Aging is What We All Do
In the high school literature classroom where I worked with 15- and 16-year-olds for many years, the students would sometimes ask my age. In my forties, their forthright response to my answer was disbelief at knowing someone so old! I would retort that they, too, would someday be that age, if they were lucky. Those interactions were the beginning of my reflections about the inexorable nature of aging. We all begin the aging process from our first day on earth, and the journey through life involves many surprises about how we—within our bodies--respond, react, and change over the years.
In the early years, we tend to see and focus on the additive nature of the changes. Development of skills and abilities excites the parent of many a toddler moving from infancy into childhood. But childhood involves loss as well, as the small child realizes their separate existence from the parent and the possibility of abandonment or loneliness, or the reality of their place in the universe not being regarded by others as quite so consequential and central as they had been led to believe. I noted my grandson waking up with blissful smiles in his first six months of life. That changed as he grew older and dealt daily with his older sibling. My guess is that things quite like this happen to all of us.
The adolescent years are probably the most remarkable times of change as we age. The turbulence, the surprises, the awkwardness—all great drama—along with the sharpening and honing of intellectual and emotional development. It was why I enjoyed teaching high school students; they were making significant decisions about how they would live in adulthood. I hear the term adulting quite a lot these days as young adults recognize the weight of the responsibility they now bear for all their decisions once they are on their own.
Closer to the end of my public-school years, the students still asked my age, and I would riff on how very old I was. When they heard the number, 55, the students consistently said, “Oh, that’s not so old.” I took that as charitable kindness so as not to hurt my feelings, which was lovely of them. But it clarified my awareness that “senior” is not an uncomplicated status. I watched my parents being stripped of faculties and abilities as they advanced through 80s and 90s. My dad was a warrior against age, choosing to ignore, often dangerously, the limitations his body was experiencing. I could not see anything positive about it, and I grieved what they went through.
In January 2019, my birthday marked 70 years. Approaching that milestone with apprehension because it sounded old, it didn’t help to realize that by the time I turned 70, I had already lived 70 years! What helped was a grand celebration put on by my daughter and son and their families that nudged me into the possibility of accepting the mantle of matriarch age was now foisting on me.
At the staff meeting that same January, where we celebrated birthdays, I was asked whether I wanted to share my age. Feeling the risk and deciding to take it anyway, I said, “Seventy and proud!” There is societal stigma and shame associated with age that goes unchallenged unless we speak up. Acknowledging our age allows our companions and colleagues to get used to seeing vitally alive persons at all ages. It is important to normalize aging as part of all of life, not just one end of the spectrum.
Three words: courage, compassion, and grace. I am struck by how much we need courage to face changes that will keep coming, compassion for ourselves and others as we work to cope and keep up, and grace to let go of what needs to be released, whether expectations, activities, or simply resistance to all that change. Living at any age is hard work!
Dr. Sheryl Stewart