The Truth About Getting Older

old people signIt’s said that age is just a number. Sure it is. But I wonder why that number, the one that implies, “Now you’re actually old,” varies so widely among individuals.

My husband Stephen and I are both in our 60s. Yet often (too often) he says to me, “We’re old now.” With our four parents aged 85, 89, 89, and 90, I refute his assertion. Not that we can count on that sort of longevity. After all, they’ve all made a habit of some kind of regular exercise, and we haven’t been consistent in that way. We do eat far more healthfully. Anyway, who knows the future?

The other day my son told me he thinks about death daily and he can’t wrap his head around eventually not existing, being nowhere forever. He hopes he’ll face the end gracefully once he gets older, not with the sort of denial he sees around him. I hope so, too, as much as I hope it for myself.

CAN IT BE DONE WITH GRACE?

An old/new book has come to my attention. It features brief essays (actually polished journal entries) by a superb writer facing old age, May Sarton. She was sharp enough to offer genuine insight into the stage of life we all enter (if we’re lucky) before we exit the stage of life entirely.

May Sarton, the celebrated poet and novelist who died in 1995, wrote At Eighty-Two, A Journal, in 1993-4. It’s available this month as an e-book (Open Road). Her conversational comments are laced with poetic observations. Most of all I noted and appreciated her honesty about the highs and ever-more-frequent lows of her mood. Need I add “Trigger warning for depressives”?

I have begun this journal at a time of difficult transition because I am now entering real old age. At seventy-five I felt much more able than I do now. Forgetting where things are, forgetting names even of friends, names of flowers (I could not remember calendula the other day), what I had thought of writing here in the middle of the night—forgetting so much makes me feel disoriented sometimes and also slows me up. How to deal with continual frustration about small things like trying to button my shirt, and big things like how to try for a few more poems. That is my problem. It does help to keep this journal; it forces me to be alive to challenge and to possibility.

The third cause of my depression I have already described: the chaos of my life and all that is asked of me beyond my strength. Day after day I wait it out, wait for the time when I can lie down and have my nap.

But life right now is joyless. There is nothing that I look forward to, and that is bad. Yes, I look forward to reading. . . . Another is that nothing has to be done; it has to be done in my mind because of my conscience, “I must write this answer,” but it is not as if I had a job which required me to appear at four-thirty and be brilliant. I can choose what I am going to give and when I am going to give it, and that is a wonderful dispensation to old age.

I have entered a new phase and am approaching my death. If I can accept this, not as a struggle to keep going at my former pace but as a time of meditation when I need ask nothing of myself, will nothing except to live as well as possible as aware as possible, then I could feel I am preparing for a last great adventure as happily as I can.

Most of the time I am happy, learning a new kind of happiness for me which has nothing to do with achievement or even with creation. Each day I plan something I can look forward to. Today it may be ordering bulbs. I think of a letter I want to write today.

Of course I do not want to die, although death seems to be the only solution to my problem at present. Let us hope that Prozac will help me, and it might even begin to happen next week. But the fact that it has not happened and that I have to take strong laxatives or I am constipated does not help; it is the worst thing possible for me. Why talk about this? But I say also, Why not? I seem to be totally absorbed now in my body and what it is doing, and this is miserable.

Unfortunately, the Prozac didn’t help May Sarton. Her previous cancer returned with a great deal of pain and killed her the following year. Still, she had all those good days and never seemed to tumble into self-pity.

NOTE: In the midst of writing this post, we got a call that my father-in-law had fallen again (at Walmart!), banged his already cognitively-impaired head, and was being taken to the ER. Shortly after, we learned he was transferred to a larger hospital where a neurologist would have a look. I spent an hour looking up subdural hematomas in the elderly. But at 3 in the morning, he called us to say, “They didn’t find anything. I’m clear! I’m home.”

It begins.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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