Conscious Aging: Coming to Terms

Author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, age 76, has come to terms with aging by writing another book: Natural Causes. I’m a great fan of Ehrenreich; over her long career she’s written numerous well-researched and well-written books like Fear of Falling and Nickel and Dimed. Now she takes on the wellness industry, claiming that we’re being scammed by promises that if we try hard enough we can stave off the inevitable. Her conclusion is similar to that of Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel, with more of an edge.

Old age isn’t a battle,” she says, quoting Philip Roth, “old age is a massacre.” In the past few years, she has given up on screenings and scans. Not that she is lazy or suicidal. But at 76, she considers herself old enough to die. All the self-help books aimed at her age group tell her otherwise; they talk of “active ageing”, “productive ageing”, “anti-ageing”, even “reverse-ageing”, with a long life promised to anyone who makes an effort, regardless of factors such as genetics or poverty. But to her, ageing is “an accumulation of disabilities”, which no amount of physical activity or rigorous self-denial can prevent. If she has symptoms, she’ll have them investigated. But when a doctor tells her there could be an undetected problem of some kind, she won’t play along.”

Longtime singer, songwriter, musician and activist Joan Baez, age 77, has come to terms with aging by announcing her final tour and releasing what may be her final album. She’s coming to Seattle in November; I have tickets.

I’ve come to terms with aging by realizing that daily school pickup and after school care exceeds my energy and patience levels, no matter how much I love my grandchildren. Having them here for a couple of hours every week and sometimes a visit on weekends is lovely. Having them daily is not. Amy’s mom Heidi, who lives with them, still does a great deal. And they have hired a full time nanny.

And you? How are you coming to terms with the age that you are? 🙂

10 thoughts on “Conscious Aging: Coming to Terms

  1. Saw Ehrenreich interviewed several times on TV; she is firm in her beliefs. I’m still somewhere in between – will do some exercise, diet, and other healthy behaviors, but not to the extreme. Energy is definitely less, and for the past year or so southern summer heat just wipes me out. So I’m slowing down and doing less. Good for you for making the decisions that are right for you at this stage.

  2. Absolutely. What I could do with my youngest grandchildren ten years ago, I can no longer do. Of course, now they are in school, but even that has changed. During the summer having them all day one day a week is all we can do. Fortunately, the other grandma is ten years younger. That makes a big difference. When kids were born, she was 58, I was 68. Now she is the age I was then. So she will have them four days a week, and we will do one.

    The other thing I have noticed is that I no longer want to be as “involved” as I was. Since 2010 I have taught a course on WWI several times at our local community college for our long term learning program. Have loved it. But I taught this spring and will do again in the fall, and then I am done! Sometimes in the morning all I want to do is read the paper, do the crossword……don’t want to go to a meeting or get on the computer to work on my course. We have many teachers in the group in their late eighties and even early nineties who feel this keeps them alive. Not me. As I have aged, I need more “me” time. Does that make sense?

  3. Also, if I were to find out that I had a terminal illness, I would not do much to prolong things. At my age of nearly 79, I have seen my children grow into wonderful productive adults. I have grandchildren who age from 9 to 24. I have been a part of all their lives, even the ones who live far away. I have not been cheated, like my friend’s daughter who died at 49. She won’t see her kids graduate from high school or college, won’t be at their weddings. Won’t have grandchildren. Won’t enjoy empty nesting with her husband. I have had it all. I’m with Barbara Ehrenreich

  4. for Phyllis: I agree — I’m somewhere in between too. I know we’ve both read Ezekiel Emmanuel’s writing, and as I approach 75, I’m not ready to give up antibiotics if I get a respiratory infection. I want to do sensible things to remain as healthy and vital and curious as I can be, and not assume that any of my efforts are about turning back the clock — only about making this point in life the best it can be. I’m not going to spend $400 for a tiny bottle of anti-aging cream, but I will use a nice skin cream on my face at night — one that comes from the drug store. I have wrinkles anyway!

  5. for Ada: I’ve always needed a lot of “me” time, so it makes sense indeed. For awhile I was doing some pro-bono consulting with Seattle Community Foundation, but that has sort of waned and I’m not pushing to get new gigs. I just don’t feel the need to get dressed up in biz clothes and go downtown to a meeting. Instead I might want to sit on the deck and read a book and wear what I’m wearing — something comfortable. I know you’ve been teaching that course for a long time. I’m sure it’s been satisfying. And, I’m sure it will be satisfying to do the crossword puzzle instead. I had a friend in Rochester, more a professional colleague really, who is a few years older than I am and still is listed as Chairman and CEO of her own company. Her husband, long retired, tried to get her to take a slower schedule, and it was a disaster. He got her to agree to stay home until 9am — which she did dressed in her biz suit sitting at the kitchen table drumming her fingers and watching the clock. He gave up and she returned to work. She told me that running the company kept her alive and vital. Maybe, but I think you have to let go in order to find out what else is out there. As long as we’re living and breathing and mentally competent, there is more out there. I have to say I get great pleasure out of lingering over morning coffee reading the news online, and then I write a couple of blog posts in draft. Sometimes takes me half the morning. I love every moment.

  6. for Ada: I think I”m there too, although I suspect that when faced with the moment, any of us might make a different call. I think our age is a huge factor, and the fact that we’ve had satisfying lives. I know younger people with cancer who have fought like hell to stay alive, often not successfully and at the price of greatly increasing their own suffering. But we’ve been blessed with so much of the good stuff that life has to offer. I think, if faced with a difficult diagnosis, I’d work on graceful acceptance and call it a life well lived.

  7. As someone who is fighting for her life literally every day, I disagree with Barbara Ehrenreich though I have loved her writing in the past. Not having scans is silly. Having knowledge about health issues is smart. Most of the treatments I have had (6 radiations, hormone shots, 2 different kinds of chemo) have been surprisingly tolerable and have extended my life (post a metastatic diagnosis) 13 years. I am a 30 year cancer survivor and feeling great, thanks to scans finding things long before symptoms appeared. I feel that her “acceptance” of her aging is a privileged statement from someone who is slowing down (we all are) but still pretty healthy. Good for her. But I’m not there and find her comments cavalier and self-righteous, at least from the perspective of someone who is actively engaged in doing just the opposite as she is.

  8. I read the Emmanuel article when it first came out and remember not agreeing with much of it. I certainly would have antibiotics for an infection. However, I read Guwande’s book when it first came out. I am much more in agreement with him. And that’s what I meant in my comments about prolonging things were I to be diagnosed with a terminal illness. However, I also know that it is easy to say these things, but until one is actually FACED with that kind of a diagnosis, one does not know for SURE what one would do.

  9. for Ellen: I think it’s a highly individual decision. Haven’t read Ehrenreich’s current book, so I don’t know if she thinks that too. From the review, she certainly seems let down by the promises of the wellness industry, or at least the excess promises. I have friends who’ve fought aggressive diagnoses, some more successfully than others, and friends who’ve opted to do nothing. I’ve never assumed their decisions would influence mine, if and when I have to face this. But I do think about what I’d do.

  10. for Ada: I liked the Gawande book too. Wouldn’t we all love to find a doctor like him if we were struggling with a difficult diagnosis?

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