When I first started to write about aging, I was more than ten years younger than I am now. In the years between seventy years old and my current over eighty stage, as would be expected, I have continued to age. Of course, at seventy, I had no idea what the upcoming years would be like. Just as when I was forty, I didn’t know what being fifty meant. Having gotten to my current age, I am a little more informed about what ninety could be.
Using knowledge from my past, I reflect on three arenas of my well-being – physical, social, and mental – and how the future could play out in these pieces of my life. I approach this exercise with the premise that my age progression is a series of changes, some of which involve decline, but others which entail incredible, on-going learning.
In terms of my physical well-being, I feel extraordinarily lucky to retain good health except for some intermittent joint pain which I am able to manage. I am not quite as agile as I once was and walk a bit more cautiously because I am afraid of falling and breaking something that would put me in the hospital. When I walk, I’m careful to look where I take the next step being very aware of tripping hazards. The main problem with this is that I am looking down a lot rather than raising my eyes to what else is going on around me. This is a problem because I am an observer and love to enfold visual experiences into my sense of being alive. Last spring, for example, a swan couple produced a bunch of signets on a near-by pond. I watched, photographed, and wrote about them. Even in COVID-time, they continued their predictable procreation and produced a next generation, which affirmed that there was a future.
Socially, the same concept of change and learning applies. Over the years, I have lost many people – both younger and older – because they died. Each person was an intimate part of the complex fabric of my life and each represented something that I valued deeply. I reflect on what they meant and still mean to me. This way, I bring their teachings into my core, which I use to guide my own behavior. My cousin, Sonny, for example, grew up in poverty, without a mother, and was left alone and fearful at night in a dark Boston attic while her father went to work. She ended up as a powerful executive in New York City. I hold her as an exemplar of how to be brave and persistent.
While people I loved are gone from my life, I have added many. My family has grown with new generations; I met wonderful people in graduate school; community activism brought me together with dedicated advocates; and the move to a multi-unit building gave me new friends. The hackneyed saying that ‘new friends are silver and old friends are gold’ doesn’t resonate with me. People in my embrace are all gold. I’ve just known some of them longer.
Finally, the mental part is perhaps the most significant. It is in this realm where I see not a diminution, but, rather, a surprising, almost astonishing, advancement. Certainly, I have forgotten some of the things I learned in the past, but my learning has never stopped. It gets more substantial with time.
I see two parts to this learning. First, are the things I learn from reading books, articles, and people who know a lot. Second, are the things I learn from reflecting on decades-long experience comprised of achievements and disappointments, and then parsing out patterns in my behaviors. Setting new challenges is one pattern. I sold my house and moved to a condominium so I could get rid of house chores and focus on meaningful things such as writing (who knew I could write?!)
Along with personal challenges, I found myself getting involved with local issues such as services for older people or affordable housing, both of which have seen improvements, but which remain frustratingly intransigent. The city budget for elders is embarrassingly small. There has been a long-term lack of affordable housing, but there are loud angry voices that decry efforts for affordability with the excuse that things should stay the way they have always been.
So, I keep on learning and creating challenges in tandem with my aging forward. I plan to keep doing this until I am at least ninety. I’ll see what happens.