“It seems that most of our discomfort around aging has to do with how little we actually discuss it.“
As a child called an “old soul” for most of my formative years, aging was a far-off concept for me, if not a pleasant idea, suggesting that I was growing out of my awkwardness and into the place I was always meant to be. Once a young adult, aging seemed, for a time, a path of grief, of mourning the ends to things—until I realized there was also much I was beginning. As you are reading this article, I have just turned 36, and aging is still a mostly self-centered endeavor in which I contemplate the new lines of my face and how surprised I was to discover that most of my peers have been going the Botox route for a few years now. I had no idea.
However, I am coming to understand a broader picture of aging, perhaps my place in the larger circle of life and how our positions shift slightly as time charges on. Less than two years ago, I lost my last grandparent. When my mother’s mother passed on, I felt a tectonic shift: I was now in my mother’s place; Mom had stepped into Nana’s. The realization came with a wash of sadness and overwhelm, but mostly, I felt confusion. What did it mean to have moved up the hierarchy?
These were interesting questions to ask myself at that particular stage of life as my daughters were aging too. They were excitedly leaping from toddlerhood to their big girl years. There was a thrill in watching them encounter something for the first time and coming into their own. I also revisited that old adolescent grief, aware of their freshness and my lack of it. My daughters’ awareness was morphing, too, and this brought more direct attention to changes I didn’t yet feel prepared to deal with. Mommy, why does your skin feel rougher than mine? Mommy, why does your tummy stick out that way? Mommy, your arms are nice and soft and squishy.
This old soul had once imagined she would age with grace. It was a rather cinematic affair in my imagination, a montage of my young, successful life, and then suddenly I was sage and matronly, passing down my advice and fashion sense to the younger generation around me, eager for what I had left to offer. The picture is polarized. I was only ever young or old, which leaves a significant gap of transformation. When we consider ages or stages, we often neglect to include the process: aging.
I like the notion that life is more serendipitous than not, and just as these considerations stepped onto the front stage of my mind, I had the pleasure of meeting a new member of our mountain communities, Mary McCall. McCall, who has a BS in Human Development from UC Davis and a Ph.D. in Human Development and Aging from UCSF, has devoted her work (and much of her free time!) to the study of aging.
When her grandmother passed away, the experience drove her interest and research. “It led me to working with families about decision-making for older loved ones and how to do that with integrity, based on their values and treating older people with dignity,” she explained. This is the basis for the mission behind her work, “Helping individuals, families and communities make values-based decisions to empower older people.”
It seems that most of our discomfort around aging has to do with how little we actually discuss it. Taking the issue head-on—from personal acceptance, to discussing hard questions before we are aged—might actually take the sting out of the process. “We are not a society that openly discusses death and dying,” said McCall. “But I would encourage people to think about, prepare for and be realistic about what is coming as they age—and to work to accept its ups and downs with grace—for themselves and for others around them.”
While aging is something that we all do, pretending like it doesn’t exist harms everyone, and McCall asserts that this is the source of our negativity on the matter, including stereotypes about the elderly and the isolation between generations. And this is, unfortunately, a particularly American problem, therefore, McCall has turned to study aging in other cultures as well to learn how we might become more accepting of both aging and older people. She shared, “A fundamental cultural value in the United States is self-sufficiency and we have a hard time dealing with the notion of interdependence versus independence or dependence.” Essentially, we want our kids to need us. Then we want children to grow up into capable, self-reliant humans—and stay that way. “Other countries have a more fluid sense of interdependence across our lifespans. At different points in our lives, we both need something from and can contribute something to others around us,” McCall said.
This integrated cultural value directly affects our policies and ideologies around aging. For example, my friends who are Botoxing are trying to stay young-looking, perhaps unconsciously distancing themselves from a time when they will be perceived as less capable. And since we’re all so busy trying to stave off the inevitable, we neglect to notice the neglected—those who have already aged. “In the United States, because we have poor support policies for older persons, it falls on the families to address and decide about care arrangements, and that is really difficult,” said McCall. “We don’t have Advance Directives for medical care in place many times, so families end up in an emergency room or ICU with a family member not being able to make decisions for themselves, but families have never discussed what choices that person might want to be made for them. Do we put them on or keep them on a ventilator? Do they want to have a feeding tube?” Again, she says the solution to the difficulty is open communication. “Have those tough discussions ahead of time so you’re not scrambling in a very emotional moment.”
Which, by nature of conversation, makes aging a much less solitary venture—and thus, aging can have a major impact on relationships. “Couples should discuss how they might age together,” McCall advised. “People don’t make financial plans, health care plans, dying and death plans. That can then lead to making it difficult to have those discussions with children—but I see those discussions as a gift to your children, so they don’t have to agonize.”
Communication and community-mindedness are an essential part of the aging process; however, like any healthy relationships, our ability to exist communally initially relies on our ability to be introspective. Getting older is no different. If we want to have healthy, productive conversations about aging and what we want to occur as we age and die, then we have to begin from a place of personal acceptance. McCall said that this is one of the largest obstacles to a meaningful late life. “We have to find joy in what we can still do or the people we can still relate to, even if those things are different from what they once were or what we had envisioned about our later years.”
She uses her own father as a model, who, as he aged, did so with appreciation for what remained, rather than sorrow over what was lost. “He accepted his cognitive decline and found things he still enjoyed doing, like the word jumble in the morning paper when he could no longer do the crossword. Or going to a coffee shop with a companion and chatting with people he didn’t know or couldn’t remember. He cared more about the interaction than whether or not he remembered someone.”
Truly, these should be lifelong lessons and habits we cultivate along the way, which is perhaps why aging brings with it a letting go of social expectation. “Some research shows that many people express a sense of becoming their true self as they age,” McCall pointed out. In that sense, perhaps the vision of my old lady self isn’t a caricature, but a vision. I’m making a goal of aging well enough that I become the wise grandmother with killer style, satisfied with the life I’ve lived. We’re aging every day and if I want to achieve my goal, I’ll consider my aged self—and others—every day, too.