Ageism Among the Aged – That’s Whacky!
I know plenty of individuals in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s who don’t want to hang around with “old people.” These old people may be the same age, yet, they are seen as different, because they are seen as old. Isn’t that fascinating. When is Old Old, and what is Old, anyway?
Orcas Island Senior Lunch.
The room is a sea of white-haired people, sitting around tables, apparently enjoying the company of others. Quite often a piano player is providing beautiful and joyful music. To some, this is very inviting!
Depending on which table you visit, you may find people talking about the domino game that will follow lunch. At another table they are talking about aches and pains, body part replacements, or how so-and-so just got medi-vac’d off the island. At another table, there is talk about singing at the next talent show; another, about visiting children and grandchildren. There is a table of individuals talking politics, about good books, or the upcoming live-streaming of an opera or ballet. And at another, they are talking sports, hunting, and fishing. You just never know.
When you walk into the room, based on what you think and believe about aging, you may not see yourself as one of them – one of those white haired people. In that moment, you may be thinking: I’m not one of them – I’m not aging and I’m not getting old.
Somehow, we don’t see that, aside from being a white-haired person, there are a lot of amazingly creative and brilliant people sitting in the midst of that snowy white hair. What we see is what we view through the lens of our personally cultivated and highly valued interpretations about old people. We humans are such fascinating beings. We create all sorts of thoughts and impose them on the world we live in.
This article isn’t about promoting the Senior Center, because there are a lot of people who aren’t interested in the social aspect of the Center. This article is about how so many of us look at ourselves as separate and different, and how we may alienate others, even though they are just like us. This may be just too scary to accept!
Ageism like Racism, Sexism, Classism, any other -ism, is based on beliefs, judgments and assessments that quite often have nothing to do with the truth. All ISMs involve a negative prejudgement, whose purpose is to maintain the sense of power and control within ourselves. In the Recovery Community, any ISM stands for Inner Sh*t Maintained. Ouch! That hits home!
The other night, I had an interesting experience that serves this point. While brushing my teeth, I notice that my gums are receding. The term “Long in the Tooth” came up, and I was instantaneously triggered. This gum receding thing is just another indication that I am, indeed, getting old.
I climbed into bed, and because I’m not only writing these articles on aging and change, but also leading discussions on aging at the Senior Center, I kind of had to be with this experience with a little bit more attention. Sure, the receding gums could be caused by something other than aging, but in this moment, aging is what got triggered.
By allowing myself to be with what was happening, I experienced what felt like an eruption of emotion, like lancing a boil or a cyst. (gross, I know!) (Does this analogy make me sound old?!) Though highly uncomfortable, I had to be with all of what showed up.
Primarily, I experienced much of what I believe is just part and parcel of being human. The bottom line – in that moment, I experienced myself as a complete and utter failure; that this life and all its efforts has culminated into nothing. Deep humiliation arose, as did the “truth:” my life had no meaning and no value.
This all occurred because I looked in the mirror and noticed a dental issue. The rest was the inevitable unfolding of my interpretations of me, aging. Imagine what shows up when I walk into the Senior Center with all these unacknowledged thoughts and feeling? Like so many of us aging ageists, I spew all of my failings and my meaningless humiliation onto those innocent individuals that are my target of disdain, because they are just like me, and I’m just like them.
The practice of what psychologists call projection, allows each of us to deny a personal emotional “truth” about ourselves, and only see it in those outside ourselves. That moment when I experienced and acknowledged my deepest failure, humiliation, and meaninglessness allowed me to see what I normally just project onto most white-haired people, not with compassion but with judgment and contempt.
Aging and agism resides within the eye of the beholder. Though projected out onto the external world, it usually has everything to do with one’s own personal resistance to acknowledging and accepting the truth of who they are within these wrinkled, baggy old bodies. It has absolutely nothing to do with those upon whom we impose judgments. We separate ourselves out, seeing ourselves being somehow different and better than others, even within our own age, race, class, sex, or political or religious positioning.
Aging gracefully requires that we take on the challenging task of being present and truthful with ourselves. I believe the hardest challenge of aging gracefully is to acknowledge that yes, indeed, in many ways we have failed. In many ways we have humiliated ourselves. In many ways our lives are not in alignment with what we imagined for ourselves. And, at times, life does seem meaningless. We accept the truth of all of this and surrender the critical self-judgments that burdens us with far more than just the aches and pains of everyday living.
As I examine the aging process, I am far more appreciative of what it takes for every individual to get out of bed every morning and face the unknowns of of the day. Humility replaces humiliation. Meaning is found in the more simpler parts of life, and failures are surrendered too. It takes courage to face every day, for all of us, not just those who are considered old and aging. We certainly aren’t sissies!
Who me? Aging? Yes, I am!
Barbara Herschel was a long time Orcas Islander. She was a big hearted activist and advocated for changes that made our community more viable in so many ways. She was a real gift.
