The Fear of Aging

My mother: vibrant at 70

During my search for new recipes for my little vegetarian son (who declared he was a vegetarian about nine months ago; you can read about it here), I stumbled upon a beautiful and inspiring book called, Healthy at 100, by John Robbins (author of Diet for a New America). As my current life affords scant time for the luxury of reading, the book sat around the house in a variety of locations for a couple of weeks. But a few days ago something urged me toward the book, and even though work and kids called as always, I picked it up and started to read.

There are some books that draw you in from page one. They speak to an inner place of struggle or inquiry, loss or longing. The author manages to write the words that you didn’t know how to speak, thereby naming your experience and helping you make sense of your life. This was one such book for me. And after the first few pages, I could feel a disparate string of thoughts that have been floating aimlessly in my subconscious coalesce to create an ah-hah moment:

We have everything backwards in this culture regarding our expectations and perceptions of the two major transitions in adult life: getting married and aging/death. We look forward to getting married and dread aging, when it should really be the other way around!

The book has nothing to do with marriage, but it has everything to do with how our expectations shape our reality. One of the central tenets of my work with the wedding transition is that our culture transmits the expectation that everything around the wedding (including engagement and early marriage) is supposed to be fantastically joyous. When another set of emotions emerges, like grief, confusion, doubt, and fear, the bride or groom-to-be is blindsided because they jut up against the expectation.

On the other end of the lifecycle spectrum, we have a culture that transmits the message that aging is to be dreaded, feared, and denied. We portray images of illness and misery, thereby setting up the expectation that aging is something to be feared. It honestly never occurred to me until I read this book that not only could I not dread aging and feel a pang of loss with each passing birthday, but I could actually look forward to my later years! Through Robbins’ discussion of four different cultures around the world who have the highest number of long-living, healthy people – in other words, not just people who live past 100 but who do so with vitality, passion, and joy – my consciousness was turned on its head.

He writes first about the Abkahsian culture in Russian where “people are esteemed and seen as beautiful in their old age. Silver hair and wrinkles are viewed as signs of wisdom, maturity, and long years of service” and he contrasts this to our culture where “we tend to associate old age with ugliness and youth with beauty, so much so that an increasing number of people today are willing to spend a great deal of money and undergo a considerable degree of pain in order to have facelifts, that they might look younger.” (p. 14)

People in Abkahsia, and the other cultures he discusses, actually look forward to aging as they recognize it as a time of increased status, wisdom, peace, and joy. As I said, the idea of looking forward to aging stopped me in my tracks. Do you know anyone in this culture that looks forward to aging? As I read this book and absorbed Robbins’ sage words, I began to look around me with new eyes and noticed all of the images of dread and despair when it comes to the topic of aging. As he says:

“It has been said that we can destroy ourselves with negativity just as effectively as with bombs. If we see only the worst in ourselves, it erodes our capacity to act. If, on the other hand, we are drawn forward by a positive vision of how we might live, we can shrug off the cynicism that has become fashionable today and build truly healthy lives.

“It is extraordinarily important for us today to replace the prevailing image and reality of aging with a new vision – one in which we grasp the possibility of living all our days with exuberance and passion. There are few things of greater consequence today than for us to bring our lives into alignment with our true potential for health and our dream for a better tomorrow.” (p. xviii)

I’ve written extensively about the how the unilaterally positive images our culture promotes around the wedding create an expectation that engaged and newlyweds will only feel joy and excitement about getting married. Our culture leaves no room for the fact that getting married is, for many people, a death experience during which they must die to the old identity, belief systems, and expectations in order to make room for the rebirth of the new life. Most clients will share some version of the following statement with me, “I feel like I’m dying. I don’t know who I am right now. I’m not feeling anything I thought I was supposed to feel during this time. I’m grieving and letting go of my identity as a single person, my attachment to my family of origin, and my beliefs about love and marriage – which, it turns out, were all faulty. I’m letting go of who I’ve been and I don’t know who I’ll be on the other side of the wedding.”

