I am not doing this gracefully. According to geriatric experts, most of whom I presume are between 35 and 40, I am in “old old age,” no comma. This is, of course, a terminal condition. I am intensely aware that I am living inside a dying animal.
At 86, steeped in years, I hate it, resent it, am in a daily emotional, mental, spiritual, metaphysical rage. I’m like an aging dragon sullenly burping flame gouts from the dark mouth of its cave. Years ago, I saw this in older friends and thought, “I will remember and won’t be like that.” I remember, all right, but I am like that.
There is an American scientist who said that as far as he could tell we are living and dying in a situation where there is no meaning, cause, trajectory or explanation and he was fine with that. Theoretically I am fine with that, but the emotional truth is, I don’t like it.
Rage may be a cover for fear. A lot of people claim they are not afraid of death. I’m often unconvinced, partly because they flaunt their lack of fear as if it is a virtue. Rage can distract you from fear, because it deludes you into thinking you are powerful. But it seems to me one has a perfect right to fear death. The unknown is unexplained, unexplored, unfamiliar and, just plain un. Humans don’t like un. Therefore, for most of us, it’s frightening. We want to know what’s going on. Not knowing raises fears of loss of control. Not that there is any logic to this. In reality we have never been in control. But a sense of control may be why, once people are at the point of death, can count the days, they are usually calm. As in so many situations it’s suspense that causes us trouble.
Part of the control problem is that in old age one clings to independence with terror inspired by imaginings of what will happen if one passes into the control of others. This has unfortunate results.
I remember my Aunt Liz, my primary exemplar of how to age, now dead 36 years, who lived to be 99 and ten months. She didn’t want to be 100; she thought it made you a freak. I agree. Liz considered age to be an encumbrance, but I don’t remember her being angry about it, which chastens me. She was a more accepting person than I.
But about control. In her 90’s Liz, who was in an assisted living home, had an eye operation. She hired a woman to sleep on a cot in her room for a few days to look after her. She could not manage the complexities of the eye drop and pill schedule the doctor had prescribed.
While I was visiting, I saw Liz turn and snap at the woman when she did something for her rather than letting Liz do it herself. Mid snap Liz stopped herself and said, “You did that out of kindness, to help me; didn’t you?”
I was impressed. I have some fears of loss of control but what I resent most about the aging process, at this point in time, is loss of energy, although I also take umbrage at the little pot belly that arrived as a gift of one of my 80 to 85th birthdays. I managed to retain a fair amount of energy in my 70’s continuing to do a lot of trekking in the Himalayas. But when I hit 80 I went back to Tibet to walk the pilgrimage path around Mount Kailash, a four day, 33 mile trek, going from 16,000 to 18,600 feet, and knew, as I stood looking at the snowy dome of Kailash, striated with black ridges, that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. I turned, walked away from her, knowing I would never see her again.
Since 80, year by year there has been a blatant decline in my energy and that annual decline has accelerated since 85. It is like driving a car whose accelerator no longer works and every ten miles loses a little more speed. I fight it, although I am not at all sure that is the appropriate reaction.
One problem of old age is that there aren’t enough of us aged about, which means there are insufficient examples available of how to behave in the given circumstances of aging. Inadequate information makes elding as difficult as trying as a Westerner to understand what politeness is in Japan.
One reaction I have witnessed is to retire to your apartment never to appear outside again. All groceries are ordered by phone and if your friends want to see you they have to come to you. At the other end of that spectrum are the people who are always, “Fine,” projecting an image of themselves slipcovered in shimmering plastic.
There are those who complain about their physical difficulties. Actually, those interest me because often they are suffering from ailments or conditions I have never heard of but may be in my future such as restless leg syndrome, a uterus and bladder collapsing into each other, recurrent dizzy spells, night leg cramps. I need information and these people supply it.
I have a number of complex eye problems, own and use hearing aids, and once in a while painful arthritis—awful and debilitating.
