Viewed from behind, the man appeared to be headless. There were his khaki pants, his white shirt neatly tucked in, a cane swinging as he walked, but where his head should have been there was only his collar. As we drove by him and I turned to look again, I saw that he was so badly bent over from the shoulders that he was looking straight at the ground as he walked.
And the first thing I thought of was, I bet he was handsome when he was young. Maybe he played ball and drove a fast car. He was probably trim like he is now, one of those guys who can wear their wedding suit fifty years later. I reflected on the bent over man being young and I felt sorry for him. And then as fast as I felt sorry for him, I felt sorry for myself. It’s only a matter of time, and not very much of it, until younger people look at me and ponder what I might have looked like when I was young. They might even be doing it now. I would have no way of knowing.
In both of these cases, in my pitying the bent over man and in my anticipation of pity for being old, ageism is singing. Why? Because in neither case is the observer appreciating the older person as he or she is now. Our value is in what we were before. That, I am coming to believe, is the essence of ageism.
I think that is why as we get older we hang on so hard to the people we were before. We put a death grip on everything that we think defines us as valuable people. Our looks, our work, our accomplishments. See? See me? I’m the same, I’m just an older me. I can still swing a bat with the best of them.
The growing old gracefully movement focuses on acceptance and celebration. To me that feels a lot like fading and acquiescing, becoming pale and undifferentiated, and feeling mellow and resigned to that. Companion to that are the ‘old coots play here’ sign that we saw on one lonely back road last week. Am I now an old coot? Is this where I play?
I am alternately frustrated and sanguine about the process of aging. If I never had occasion to look in a mirror or get up rapidly after sitting for an hour on the beach, I’d keep thinking I was 35 or 40 or 19. Even as I hold grandchildren and get out of the way of their parents, as I try to mentor younger women, and create a new, wiser, less contentious and more conciliatory role for myself, I still grapple. I have bought the ageist premise that my value is in what I was and not what I am.
I’m going to change this paradigm I have constructed in my head, repudiate it and build something different. I’m valuable now. I have to figure that out.
Photo: Dan Gold