marilynne Robinson, Helen Luke, Virginia Satir, Marion Woodman, Jean Bolen, Naomi Remen. 

I have long loved Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, Maxwell’s small piece The Measure of My Days, and Luke’s Old Age, Journey into Simplicity.

For example, Luke writes that in order to be able to receive the gifts of age, one must be able and willing to give up old ways of thinking and doing: ones appropriate to earlier stages of life, ones that a youth-oriented culture suggests should be pursued likely longer than many can or even really want to. 

The process of letting go of old ways can be truly challenging because many of us wish to still feel useful to our loved ones and the world.

When I first read Luke, I did not understand what she was talking about; but as I have grown older, I now do and I even have experienced a taste of the gifts she elaborates through the works of Shakespeare and T.S Elliot.

The Wisdom of Others

In addition to reading the wisdom of older women, I have been fortunate to know a few very wise older people at a more intimate level. In general, these have been philosophical, reflective people willing to discuss old age and, yes, even death, which they regard in a rather matter-of-fact way. 

All speak about living each day, because their past is truly past and their future is clearly not long. Planning means thinking about today, not too far down the road.

It’s refreshing to have these conversations that run the gamut from very serious to hilarious. Like the inspiration of the authors, these individuals have inspired me as models (though none would ever consider him/herself a model for anything).

Old Age is Not One Thing

Joan Erickson (wife of developmental psychologist Eric Erickson and actual partner in creating the life stages model) lived to be around 95. I listened to a conversational interview with her when she was 90. She revealed two things I found especially interesting: The first was that she and her husband were not old when they wrote about that last stage of life. 

She declared that they were not only presumptuous but also wrong about the last stage. She said it’s far more individual than they had imagined. AHA! Yes, old age is not one thing. Her other declaration about aging being the value of creativity – of finding or having something creative one can do when work life is over and the children have grown. Joan was an artist.

The Art of Staying Present

I do not think of myself as especially creative but I see Joan’s idea in my friends – two have poetry websites, two are photographers of skill, another takes watercolor classes, another is a quilter, another a pianist. All of us are lifelong learners. Creative activities encourage living in the present moment in a satisfying way. If I can claim anything as creative, it might be cooking and nature. 

The natural world has always beckoned me. Birds, trees, flowers, it’s all a marvel. I do not travel far these days but I like to travel near. And in walks in the woods or along the ridges, I like to look more and more closely and pause and listen. Take in the natural world with fresh eyes. What a miraculous wonder. And it is who I am – a creature of nature. During Covid times my husband and I spent hours and hours walking in nature almost always alone but filled up with the joyous discoveries all around us. And feeling fortunate that our bodies allow us this joy. Lots of gratitude for what is still possible.

The Question of Fitting In

An ongoing challenge for me and other oldsters I know is our relation to the modern world and to our adult children and grandchildren. This is actually a pretty big topic, perhaps universal, though some cultures appear to value and seek out the wisdom and experience of elders. I still care deeply about this planet, my country, and humanity. Where and how I fit is an open question. I could go on and on about this one but I’d rather end on a positive note. I’m still working on it.

Growing Our Compassion

It’s useful for me to reflect on my parents (one lived to age 85 and the other 90), how I related with them and how they are with me. We lived close enough that I was involved with their life throughout my entire life. 

One gift of aging has been that as I age into their age, I begin to see and understand them more. In that understanding, my compassion and love for their lives, for who they were, increase. 

One of my father’s favorite sayings is a variation on both a French saying and one attributed to author Evelyn Waugh: “To know all is to understand all. To understand all is to forgive all. To forgive all is to love.”

Cultivating Awareness

Growing old, being old is not one thing.

When first observed, many people experience resistance and denial, then “regroup.” I have shared some of my experiences living this part of life.

As I age further into old age, there will be challenges ahead, right up to the last breath, I suspect. I’d like to be aware and equanimous at that moment. Or, as many old people say, “Die in my sleep.”

Final Thought

When I am able to consider this life in the largest sense, I like what one astronomer has said: We are all stardust. That perspective on life and death makes me smile.