Barbara hired me as her Life Coach at the age of 78. Her husband Bill passed away, and after a long time of caregiving for him, she was ready to return to those activities that made her heart soar. She wanted to paint again – something she was passionate about, yet she just couldn’t get around to it. My job was to get her on track with her painting.
It wasn’t uncommon for Barbara to be distracted with any number of issues that in the moment seemed critical, but were really not. One of those issue’s was her health. She was always running off the Island to see one doctor, or healer, or nutritionist. She had a heart problem, a hearing problem, and like most people in their late 70’s, she experienced those challenges that come with the deterioration of one’s physical being. Barbara spent a lot of time worrying about what frightened her most – having a heart attack and dying alone.
You wouldn’t think that pulling out a bunch of paints, a canvas and some brushes would warrant hiring a life coach, and the four years that Barbara and I spent together never did culminate in one single painting. Our work culminated in something far more exquisite and valuable, however, through the discernment of the essence of Barbara in the midst of her life, as it was, as it is, and as it would be.
The day before Barbara died, she had an experience of self-empowerment and self-reliance that she had been longing for all her life. She called me, leaving a message on my answering machine – I DID IT! I will never forget the joy in her voice as she shared with me that ecstatic moment. She was no longer afraid. She was free.
Barbara died the next day alone, of a heart attack. And I have no doubt she was at peace.
My client Sarah is 62. She is a resident of the Bay Area, and is about to become the president of a highly renowned national organization for business women. Sarah hired me as a life coach to help her figure out what the heck her life was about, and what she really wanted to do with the rest of her life.
Like Barbara, Sarah gets distracted with stuff that keeps her from really discerning the essence of her life and her work. She gets mired in those assumed critical issues of her complex life. Fortunately, Sarah is committed enough to realizing her truth that she quit her work as a life coach, took a month away from her husband and home, and went on retreat at her family’s ranch in Idaho.
Sarah is stepping into the presidency role in June, and as much as she has resistance about taking this position, she knows there is something bigger than her that compels her to take the seat of leadership for this organization. In our most current session, we focused on what was at the heart and soul of the two years to come. By mining the truth of this, Sarah could lead in alignment with her highest desires, and make her greatest contribution to the members of the organization, and to the Country as well. If she didn’t discern the essence of this work for herself, she would flounder in disorganized, scattered factions of what she thought other people expected of her.
My primary question for Sarah was the same question that I had for Barbara Herschel: What is the culmination of your being in this life, in this position of leadership? When discerning the essence of one’s life and one’s life work, the answer is the same. For Barbara, the essence was Fearless Freedom. For Sarah, it is Fierce Love.
Regardless of where you are in the aging process, discerning the essence of one’s life, or the roles one plays within their life, helps tremendously to get a sense of trajectory of what this is all about, where this is all leading. When coming into that sweet spot of recognition and knowing without a doubt that this is the essence of me, this is the essence of my work, life feels easier, more relaxed, and allows in more openness, joy and fun.
I have no doubt that Barbara died in fearless freedom. And I have no doubt that Sarah’s leadership will culminate in women of the world growing themselves and their businesses from, and into Fierce Love. When the essence of one’s being is discerned and acted upon, how could it be any other way?
This week, my friend Marj had a second knee replaced, just ten months after her first knee operation. She is coming home today just two days after the surgery. Amazing. There is no dilly-dallying these days when it comes to hospital recuperation time. They expect you to get in, get out, and back on your feet the very same day as the knee replacement.
Marj went into both knee replacements with conviction and commitment that she would bring her A-Game. She exercised, changed her diet, went to Physical Therapy before and after the surgery of the first knee, and has been disciplined to make sure all goes the same with the second. And thus far, the results have been stellar! Less pain, more strength and mobility, and the ability to get to those events that make Marj’s heart sing – literally. Singing makes her heart soar!
Marj is committed to her well-being, enough that nothing interferes with her appointments with herself for exercise, PT, and other aspects of her health practices. Yes – appointments with her self. In her heart, she knows that she wants freedom and flexibility, so much so that she is totally dedicated to doing whatever it takes to bring that to her. Is she scared that there are risks and discomfort? Yes. Does she know for a fact that the outcome of the surgery will be amazing. No. However, the outcome isn’t the trajectory. Being present and bringing her All to every exercise session and PT appointment, sticking to the regiment required by the hospital – the completion of each aspect of her recovery program, is what matters – not missing one single knee bend.
Marj didn’t “try” to do her exercises, get to PT, and eat different. She totally committed herself to getting the job done and getting back into her life as quickly as possible, and with as much ease as came naturally. I’m impressed!
Standing at the left cash register in the Island Hardware Store on Orcas Island, glancing into the back of the story, you will read: “If You are Lucky Enough to Live on Orcas Island, You are Lucky Enough.”