All of this would be much more manageable if I knew 10 people between 80 and 100, preferably evenly distributed along that timeline whom I could consult. But I don’t. No one does unless, possibly, they are in assisted living and then there is no guarantee those people would supply you with information. They might all be “Fine.”
Back to lack of energy. I exercise with a trainer twice a week and should do at least one more day at the gym on my own. For years I was assiduous about this doing 4 to 6 days a week of exercise. Not since Covid. Exercise gives one a little more energy and does help with muscle tone and such basics as standing up straight. Stretching means one is less likely to wrench an underused muscle. I grumble, I grudge, but all of this makes life a bit better.
I consume sufficient supplements to create a supplementary persona. These help in the everyday as well as protecting me, when I travel, against the recirculated germs of airplane air.
But still, I sag shortly after lunch. Yes, I can fight it through and keep on going but I don’t want to fight through. After a nap I have little urge to do anything although I do push myself out to shop, or have a coffee with a friend and, with less effort, to go to a concert or the opera. An opera night will get me to take a longer nap and get up full of lively interest.
I do realize that where I am in life is a given and whether I grumble, whine or take what action I can, my reality will only be altered slightly, a caterpillar working its way along a railing has much the same view no matter where she is on the rail. What needs alteration, is my attitude because it is my attitude that is the problem not my age.
My attitude metamorphoses when I shift from considering time in human terms, 60 years, 86, 92 and instead think in geologic time, rock time. Suddenly, my vision is expanded as by a panoramic lens as I climb down the stony, fossilized ladder–Jurassic, Triassic, Permian, Carboniferous, Devonian, Silurian, Ordovician, Cambrian—approaching myself through millions of years accompanied by rockbound crustaceans—trilobites, brachiopods, fusulinids, ammonoids. Then my lack of energy seems less personal.
The human sense of time is a small, constricted circle of us. It is humanly self-centered. Contemplating geologic time expands it to a different reality one that includes the world. I suppose if you do star time—using the Horse Head Nebula perhaps—you can expand time to universe time. That’s too big for me, my brain can’t manage it.
To change my attitude, I need to accept where I am physically, mentally, emotionally. I don’t want to. It feels like capitulating. This is nonsense, of course, and childish but at the moment I seem to be trapped in my childish resistance.
Also, acceptance is not an attitude that is easily achieved. If you don’t have acceptance you have to change your mental attitude. Not easy.
A lack of acceptance means I am, without realizing it, struggling for control over forces that are uncontrollable by the human will. All other animals and most humans when they realize they are dying just uncurl their fingers or paws, let go of their grasp and go sensibly passive. My last cat did this. She had fought a while against feeling ill and then one day she must have understood where she was on the spectrum of life. She went into a sort of disgruntled calm. This was not what she wanted but she recognized that it was what is.
Some humans fight with shrill intensity hardening their will with terrific power against what is. Some people admire this “cry, cry against the dying of the light” attitude. I think I prefer my cat’s attitude and, therefore, I had best work on accepting the step in that direction which is being offered to me in my loss of energy.
15 thoughts on “THE OLD AGE BLOG”
Thanks for this Karen. As I approach 80 it resonates. In December we will go to California to celebrate my cousin’s 90th Birthday. Today I talked to my ex-husband who will be 83 in December. How did this happen? I feel fortunate that my health is good, but I have no idea what the next day will bring. I don’t think about my age very often and when I do I am taken aback by realizing just how old I am and what the hell does that mean? Your words helped a lot. Acceptance is the key and as you say, it is not an easy path.
82 years old. Still play tennis, singles, playing people age 80, 87, also 57. Still working,, both because I want to as well as have to, definitely, think about the
Friends who are gone, those that no longer do things they want to but are unable to.
I spend time with some of my 11 grandchildren, as will as my children.
Do not give a lot of thought to my death, and when Keren writes about what she has already done, —- all those amazing things! I guess 88 will be when I start to ponder my death. Until then keep up what is and the memories keep piling up.
Ride the Bus sometime. I even met a fantastic woman that way a few years ago.
