by Myra Marcus
I was sitting at an outdoor café recently, next to a small group of women in their 80s. They were deeply engrossed in conversation and since I was within earshot, I decided to eavesdrop — unobtrusively, I hoped. They were celebrating the birthday of one of their group, and the conversation had veered to the subject of aging. There was a moment of silence and then I heard one woman blurt out, “How did this happen? How did we get to be this old?”
I asked myself that same question and tried to stave off the inevitable dread that comes with the topic. I told myself that I wasn’t like those women. I was “only” in my 60s, not in my 80s like them, but I was nonetheless overcome with panic, and even a bit of self-reproach for having moved about in my life, flitting around, oblivious to the fact that all our lives are finite and temporary. I should have been more attentive to the unavoidable eventuality all along, I know that, but as long as my mother was alive, I could always pretend that death was still at least a generation away. Unfortunately, my mom died about a year ago, and my generational protection disappeared. Now, just writing about my mortality causes me to shudder with fear. I have to force myself to take a few yoga breaths just to calm down.
So it seems that I’m on a mission to redefine my relationship with my own aging. Getting older is inevitable, I recognize that, but that doesn’t make it any more tolerable. Do you know that I used to purchase a full-priced movie ticket rather than take advantage of reduced rates for seniors? Just for fear of being “outed” as an old person? The sense of shame at belonging in the senior segment of the population was too much for me to bear. With each birthday, though, the despair has loomed larger and closer, with that same recriminating query of “How did this happen?” echoing in my mind.
In our ageist society, the elderly are treated like they’re no longer relevant, no longer worthy of compassion. I watched a physician disregard my mother’s health complaints by saying, “What does she expect? She’s old.” This is a man who should know better, for God’s sake, who should have some respect for the universality of the aging process. At that moment, I so over-identified with my mother’s aging that I, too, winced at this dismissal of her physical pain based solely on her number of years in this world.
The challenge for those of us struggling with our advanced age is to recognize and accept one’s own life as fulfilled. Perhaps this can be accomplished by undertaking a search for meaning — evidence that we’ve done our best in life — which should, in turn, help put our aging in context, help us overcome the painful losses of one’s own partner and friends, indeed, the loss of our own self-sufficiency. Acceptance of one’s life, exactly as it is now at this stage, can be the key to seeing beyond the despair.
This past weekend I attended a Mindfulness Meditation Retreat at Omega Institute in Rhineback, NY, in an attempt to resolve my angst. I am not saying that I had an epiphany, but I did experience a sense of pride and satisfaction at my earnest attempt to come out of my proverbial seclusion and conquer my fears.
What I learned is that, by resisting the natural aging process, I am resisting life itself. We often don’t understand that what we need to overcome our fear is already deep inside each one of us. Peace, ease and acceptance are at the very core of our being — and all you really have to do is learn to access it.
Myra Marcus, Ph.D, has a private psychotherapy practice, The Marcus Group, in Greenwich, CT.