It only took me 12 years of visiting Island Hardware to actually see this huge sign that is discolored with age. It had been there a long time, but somehow I missed these wise words. They have had a profound effect on me, because, up until the moment that I read those words, I took being lucky enough for granted. I saw life as a struggle, and that no matter how good life was, I believed it could always be better. This affected my attitude and my moods. I’d be happier if only…
Throughout my childhood, every morning began for my parents, in the glassed-in sun porch, overlooking the beautiful Detroit River. They sat with each other, their coffee, the crossword puzzles, and, without their hungry brood of nine children. They immersed themselves in the beauty of the day, more often than not, before dawn. This was the only time in their overwhelmingly busy lives when they could be bathed in Nature’s essence. Sounds of the ducks and geese quacking and honking, the lake freighters and small wooden fishing boats cracked the sound of silence.
When we kids would wake up and interrupt my parent’s solitude, my dad would inevitably say, “Isn’t this the most beautiful day ever?” Because every day looked the same to me, I believed my dad was just making stuff up to make us look out the window and see outside ourselves.
Being lucky enough is an interesting experience regardless of what stage of aging we are in. Like, at six, losing my front teeth, I thought I looked hideous, but at the same time, the Tooth Fairy brought me some money! I felt lucky enough!
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!
If you are old enough to be reading this article you are old enough to understand that you have been participating in the aging process well before your little feet landed on the planet.
You experienced the process of aging when, around the age of six, you lost your first teeth. Six years later, you began to develop muscle, breasts, pubic hair, and growth. Invisible hormones began to create sensations that were way beyond your ability to control. For many of us, we looked forward to these changes. For others, not so much!
In the mid thirties and forties, you begin to notice a wrinkle or two, and grey hair begins to pop up in the most peculiar places. Perhaps the biological clock is ticking, pressing upon you the need to get started with baby-making.
In the late forties and into your fifties, your skin begins to loosen and get crepey. Boobs sag – and so does everything else. Erections are more difficult, and so is peeing. Little by little you experience physical changes that you heard were coming, but always believed it would never happen to you. Who me?
A few weeks back, I gave a talk at the Orcas Island Senior Center, regarding aging and independence. In that hour-and-a-half dialog, those who attended began to share what it was like inside themselves – how they were participating – willingly or not, in the process of aging. No one minced words or used languaging that lessens the reality that life as we knew it has changed dramatically, and that there is no way out!
What was shared through this discussion included the degree to which many of us live in denial – the kind of denial that robs us of our freedom of choice. What was also shared was the degree to which so many of us isolate ourselves, because we believe that we are the only one going through the emotional upheavals of the process of aging. When we look around at how others are being, it appears as if everyone else has a handle on this aging thing. One person offered to the group; “If I share what aging is like for me, people will discover or come to believe there is something definitely wrong with me. So, instead of being found out, I isolate.”
So consider every individual – especially women in their early adulthood – 30’s and 40’s – who utilize plastic surgery to avoid and distract themselves from the natural progression and evolution of their being, physical and otherwise. Each of us, in our own way, wants to hold at bay the inevitable annihilation of the “me I want to hold onto.”
With aging, regardless of which stage of life we are talking about, there is a process of metamorphosis taking place. In truth, it scares the Bejeesus out of each and every one of us. Why? Because we don’t know how to do this thing called life. We would rather practice tried and true DENIAL – Don’t Even Know I AM Lying. Who wants to admit to themselves, or to anyone else, the degree to which they feel powerless and helpless? Um, like, no one!
Johnny Depp says “I don’t know how to be a grownup – I’ve never done it before.” Thanks Johnny, for being a poster child for Aging. None of us know how to do aging. Even those who consider themselves experts in the field – they too have to have their own personal experience of aging, for better or worse.
Each of us is here for the opportunity to figure out who we are as we transition through each developmental stage of aging. You are not alone! And though, it may look as if this stage of aging isn’t going to end well, the truth is, it is what you make it!
The other day, at the Orcas Senior Center, we had a second gathering of individuals who are curious enough to continue the discussion on aging. When discussing the brighter side of the aging process, one of the participants said, “It’s not an adventure if you couldn’t die doing it.” Who is up for an adventure?
Not everyone has that level of spirit. Not everyone came here for the adventure. I don’t know. Maybe the truth is that we all came here for the adventure – we just wanted to be more in control of the outcome.
And, most of us aren’t so thrilled with the idea that death is possible when facing an adventure. However in this particular adventure, called your life, death is not only a possibility it is inevitable.
The intention of these articles called Aging – Who Me?, is to provide a perspective and some support to examine and explore who each of us are in the midst of this human experience – regardless of where we are in the aging process. Sure, it may seem that we are attempting to make lemonade out of lemons, but why not? We’ve got the lemons – maybe we can make a lemon pie while we are at it – meringue included of course!
I love the saying of John Lennon: “Everything is great in the end. If it’s not great, it’s not the end!”
If you’d like to join me in the AGING – Who Me? in-person discussions at the Senior Center, we are meeting the 2nd and the 4th Tuesdays of the months from 1-2:30pm. For more information, or if you’d like to talk on a one-to-one basis, call me – Dr. Rosie Kuhn at 360-376-4323.