Posts Tagged ‘aging’

How Old Am I?

May 5, 2019

Age is a funny thing. Yes, there is the chronological fact of the number of years a body has existed since its birth – but even that is not counted the same way in all cultures. For some a child is one at birth, for others (most?) one is only achieved after a year of existence. My reflections have little to do with chronological age, except as a baseline against which perceived age, experienced age, sensed age might be compared.

I remember a friend many years ago, a woman at that time in her early seventies, saying she got a shock each time she looked in the mirror and saw the old woman there looking back at her. She felt herself to be still young and energetic, looking forward to new experiences, as though she were still in her thirties – “or maybe early forties, certainly before my hair turned grey.”

In my own seventies now, I relate to her comments, not so much the mirror experience, but the definite discrepancy between the count of years lived and the way I feel from the inside looking out, at least most days. Yes there are some – yesterday was one – when a combination of fatigue, barometric instability, old injuries and some new pains cause me to feel my years. Fortunately so far they remain relatively rare. Or I can keep them relatively rare by getting enough sleep, eating right, using my herbal and topical pain treatments and not letting the time demands of my work overly dictate how I pass my days.

That last is the hard one. I still am not good at taking rest/activity breaks during the long and busy work days, though I know I am actually more productive if I do get out and walk a bit, or step away from the computer and the phone and give a few minutes of mindful attention to me. When the urgent deadlines pile up, work runs from 7:30 AM to 8:30 PM. That I can meet that schedule informs me that I am still young enough, with enough energy, to seem only in my fifties, if that. Stepping away from the work, when I do get an actual entire weekend off, I still feel young when I have energy to do fun things, like participate last weekend in Word Tai Chi Day, attend a Gay Pride event, the first ever in my community, and then an amazing concert by a visiting string quartet.

Yesterday, however, with all of my body aching with fatigue and hurtful reminders of every accident and injury experienced in my life, I felt every one of my years. Again, I am grateful those days are few and relatively far between.

The greatest discrepancies I perceive between “real” age and how I see myself are undoubtedly connected to my current life, married to a much younger man who is at quite a different stage of career and focus than my age mates, most of whom are busy with volunteer activities and the desirable pursuits common to engaged and energetic retirees. I do have in common with then an engagement with the raising of young children – in their case mostly grandchildren and some great grands, while in mine it is my husband’s youngsters, now mine by shared responsibility. Never having borne children myself, I still am getting adjusted to being Mama Niki to a seven year old!

From early childhood I have carried within me an awareness that, barring some accident, I would have a very long life. That expectation prepared me for working into later life, as I never had the kind of income to enable much in the way of retirement savings. When I read statistics about national saving rates, I feel rather proud of what I was able to put together, although when I look at articles dictating the amounts usually needed as retirement savings, I fall far short. In the former frame of mind, seeing what I have achieved and that I am still working and adding to that fund, I feel young. Comparing myself to the latter standard, I could lapse into a fearful awareness of being too old to get to the posited standard.

Fortunately, I don’t have to do so. I have begun to relax into the appreciation that financing my later years is no longer my sole responsibility. Indeed, I am very close to the point of being able to choose to work or to retire, an option I had not previously considered.

Enter an article I read this morning, about one aspect of a study being conducted in Cilento, Italy, and published in International Psychogeriatrics. The community has a very high proportion of very long-lived older citizens. Genetics and diet and lifestyle are all being reviewed, along with an analysis of psychological qualities which the article summarized into a list of values shared by all the residents aged over 80 who were being studied. Regardless of the state of their physical health, certain psychological traits were predominant among them.

Resilience was on the list, interpreted as a belief that one can withstand and overcome what living throws at one. Also optimism, and social engagement, and attachment to the land (the community is rural). What the researchers did not expect was the value that came up as number one – the expectation and intention to work throughout one’s entire life. This long lived populace (one in ten have reached 100 or more) have no concept of retirement. Types of work shift with physical changes of aging; fact of working does not.

It would seem that if I want to be present for the marriage of my young sons, and the birth of their children, I need to ignore the chronological years and instead keep a strong hold on my sense of youth and energy, as well as a continued engagement with my own career. My own experiences working with Hospice coincide with the research findings from Cilento. Over and over I have seen that the single most important component in determining length of life, especially near its end, is attitude.

There is a culture, I do not recall which one, where age is counted backwards. At birth a child is given the expected life span, and each year lived is one subtracted from that total. I don’t recall how the culture handles those who live more than the expected number of years. By the standards of that culture, I would place myself at about 35 years of age. Younger than my husband, appropriate to having young and early teen children, and definitely looking ahead to remaining years of employment and new challenges.

Resilience, optimism, engagement with the land (I have run away from city living for my entire life) – those are in place. I probably need to build in a bit more social interaction, although my work has me very engaged with people on a daily basis. So much so that, so far, I prefer quiet and solitary pursuits for relaxation. If my work changes from the current health care to what I project as a future of full time writing, I am alerted now to also add new social activities to my schedule. That will give me everything in place to join the residents of Cilento in an active older old age.