Exchanged a few stories since then. ❤️🤓🏸
Someone who has the sharpness and energy and will to write this is not old.
Oh, Karen, how sad it is, but thank you for this lucid analysis of what aging means. That’s all we can do, carefully watching the changes in our bodies and our minds, making a sarcastic smile each time we read in our medical tests: value adjusted to the age of the patient…, that means that the body is degenerating and far is the time when everything was at its best. My motto is now: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Love and see you soon, Raffaella
Hello, karen, a very thoughtful diatribe against old age. Perhaps writing a diatribe is the only appropriate reaction to it. I am still in a state of denial and resistance, knowing how to futile this is unwilling to give it up. I feel a sense of urgency to finish a novel which is going to come out to about 500 pages. It will take me another two or three years to revise it many many times, and by then, books will be antiques, and book shops will be electronic outlets. Oh well, writing is better than not writing. I hope Barcelona is being good to you , and ditto your cat. Best wishes, Edward
I believe being the cat is functional. I am only 71 but at 69 diagnosis of cancer and then parkinsons. Shocking. I never anticipated this. Rage is helpful to a degree.
I still travel and do all my activities like skiing, bicycling etc.
Do as much is possible and accept what you cannot. That is my cat.
Thank you Karen for your insights.
Thank you Karen for this heartfelt and vivid account. I read it with much interest and empathy. It is of course the great dilemma which we all face, and which becomes a progressively more real presence from age 60 onwards. As I approach my 60th year my thoughts begin to go in the same direction, and I visualize a process of making peace with my own life as a way of confronting this inevitability. Being at peace is the ideal scenario that I hope for, but the fear of the unknown is one I imagine is difficult for most everyone. There is a Shambala Buddhist saying “place the fearful mind in the cradle of loving kindness” which is helpful for me to contemplate. According to them, a man completely without fear is truly enlightened. You are a true inspiration and certainly, in my eyes, quite a fearless ‘dragoness’ Brava! ❤️💃🏻
Dear Karen, I loved reading this…very numerous and contemplative…honest & I just love you. Am grateful for you in my life. Let’s plan our next lunch, last week of the month? Have a good day X Ace
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This summer I turned 60 while watching my then 87, now 88 year old mother try to decide if she wanted to be angry or relax like the cat… She, like you, has WAY more to be thankful for than to be angry about… but 88 or 86 is no laughing matter. The unknown is scary, health is scary, which makes life scary… No one wants to be scared… no one wants to give up their freedoms or give in to their pain… but that too, is LIFE! You have been living yours to your fullest – you have been an inspiration to MANY! I know my life changed by meeting you in 1980 and I would not be who I am today without having known you… You are a role model with all you do – so if you want to be angry… I am sure you will exceed at that too – but if you want to RELAX… others will follow! If you want someone to chat with – let me know and I will send you moms email… 🙂
Your writing is astounding. Although I wish I could fix this for you.
I simply love you, Karen, and all that you are. I’m so proud that you are in my life. Thank you for you!
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I love your writing and always look forward to a blog from you … your words are always food for thought as well as looking up words you use … acceptance its a lifetime as far see … stay well till I see you again in Barcelona .. 🤗🤗💃🏻
ALL HAIL AUNT LIZ!!!
Dear Karen, So here you are! OLD AGE. At 75–with some physical problems, but mostly mental, this far– I hang out with a variety of “oldsters” I love, from 80 to 96, and like them, you’ve always had the heart to change what you could, and found one way or another the acceptance of what you couldn’t change.
I’m working on a poem with a clam. They’ve been headless for some 450 million years.
But you’re not! The pain here would make fine sonnets, a form you are wonderful at,
especially woven with that sharp humor you have.
p.s. the clams have been headless for about 480+ my
My mother, who made it to 104, was still driving her own car at 90.
I try to remember what Mae West said:
“Time will make a hag of you unless you show her who’s boss”.
I am doing my best, with uncertain success, to show her who’s boss…..and to live in the moment, in the present,
Projection always gets me into trouble.