Project Emily Advent: Day 2

Project Emily Advent: Day 2

How do you feel about growing old?

I love this question. I’ve never thought of growing old as something to be afraid of. But I can’t really say that it is something that I thought about much at all.

I am reminded of a conversation I had once with a coworker who became a close friend. Juniper had lived many lives before landing in the role of part-time circulation librarian, serving as a priest for many years, working some time as a therapist who wore very expensive suits, and running nonprofit organizations. Something like fifty years my senior, he taught me a lot about life and people. Once, we were talking about privilege, mainly centered on the racial sort, when he pointed out that I had an additional kind of privilege that I was unaware of. “You’re young, and you’re pretty, so people pay attention to you,” he said, waving me off flippantly. “You don’t know how much people prefer youth until you don’t have it anymore. The elderly are all too often ignored completely.”

This surprised me greatly. Ignored? I never thought of my grandparents and great-grandparents as ignorable. They were great forces of personality in my life, their thoughts and opinions and wishes mattered. I spent a lot of time around my grandparents, a large part of my childhood knowing some of my great-grandparents, and I even have memories of one of my great-great-grandmothers, albeit fuzzy. This sort of intergenerational communion, where three or sometimes even four or five generations co-mingle regularly, is not the norm for every family. It grieves me to think that some older adults feel ignored or unimportant.

For some, especially women, the main fear around aging is how their bodies look. Sagging, wrinkling skin, graying hair. I certainly want to be a woman who cares for her skin and self; I want to take pride in my beauty, to be sure. But somehow beauty and youth have become inextricably tied, as if a person could not possibly be considered beautiful and also appear as if they have lived. I wonder what I’ll do when my hair begins to gray. I want to say that I will ignore beauty standards and embrace the natural evolution of things, but who knows? I may bow to the hair dye gods just like so many others before me.

For others, the focus is on the deterioration of the body and adjusting to the changes in comfort and agility. Once, I was complaining to Juniper about how I’d had several negative encounters with some older adults. They all seemed so angry, so irritable, so difficult to be around. He pointed out that many older adults are experiencing chronic pain or discomfort. They are expected to walk around every day, with aching knees or arthritic fingers, and pretend as if everything is fine. Add physical pain on top of feeling ignored or disrespected: a recipe for chronic irritation.

For many, the only thought to growing old centers around growing old with someone. They aren’t so much disturbed by the thought of growing old, but rather growing old alone. Even if you are fortunate enough to fall in love with the most special person in the universe, you never know how long you will have them. I hear so many young couples joke about how they’ve made a pact with their partner that they will die together, The Notebook style, so that neither ever has to live a day without the other.

I don’t feel afraid of growing old. But I don’t think that’s bravery talking. I think it is the arrogance and ignorance of being young and incapable of imagining another kind of being.

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No joke.