 

Old, New, Newer and Older

September 2, 2018

I think I have the beginning of an understanding of the stereotype of older people, particularly older workers, as rigid and inflexible. Not saying the stereotype is valid, but that I am seeing in myself some qualities of resistance to change that could, if taken to an extreme, become a rigidity not conducive to continued employment.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is only one expression of a mindset that I recognize can be attributed to older people, older workers, including myself. “Been there, done that, don’t need to do it again to know it doesn’t work well” is another. As is the certitude that having explored a variety of ways to complete a task over years of  trial and error, and settled on the best alternative for myself, I am unlikely to welcome the suggestion that I shift to a different option.

This preference for patterned behavior shows in the sequence with which I complete member assessments for my work, and the place I like to keep the salt shaker by the stove in my kitchen. Not that I can’t do the work in a different order, or find the salt when I need it after my husband has left it where he last used it, but I know I am more efficient and sure of the outcome if many small bits of my daily life follow the consistent, established routine.

I don’t think that’s a preference unique to older people. Though I’ve lived amid accumulations of things in relatively small spaces most of my adult life, I’ve nonetheless kept an order to the piles and know exactly where to lay my hands on whatever I need.  And I periodically go through the stacks and discard or give away. Rather it seems to me that one of the benefits of growing older is having had the time and experience to understand the value in routine, consistency, and a personal sense of order and rightness to how things should be done.

Which isn’t to say that I refuse to change. My life has been mostly about change these past 6-7 years. New work, new marriage, new friendships, new style of cooking, new patterns everywhere I look.  And now a whole new database system being introduced at work that I have embraced to the point of volunteering for the work group implementing the transition and will be serving as one of the “go to” mentors for my coworkers when they have questions about how to function after “go live” in October.

I do see, however, that I am inclined to notice what the new system will not do as well as the old, or to identify likely points of friction for myself in adapting to the new process requirements . This attitude is in contrast to (mostly all much younger than I) management’s persistent, cheer-leading enthusiasm for how the new system will solve all the problems we have had with the old one. I do see advantages to the change – but I also see disadvantages, as well as the load of work for each of us getting our caseload records switched over.

One apparent benefit to the new system is the way it tracks mandatory contacts and schedules for the worker, so that deadlines are much less likely to be missed. For many of my coworkers this structure seems beneficial. Never having had a problem with keeping track of and organizing my workload, to me it felt like objectionable micromanagement until I understood the system well enough to know how to address the “to do” list in a way that gives me back my sense of being the one to control my workload.

The older-person me first perceived the objection. A younger-person me (as I usually experience myself) understood that I needed to learn enough about the new system (cooking style, living arrangements, income sources) to adapt its methods to my needs and also to adapt myself to its structure. Which is what reducing the stress of change is all about. Adaptation.

If living long has taught us anything at all, it must be that life is inevitably about change and adaptation. Failure to change and adapt is, essentially, death. Maybe not instantaneous, but certain.  Most interviews with people who have exceeded normal lifespan expectations include mention of continuing to engage with life interests and learning, continuing to seek new stimulation even if the level or extent of options is reduced by physical frailty.

The most productive workplaces, then – indeed the most productive communities, groups, social organizations – would seem to be those that have recognized the importance of balancing the energy and enthusiasm usually associated with younger people against the wisdom of experience offered by older participants. In simpler societies, even in our U.S. culture not so very long ago, that value was recognized and respected.

Is it just my jaundiced old lady view, or am I accurately seeing yet another exacerbation of polarization in U.S. society, and a deepening divide between young and old, each group believing for example the scare headlines about cost of, loss of, social programs and a resultant mistaken belief that here again we are faced with “us” against “them.”  

My still young mental self, the part of me that embraces change and declares itself ready to adapt as necessary, is seeking to find commonalities between generations, and encourage the valuable cross-pollination of ideas that benefit us all, just as it has been ready to learn the new work database system, simultaneously appreciating its benefits and questioning how we will manage its shortcomings.  My older self can be heard repeating the voice of the 70 something protester against the effort to impose a Muslim ban (and the broader reintroduction of blatant discrimination that many of us fought against in the 60’s and 70’s), “Didn’t think I’d have to be here protesting this yet again.”

Another adage, about those who do not learn from history being condemned to repeat it, comes to mind. Unfortunately, on a societal level, the unpleasant repetition also imposes its negative effects on those who have learned the lessons and done their best to prevent the country from falling back into old ways. Living long enough to see this cycle around and back again becomes both a blessing and a curse, an opportunity to teach but only if there is someone ready to listen and learn.

It has never been different. I am reminded, almost too frequently these days, of the translation of a tablet excavated from the ruins of a Greek village, in which a father lamented the laziness and reluctance to work of his teenage son.  The writer who shared that tidbit of information concluded, as I will here, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I therefore do my best to detach, discern where balance can be found, place  my attention on those things that matter in the long run, and cultivate an attitude of patient acceptance, doing what I can where I see myself able to be effective, and letting the rest slide by.  

“I am here. I am alive. I am trying.That is enough.”


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