The challenge of these difficult feelings is not the feelings themselves but the fact that they’re in diametric opposition to how people think they’re supposed to be feeling. And the reason they think they’re supposed to be feeling joyous and alive is because of the images they’ve ingested through every media source from the time they were sentient enough to receive images. Most people won’t even allow themselves to feel the dark underbelly of the wedding transition because the cultural injunction is too strong against it. They power through the wedding, sweeping the difficult thoughts and feelings under the swathes of silk and tulle, and then crash on the other side sometime in the first weeks of marriage.

I’ve often wondered how different the mainstream experience would be if we said to women (and men), “After you become engaged, you’re probably going to freak out. Expect it. Expect this to be hard. You’re supposed to question everything about your relationship, love, marriage, and yourself. And the more you address the fears and questions now, the happier you’ll be on your wedding day and in your first year of marriage.” It’s the expectations that create the resistance to reality. Change the expectations and we change the entire experience.

Similarly, or on the other end of the spectrum, we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that old age is a time of misery, physical pain, loneliness, and boredom. Rarely do we see images of vital, joyous, healthy elders portrayed in popular media. We sequester the elderly into “old age homes”, which are one step shy of a moratorium. Robbins asserts that one of the reasons why we decline so rapidly in later years is that we expect to decline; we expect our health to fail and so it does. As he so insightfully writes:

“For many of us in the industrialized world, our aging in a source of grief and anxiety. We fear aging. The elderly people we see are for the most part increasingly senile, frail, and unhappy. As a result, rather than looking forward to growing old, we dread each passing birthday. Rather than seeing our later years as a time of harvesting, growth, and maturity, we fear that the deterioration of our health will so greatly impair our lives that to live a long life might be more of a curse than a blessing.

“When we think of being old, our images are often ones of decrepitude and despair. It seems more realistic to imagine ourselves languishing in nursing homes that to picture ourselves swimming, gardening, laughing with loved ones, and delighting in children and nature.” (p. xiii)

In contrast, Robbins cites one researcher who says of the Abkhasians that

“Sickness is not considered a normal or natural event even in very old age. To Benet, the reasons for the remarkable health and longevity is Abkhasia are many. One factor that she highlighted in particular was the tremendous respect for the aged that is a defining feature of Abkahsian culture. In Abkhasia, a person’s status increases with age, and he or she receives ever more privileges in the passing years.” (p. 13)

As I was reading the book I heard one of my grandfather’s favorite pet phrases echo in my ear, one which he must have said a hundred times in his later years: “Some golden years! I have arthritis, my knee hurts, all of our friends are dying. Hah!” And my grandmother would chime in, “Golden years – oy!” My grandparents did, actually, enjoy many aspects of their “golden years”, but, despite their healthy lifestyle, they were challenged by myriad of physical ailments. Could some of these ailments been brought on by their expectation that their later years would be fraught with misery?  In other words, would they have lived longer, more fulfilling lives had they believed that it was their birthright to thrive in old age?

Something monumental has shifted inside of me since reading this book, but habitual and conditioned responses die hard. This morning I noticed a long, gray strand of hair that had fallen out of my head and landed on my hand. My first response was, “Oh my god. Oh no. Not a gray hair.” This certainly wasn’t the first gray hair I’ve seen; they’ve been sprouting up in secret, undercover groves since the birth of my first son. But it was the first time I’ve seen one since the birth of my new consciousness regarding aging. I noticed my habitual negative response and then I breathed into another response and tried it on for size: “Oh, a sign of age. A sign of wisdom. A sign of more peace and fulfillment in my life. Yes!” I’m not quite there yet, but I trust that with time I’ll be able to reverse my conditioning and approach aging with a positive attitude. And I’ll have the next seventy years to practice : )

10 comments to The Fear of Aging

  • Pilar

    As usual, your text connects with something crucial I am going through. I am going to turn 45 next month and I was precisely thinking about how we women feel more the pressure to remain young. I was angry about opposing the passing of time. I love getting older! Every year in my life has been better than the former one, because I have gained wisdom, serenity, peace, respect for myself. I have learnt to accept my body and myself more and more. I have learnt to be happier over time and I expect to experience the same over and over…just if I am able to ignore the predominant social discurse about ageing (specially for female ageing). Thank you for raising this topic.

