Aging gracefully has nothing to do with how we look

January 16, 2013
Photo credit*

“You’re a good student,” my ex-husband used to say to me.  He meant a good student of life, and it’s true: I pay attention to what goes on around me, process it and try to learn from it.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t always do what others want me to do, or even expect me to do, but when I act, I usually do so with purpose and when I act out, well, that’s purposeful, too. 

So now that I can’t deny the fact that I’m aging (along with everyone around me) I can’t help but pay attention to how this all works. Because aging is a door we all walk through; that is, if we’re lucky. And we don’t know in advance what’s on the other side.

It’s clear that aging gracefully has nothing to do with botox or facelifts. It’s not how we look. It’s how we act.

I remember when my father’s driving began to go bad.  He was only in his 70s.  It was partly aging but a big part of it was that he had Alzheimer’s.  Dementia. He didn’t always remember where he was going and would take a dangerous last minute turn or be distracted at the wheel.  It was terrifying and after a few awful experiences, I refused to ride with him.

My mother, in denial, would try to get him to take me to the airport when I visited and I, horrified, would have to come up with reasons not to go. Everyone, it seemed, was in denial that life had changed. That when he drove, he was a real danger to himself and others. Mom didn’t want to lose him as a driver and he simply didn’t want to accept the limitations of age.

This went on for years, I’m embarrassed to say, because none of us could face having the talk with him. We knew how resistant he was to the impact of aging and any imposition of limits. We knew it would be a battle royal and no one had the courage to fight it.

Luckily, he didn’t harm himself or anyone else, but really, it was just luck. He easily could have taken someone else’s life on the road, and all because he stubbornly refused to accept that his life would have to change and that would mean giving up the independence he’d enjoyed for all those decades.

After my mother died and his dementia diagnosis, we could no longer put off his move to a memory facility and at that point, he was off the road.  But for many years he was a danger to himself and others.

Many of my friends have had to help their parents move into assisted living in recent years, something their parents usually resisted with all their might. I observed my friends struggle with, well, parenting their parents.

“Shoot me,” I’d say to them, “if I ever behave like that.”

Of course, it’s hard to say how I would be if I had serious limitations and I hope I don’t face anything like that for a long time. I get it, I do. No one wants to be dependent on others and lose the independent life we’ve enjoyed.

But I don’t want to be that person who goes down kicking and screaming. Who puts others’ lives at risk. I hope that I”ll accept gracefully the changed reality that age brings and be able to live a full life within that new normal. I hope I’ll see aging as the privilege it is.

I don’t think anyone’s prepared for it when it comes, and sometimes it comes without advance warning. One day your life changes and you’ve got to change with it.

But as a good student of life, I’m paying attention to how others are doing this. And I hope when the time comes that I can make conscious decisions to do the right thing for myself and others.

That’s my hope, anyway, but only time will tell.

*Photo Carol Cassara, Morocco, 2012

9 comments on “Aging gracefully has nothing to do with how we look
  1. Janie Emaus says:

    Accepting change is the only way to age gracefully. That and exercise and laughter.

  2. Aging gracefully is indeed walking through that door with your chin up and mind open. Everything is changing (as it always has been) but for some reason you’re really, really paying attention now.

    Caregiving is so tough. And your story of your father’s diminishing driving skills is so universal. It seems the finally “key” to hand thus why giving up driving is such a fall on a spear issue with our parents. I think living in walking distance of activities, coffee shops and diners is important but planning must be made for them and for us. It’s not the driving we want to loose, it’s the ability to get to the things we love — seeing others, being involved and present at church. We just need lives where we can be plugged in regardless of vehicles — thus why I love urban living, but it’s not a fit for all. Great thought provoking piece.

  3. You’ve written a thoughtful post about a tough subject.

    I’ve begun to really think about my own aging. I’ve watched my parents age; it often ain’t pretty. And it seems to me that we can get pretty cantankerous as we age, which makes it all that more difficult to face our new realities/limitations. My husband and I talk fairly often with our kids about “If we get cranky and stubborn, please talk us down…”

  4. Ellen Dolgen says:

    I agree with you. Attitude and confidence are a big part of how we present ourselves…

  5. Thanks, ladies. I’m glad that our generation talks about these issues, puts them forward so we can think in advance about how we want it to be. The first few of my friends are facing a bit of this and it keeps the topic top of mind for me.

  6. I wonder if we even know when it happens? I hope it won’t.

    It seems to me that drivers over a certain age need to be tested.

  7. Chloe Jeffreys says:

    I remember my mother making me promise that when she got too old to take care of herself that I’d “put her down.” But when the time came when she couldn’t take care of herself, she fought like hell against it. I guess that’s the way it goes.

    I also hope that when that time comes for me that I take it with grace and acceptance. But somehow seeing so many before me walk this road, I highly doubt it.

    I’ve also seen the flipside of this. I’ve seen older people try to go gracefully, refusing painful medical tests and procedures that might prolong their life, but not improve the quality, only to watch their kids be the ones not to accept the inevitability with grace and mercy. I’ve seen kids demand their parents do whatever it takes to prolong life, no matter what the personal cost or pain to their parent. That’s sad, too.

  8. Very touching and inspiring, CArol. Indeed, aging should be taken still as a time to grow.

  9. Very touching and inspiring. Indeed, aging should be taken as still, a time to grow.

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