Newly retired and eager to prove that my life was still going to be useful and exciting, several years ago I set up my blog and named it “The Golden Years Revisited.” From the name it was obvious to me that I believed most of the myths about retirement and growing older. In a youth-obsessed society with an evangelical belief in the powers of medicine and technology to delay or erase the natural progression of life, the images surrounding aging and being “old” are pretty negative. The most damaging message is that the right attitude (i.e., thinking young and following the example of those few exceptional seniors who never seem to get old) will delay aging, but once the battle is lost, you are irrelevant and useless, often even to people who love you, but definitely to society as a whole.
As an avid reader, I frequent our town library on a regular basis, and suffer anxiety whenever my unread book stack is down to one. I always browse through the new acquisition section that is divided between fiction and non-fiction. For most of my life, my choices were firmly in the fiction (escape) section. Good escape fiction, of course, and hopefully thoughtful and pertinent to my own life, but fiction nonetheless. I worked full time, was deeply immersed in the intense world of raising children and then helping them at a distance through the early years of adulthood. I survived breast cancer and the deaths of both my parents. I had all the non-fiction that I could handle.
Then I finally arrived at that golden shore of retirement. I could read as much good fiction as I got my hands on and think of myself first in most situations. I could be that woman who wears purple with a red hat and doesn’t care what people think. Not that I was unaware of the realities of aging, but I come from a long line of strong and healthy women and I was sure it would be smooth sailing. Eventually, of course, I would arrive in that amorphous stage of life when I would actually be OLD. And that would be it, so to speak, even if I was still physically alive.
Something mysterious happened to my reading preferences. I gravitated toward the non-fiction section. I became obsessed with biographical and autobiographical stories. I read books on politics that I would previously have dropped like a hot potato. I wanted more than ever to understand the world I live in and specifically the roots and consequences of the choices we make as individuals and a society. Naturally the subject of aging was of paramount interest. I know that I will never be president or live a fascinating life that someone will want to read about long after I am gone. But I would get (and have finally gotten, I guess) to that place called Old.
I previously read “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande and am currently reading “Elderhood” by Louise Aronson. They are both physicians who question the wisdom and approach of the medical establishment when working with older people and confronting death (at any age). “Elderhood,” in particular has given me a veritable banquet of things to consider and ways to formulate my choices related to the medical establishment in the years to come.
In September this year I will reach 75 years of age. I do not want to buy into the myth that as long as I eat right, exercise, and do mental puzzles (though they are important), dye my hair or start wearing makeup to cover the wrinkles (not so important), I won’t actually die someday. I want to celebrate this time in my life, not by trying to be one of those exceptional older people who run marathons (let’s face it, I never liked to run, not even when I was 20) but by finally learning to love myself and the place where each day takes me – closer to the end, yes, but anticipating one heck of a curtain call!
©Martha Hurwitz, 1/6/20