  • Yes, Pilar, Robbins talks specifically about how the fear of aging affects women. It’s primarily women that undergo vast amounts of plastic surgery (do men ever get a facelift) and the images of women trying to stay young and avoid aging are everywhere. Thanks for sharing your experience and helping to raise the consciousness about this important topic.

  • great post. I have been thinking of this lately. I’ve been collecting quotes and my thoughts to put into pictures and I recently thought (not new but it really struck me) “I decide my happiness” and then today I read this post – http://www.happierkidsnow.com/blog/parenting/do-you-believe-parenting-is-difficult/#more-425 and it reinforced my thinking. I’m also reading positive parenting and that really reinforces it too…great mindset change…says she who just dyed her grays away last night 😉

  • Helen

    I too have been thinking about this alot. My son turned 5, I turned 31 and my Grandmother being firmly in her 80s and far away from me has all bought aging into the forefront of my mind. It is something I really worry about and something that is really challenging me. Thankyou for this.

  • Amy

    From Proverbs: “The glory of young men is their strength, but the SPLENDOR of old men is their gray hair.”

    Splendor! Think about that for a moment. 🙂

  • But notice that it’s the splendor of MEN. For men, gray hair is considered distinguished and handsome, but there’s still so much stigma and judgement about women’s gray hair.

  • Amy

    True, Sheryl, but I took the proverb to be applicable to both, as there are other proverbs that praise gray hair in general. I don’t think the ancients had the anxieties about it that we do.

    I’ll never forget meeting a Chinese man years ago, an exchange teacher at my school, who said he couldn’t wait to be called “Old Pan” (his last name being “Pan”). Such a radically different view of aging in Asian culture.

  • Joy

    As a child I was fortunate enough to have my great-grandparents as well as my grandparents available to me. One of my great- grandmothers lived within walking distance and I made that walk frequently. It may have been because my father was a Native American that the respect and admiration for the elderly was instilled in me but whatever the reason, I remember feeling that I could learn from these people. I spent many hours just hanging out with my great-grandmother listening to her stories and learning some basic cooking and household skills along the way. I never felt bored with her company, or many of the other elderly people in my family or my extended ‘family’. I still had plenty of time to play with my friends, do other things and spend time by myself.

    All through my life I have listened to, and learned from, older people. Some of them ‘talk through their hats’ so to speak, but many have gained wisdom over the years and are definitely worth listening to. (Just because you are old does not mean instant wisdom. If you never really matured mentally, and I think some people don’t, then you aren’t going to magically change in old age.)

    Now I am an elder at 63 and counting. I am sad at the state of our society (mostly brought about by advertising and a lack of parents instilling respect in their kids). Spending time with Grandma or Grandpa just to hang out is not too popular these days.

    People themselves fall into the trap of being ‘old’. Just go to any high school reunion after you’re 40 or so and look around. Some people have hardly changed and others look like they have fast forwarded to 80. What’s the difference? Talk to them and you’ll know right away. The younger looking ones relish life and the older looking ones have practically given it up! They think they are ‘supposed’ to look and act the way they do. They are ‘supposed’ to have all kinds of aches and pains and ailments and they are looking forward to more and more serious ones!

    I’m a ‘boomer’ and we are changing the idea of when it is you get ‘old’. All well and good, but it would be nice to add some respect for age in there too. I have lived through the extended family as a norm and the break up of that through corporate moves. The lesson there is that extended family worked far better for everyone. I’m sure those Russians are not living in isolation from the younger generations of their families.

    Point being, I guess, is that it was society that changed and it can change again. It’s up to us, the adults, to do that. It only takes learning from the elders and then instilling that in our kids. How do YOU want to be treated when you are an elder? Think about it, picture yourself there and then get going. Start valuing your own elders and teaching your children to also. Then YOU might get some respect in your old age!

  • How blessed you were to grow up with your great-grandmother within walking distance! There’s no doubt that affected your positive view of elders.