Never have I had so many responses to a blog post as I did to my September 28th blog Last month I turned 65. Many of my participants wrote about their own ageing process, and that of their parents and people around them. Some shared their own experiences of turning 65. One shared the details of a special celebration journey.
Another sent me a touching poem she wrote about the rite of passage of applying for her old age security pension. She added: I have found that I’m in better shape emotionally and in my spirit in old age than I was as a young person (something I would agree with). Reading her poem reminded me that I too am now eligible for an Old Age Pension. Best to hold off, and I’m still working, but it makes me think about what sort of emotional and physical security lies ahead. If it can be calculated.
Here are a couple more reflections that capture the spirit of the emails I received:
In December I will be 70. I’m having some anxiety acknowledging this but am determined to forge ahead and know I want to live a full life for as long as possible. (Yikes I still can’t believe it!)
I also had a birthday last month and am now only three years from turning 80. That milestone is somewhat scary for me as several people in my family really began to deteriorate at that age.
The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?
It is human nature to struggle with the fact we are getting older. Not only physically, in the form of body aches, body changes, middle-of-the-night sweats and/or insomnia, but psychologically. For Toronto writer Ian Brown, who diarized the effects of ageing in his book, Sixty, the redeeming trait of old age is that ‘finally, you can begin to look at the unlived life and appreciate that it is still life.’ The subtitle of Brown’s book is The Beginning of the End or The End of the Beginning? In a way, the journey is more the beginning of something else—the enlightenment that comes with a longer experience of life.
Since genetics appear to be a significant factor in the ageing process, I look to my own parents for signs of how my ageing may play out. My father, 94, grew up in a small mining town in Alberta playing hockey and other sports. He became an engineer, raised a family, and is still married well over seventy years. He has never stopped being active, and today does daily fitness classes in the independent living residence condo he shares with my mom. She, 91, grew up in small town in Northern Alberta. As the only child, she was responsible for chopping and carrying wood for the family home; and on Sundays she had a ‘jobette’ doing the same thing for the church, not easy on frigid mornings. In the summer she worked in my grandmother’s garden growing the food that sustained them throughout the year. Even today she can get down on her hands and knees to pull something out from under a bed.
As I write, both of my parents are doing reasonably well. Their positive attitude and robust resolve have inspired me to be unafraid to age. But I would be naïve to think for one moment that they, like everyone else, are not caught up in the inevitable flow of life. This week, next month, they could become physically and mentally frail in their old age. I know that many of my students have negotiated this stage with their own parents, and some have described it to me. Frail and sick old age has an impact not only on the individual but also on their family, who may have to scramble to hire and supervise live-in PSWs, and visiting nurses; or else find accommodation for their loved one in a care home. Whatever happens, they will probably be making countless trips to medical appointments, pharmacies, and grocery stores.
My first experience of frail and sick old age was when my partner’s mother suffered a stroke four years ago, at 92. Before that, Grace was of sound mind and body and had a voice as husky and strong as Maude in The Golden Girls. Grace did not see well (but heard better than I did) and each morning she would get behind her armchair and push its bulk closer to the TV in the den so she could see the screen better. At the end of the day, when guests were coming over, she pushed the armchair back into its corner to keep the symmetry of the room. This exercise was a good upper and lower body strengthener. So was climbing the stairs in her house—up to the bedroom and down to the washing machine. I believe these two activities kept her without a walker past her 92nd birthday. The day she was felled by a stroke, she became instantly bedridden and needed 24-hour care. She died six months later.
Ageing into old age
Obviously, the longer we live, the more likely we are to experience one aspect or another of ‘infirm old age’, in ourselves and our loved ones. With each decade, we see changes in our physical abilities. My knees now crack every time I get down to the mat; my elbows are achy when I try to hold a plank for longer than six seconds, no matter how strong is my core. My partner (one year older than I am) has osteo-arthritis in her right knee and right hand; she spends her evenings with a large ice pack opened on her knee and a small ice pack around the base of her thumb. At our feet sprawl our two beloved senior cats. They are litter-mates, and therefore exactly the same age, an age about which we have been lying to ourselves and others, because we can’t bear the thought of losing either one of them.
One of my students wrote: ‘I experienced the changes of ageing with my dear mother for many of the past years and it is a truly ‘unique’ experience. It was a frightening and illuminating passage. My awareness about many things was heightened and now, I am trying to navigate my own best way to go through this stage of my life.’
Ian Brown again: ‘If you take the trouble to write down the details, paying attention to the truth, and not the official version, you get a second change to live it.’
An English professor I met when I taught Pilates at the University of Toronto (feels like yesterday, but was 23 years ago) emailed me about her own 65th birthday. I take pride in my 65th, when, recently widowed, I went for the first time to Tofino by myself for a short Christmas holiday and on my actual birthday put on a wet suit (another first) and had a surfing lesson. It was a complete flop—I couldn’t get up on the board in the water—but it was a lot of fun. That’s the kind of thing worth holding on for, it seems to me.
I would say, yes.