When I was a youngster, I went through a phase of thinking old people were kind of pathetic. Not my grandparents, of course, but all those other old people. Maybe I got this from my Nan, who hated going shopping on Seniors Discount Day. She didn’t like being out among all the “citizens” as she called them: Too fussy! Too slow!
In one especially vivid moment, I was enjoying an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen with my boyfriend, and we saw an old couple drive up. They sat in their car in the parking lot eating their dishes of ice cream, and I remember thinking, “How sorry is that? They have nothing to do. This is probably the high point of their whole week.”
When I looked at old folks, all I saw was loss. Loss of youth, loss of looks, loss of health, loss of mobility, loss of interest. All replaced by sitting in front of the TV and waiting for phone calls from their almost-old children.
An elder whom I deeply respect once said to me, “When you get older, everything gets worse. You always have aches and pains. Your husband dies and you are left alone. Your kids move away and you rarely hear from them. One by one, your friends die of cancer. Everything just keeps getting worse.”
I was crushed. I wanted to be told, “It’s the prime of your life. You’ve gained so much wisdom. You don’t care what people think any more. You can spend your time on what matters to you. Being older rocks!”
Need I say that my opinions about old people have changed now that I’m 50?
Thinking about it today, I concluded that we run out of “firsts.” Teens are known for risk-taking (which we now know is caused by their increased abilities and their undeveloped reasoning). But those experiences become deeply imprinted, to the point that a large number of adults believe their teen years were the best years of their lives. It’s understandable, though: you have so many rites of passage. Sneaking out of the house. First love. First sexual experience. (In that order?) First rock concert. First job. First car. First road trip. Drinking with your buddies. Oh wait, that’s just me 🙂
Teens can’t imagine their future lives. They can’t imagine that head-over-heels will turn into contentment and they will be fine with it. They can’t imagine that the so-called rat race isn’t made up of rats, but their co-workers and friends. They can’t imagine a time when a phone call or an ice cream will make their day. If you smoke, you’ll end up dragging an oxygen tank around when you’re 65? Pah! What is there to live for when you get that old, anyway? They imagine that the hurry-up-and-wait rush of their brains will always be with them, but it will go – and they won’t even miss it!
I posted before about when I started to feel like a grown-up. For me, it was a combination of gaining competence, and learning from mistakes. It was gradual, and young folks don’t like gradual – they like leaps and bounds. So growing older is about patience and delayed gratification. Good luck promoting those virtues to young’uns!
Now that I’ve made it to the other side – my second half-century – I can feel the difference. No matter what I accomplish from now on, as Judith Viorst would say, “They’ll never be able to say, ‘And she did it so young!’ ” I used to hear, “You draw pretty good, for a kid” or “You’ve got your act together, for a young woman.” Now I hear, “What, YOU like the Arctic Monkeys?” or “You look pretty good for an older woman.” (Of course, in my mind, an older woman is always 10 years older than myself.)
I had the unusual experience of turning into an older woman almost overnight 3 years ago when I abruptly stopped colouring my hair and got it cropped short. I immediately felt myself going invisible as I stopped turning heads on the street and cashiers started calling me “Dear.” Just last night I went to a rock concert and every drunk young man who bumped into me apologized!
I “own” my age now. I don’t pretend I’m younger, nor do I pretend to be a helpless geriatric. I just feel like a capable adult in the middle of life.
I realize now that the stereotype I had of the aged wasn’t the recently retired person ready for a whirlwind of travel and volunteering (and writing a book), but the frail elderly ready for around-the-clock care. And there is a big difference between the two – perhaps the difference between being 60 and being 90. When I was 20, all of that was a blur.
As for my esteemed elder’s world view? I’m not buying it. I don’t kid myself. I know I will experience loss. But I have practice in that, and I’ll survive, and I will always find things to look forward to. I’ll be wise! I won’t care what people think of me! I’ll spend my time doing things that are important to me. When I am an old woman I shall wear purple! And I’ll look forward to my ice cream cone ALL WEEK!