I have an announcement: I am growing old, and I will now begin my transition into being an old lady.
Did you balk at that? Did that statement strike you as negative? Did you scream, “No! Don’t do it! Don’t give up!”
Society is obsessed with youth — and it’s easy to understand why: Healthy, beautiful, with plenty of time left. What’s not to envy? But we’re completely unrealistic about expectations for age. People fight so hard to stay the same that most of us never figure out how to grow old.
Recently, I’ve watched family, and my friends’ family, reach the point where they are no longer able to care for themselves. They need help with meals and medications as well as assistance getting from point A to point B. They’re facing new emotional and mental difficulties that they have never experienced.
The common thread I see among them all is the kicking and screaming. The denial. The resistance. The depression.
I won’t judge as I’ve never been in their shoes. But I’m here to tell you, one day when I reach that point, if I act shocked just say to me, “Well, what did you think was going to happen?”
This thought has been percolating since visiting older relatives in their assisted-living facility. We navigated a hallway full of wheeled walkers, all lined up against the wall by the dining area.
“It’s just a bunch of old people, here,” our host grumbled. He didn’t belong there. He was still trying to figure out how to do a U-turn on a one-way street.
I decided then and there that I would begin living in anticipation of age. I will plan now. I will choose the attitude I wish to carry through, and I’ll start practicing now.
Oh, I have so much to do!
▪ I must train myself to be positive. I see that as our defenses fall away, we’re left with our knee-jerk reactions. I must be sure my gut-instincts are kind and caring.
▪ I must prepare physically — go back to Jazzercise. Study after study shows that exercise and dance are the best preservers of our mental capacities as we age. An aerobic dance class ticks all the boxes.
▪ I must choose my wardrobe. Every now and then, I catch a refreshing glimpse of someone who I see is living in their own skin. A gardener in their jeans with dirt under their fingernails. An artist with wacky glasses and a colorful scarf. Birkenstocks on 70-year-old feet. I need a uniform — not about standing out, but about being true to myself.
▪ I must set my expectations. I may not live in my own home. I may have to rely on others. I don’t have to be a jerk about it — but that’s a decision I need to make now in preparation, rather than later in the thick of it. If I wait, I may not be able to come to terms.
▪ I must care deeply and with love for my future caretakers. As my friend recently said, “My mother’s life is in my hands, and she’s just one step away from a catastrophe.”
One day, I may become a burden to busy, overwhelmed, middle-aged adults — my kids and their spouses. It will be their compassion, their attitude toward aging, their love, that will be my hope.
I will make these choices with joy. With anticipation. With pragmatism. Because aging is natural, something to work with. Nothing to fight. I hope — no, rather I plan — to find peace when I get there.
Emily Parnell lives in Overland Park, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.