By Anne McDonagh
originally published May/June 2011
Most of us probably agree with the playwright Tom Stoppard that “Age is a very high price to pay for maturity.” Nobody wants to get old, but as has often been pointed out, it sure beats the alternative!
To be sure, there are drawbacks to getting old. Over a number of years we lose our youthful looks and sometimes our minds. On the other hand, although we mourn the loss of our physical beauty, we feel less stress around looking good, smart and attractive to the opposite sex because such efforts are now futile. Physical activities which we took for granted in our younger years have suddenly become more challenging.
We often feel invisible to the rest of the world and our opinions are frequently dismissed because of our age. The upside is the limited expectations people have of us because of our age. When we do a decent job on something, we are likely to be praised excessively. We also seem to get an unwarranted respect just because we have managed to live so long.
Our youth-obsessed society treats old age as if it were a disease that can be cured with plastic surgery, diets and denial. Some of us try to ignore the fact that we are aging with expressions like, “You are only as old as you feel.” Or, “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.” Both expressions try to deny that we grow old! The reality is that like all living things we are born, we bloom, we fade and then we die. We are mortal, after all.
However, old age has its rewards—and not just Senior Citizen discounts! One of its greatest rewards is time. Provided we have enough money to live on, the time we have as oldies is a gift beyond measure because it is our time; we are in control of it. When we don’t have to go to work, every day is a holiday. We can do what we want or do nothing at all. Moreover, we need less sleep as we age so we seem to have even more time—even if we take frequent daytime naps.
On the other hand, some might say our time is running out. All the more reason to concentrate on living in the present and learn finally what the Buddhists have told us for years, to live deeply in the moment, and the moment becomes very rich and precious.
We become less egotistical and less concerned with other people’s opinions and so have a greater sense of freedom to do what we want to do—take a course, learn to play the piano, attend a dance class or volunteer with an organization we really believe in—as well as the time to do it.
Many of us tackle new careers based upon our experience and our new-found freedom from what other people think. Some experience a surge of creativity which some express in the arts; others in philanthropy; still others in community or political activism.
Because we have a lot of knowledge and experience of the world, we now have the wisdom as well as the time to find out who we really are. We think we know what is important and what isn’t, and so many of us regard aging as an opportunity to revitalize ourselves and find an inner purpose. No longer finding our identity in our careers, many of us look within for a purpose in life. Irony and a sense of humour about life may replace our earlier earnest efforts to achieve great things.
Other joys in our lives are grandchildren and friends. If we are lucky we have friendships which have lasted a quarter to half a century. We have a strong feeling of comradeship with others our age because we are all living and struggling with the biggest issue there is and that is our mortality.
We are grateful that we have survived the romantic traumas of our youth and that our “significant other” is either out of our lives or in our lives in a comfortable old shoe sort of way.
What we have to offer the world is ourselves, what we have learned and what we believe, our sense of proportion, our humour, our opinions and our wisdom. With any luck we have mercifully achieved a sense of self-acceptance. With all these gifts, we have much to offer the young whether they appreciate it or not.