I have a new friend. She is 93. I have been having coffee klatches with her. I find her fascinating. She has been telling me her story. There is nothing linear about her story. There is also nothing linear about the way she tells her story to me. As I listen to her, she takes me along on a tangled, curvy journey of her life. I feel the twists and turns in how she tells me about it.
As she is telling her story she goes back and forth between different languages, in a fluid and seemingly necessary way. I try to follow along as best I can. I don’t stop her because I feel this is the way she has to tell her story. Sometime her native language does better justice to it than her second language. I go along with her wherever she takes me, and then she always seems to conclude with some powerful, profound statement. Something that pulls it all together and nearly knocks me off my chair with the strength of it. It is a roller coaster for us both, and I hang on for the whole ride.
Maybe there is a deep lesson in this. Could my friend’s story of her life, as an entirely coherent yet messy narrative, be another way we might think about the experience of growing older? As a story that is not neat and clear and step-wise. But one that works together to make us who we are.
In many ways we like to think about growing older in a very linear way. By linear, I mean moving along in a single, straight line and having only one dimension (time). Like this chart.
Clearly, as time increases we grow older. So, it is easy to think of it as a linear process.
Evidence that we might think this way is in how we talk about growing older as being entirely tied to chronological age (e.g. 65+), assumptions that all older people have similar experiences, and one-size-fits-all policies, products, and services that are expected to meet everyone’s needs. You know, ageism in general.
However, there is nothing really linear about growing older. It is quite multi-dimensional, on every level. There can be great fluctuations. Up and down. Sideways. All over the place. Different for each person. More like this.
This resonates with me.
This also happens to be the way my brain works. I try to make it linear sometimes, to force it into a neat line. But it is all over the place. And I have learned to lean into it a bit. An idea comes, and I ride with it all over the place. Then sometimes I drop it for a while, and I pick up some other pieces that might go along with it, or might not. Then, I often need to rest. Let go of all the chaos that is happening in there. And then I come back to it, and see what fits together. And lots of time I have created something new. I have had to say goodbye to some things, but this is to make room for new things.
Hmm. When I have talked to fellow humans who are growing older, it seems like aging is more like this. A tangled, beautiful mess. And as I am growing older, I feel this to be true, particularly as a life transition.
When I think about it, we sometimes talk about what it is like to be an elder. But we don’t talk very often about the process of growing older, meaning the long journey from early adulthood through middle adulthood to elderhood. Certainly, we are all growing older from birth. But, in reality, most of us probably don’t feel that we are “aging” until middle adulthood. We are on this incredible journey of living and change. And it is messy.
Sometimes it seems as if the expectation is that one day, you magically wake up, and you are “old”. Some might think that this happens at an arbitrary age, like 75. Maybe some think it is when you are no longer “independent”.
But it does not happen that way. We GROW older, meaning there is a process. And from everything I hear from elders, the experience of growing older is a multi-dimensional process – complex, tangled, and messy. Just like life in general.
To be clear messy is not a “bad” thing. Maybe it is not “good” either. We might be tempted to qualify the experience of growing older as “good” or “bad”; these linear terms do not adequately represent the experience.
If we consider that the process and experience of growing older is not linear, then perhaps we have to consider that the acceptance or embracing of growing older is also not linear.
We are a society of aging-deniers. “I’m not old.” “I will never be old.” “Young at heart.” Yet, we grow old. It seems that while we are busy denying something is happening, it is happening. And we miss the opportunity to really live it.
Maybe if we allowed ourselves some messiness in accepting growing older, we would be better equipped to accept rather than deny. Maybe even embrace growing older.
There is really no one way to grow old.
For me, growing older, and my relationship with it, is messy. As a revisionary gerontologist, I do believe that growing older is a beautiful process that brings many gifts. I believe it is the process of becoming oneself. And, it is also scary, frustrating, emotional, and not easy at times. This is okay.
On one hand, I think wrinkles and grey hair are beautiful. They show a life lived. On the other hand, I do not want grey hair right now. If you look in my medicine cabinet, you will see a nice balance of non-toxic moisturizers and face washes with glycolic acid and retinol (“youth-enhancing products”). This is my paradox of embracing growing older.
I look in the mirror and I see me. I see everything I have experienced to get me to this place. And I am in awe. But when I look at pictures of myself 10, 20, 30 years ago, I notice I look different now. And there is a little bit of grief for what has changed. There is also pride in who I am now and how my face and my body reflect a life lived.
I am being very honest about this. And I am somewhat ashamed at my paradox. After all, I am a revisionary gerontologist. Yet, perhaps this is part of the process of growing older. It does not happen overnight, nor does it happen in a linear, organized fashion.
The culture of aging in which we live is so strong, with its negative messages and unrealistic expectations. When I think about myself in it, it is like I am in a jungle, hacking my way through this maze. Of course the jungle is beautiful, I tell myself. Oh yes, that snake is just stunning.
I know I am supposed to love all of it, but I don’t. At least not all of the time. (Note: This metaphor is NOT comparing growing older to a snake. It is about seeing beauty in things, even natural things, that also make us afraid.)
Just like we don’t wake up one day and “become old”, I don’t think we wake up and really embrace growing older. This acceptance is messy too. Perhaps it is a necessary messiness. Where we have to hold these ideas in our brains, about what is important, what our physical selves mean to us, how we confront and live with changes in our bodies, our brains, our relationships . And let some things go. And embrace others.
What I don’t think we should do is force this messiness into a straight line. Just like it is probably not a good idea to tell anyone how to age, it is probably also not a good idea to tell anyone, or ourselves, the one correct way to embrace aging.
The paradigm of growing older needs to change. We need to create a new narrative of growing older. Even if it is a messy one. Maybe this narrative addresses the possibilities and meaning we derive from the ups and downs of growing older. It promotes the gifts of growing older.
We need to have these ongoing conversations with each other. To resist the temptation to make things neat and organized and step-wise. To listen. To honor each of our lived experiences, both in terms of growing older and our acceptance or embracing of it. Maybe if we are willing to share our own messy stories with others, we become less afraid. And maybe there is comfort in knowing that everyone has their own tangled mess.