By Sandra Ladley
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"Maybe we can have it all - but not all at once." – Judy Blume
What if we viewed aging as an art? Joni Mitchell at 79 tweeted this past week that old age is great, with three exclamation points! In a recent documentary, 85-year-old Judy Blume said that you can have it all - but not all at once. What parts of THE ALL can we have in later life?
Recently I turned 67. It feels personally risky for me to come out with that because of the projections and assumptions we hold in our culture. I should hide my age. How will you see me now? How do you feel about aging and old people?
Karuna Training attracts people in different life phases to our programs – from people in their 20s to people in their 80s - from Gen Z to Millennials, to Gen X, to Boomers, and the Silent Generation. It is powerful to witness the exchange of cross-generational experience and wisdom in a peer learning setting, which seems rare. I see all of us wanting to learn how to live with dignity, resilience, and strength as we mature.
In our society, we tend to see our elders as having less value and to negatively focus on age despite our ‘seniors’ being active contributors. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that by the year 2026 3 out of 10 workers will be between the ages of 65 and 74 and 1 in 10 will be age 75 or older. Beyond paid work, elders provide many hours of service to their families and communities, and I see this very much in my peer group. Recent statistics show that 24% of grandparents provide 12-25 hours of care for their grandchildren weekly and 22% provide more than 25 hours of weekly care. Additionally, elders contribute many service hours to their communities, churches, and interest groups. How are elders you know contributing to society?
Our society is also fixated on the negative aspects of aging. Of course, there are the losses, vulnerabilities, and fears that we all face and cope with as we age but a predominately negative view not only excludes the fruits and wisdom of elderhood as a life phase but also isolates, weakens, and disempowers us as an elder class. It has not always been this way. In many cultures, elders have been held with high regard and care over time. Wrinkles were not a liability but an asset. And, speaking of wrinkles, I’ve noticed a recent trend in the beauty industry such that product labeling is changing from anti-aging to pro-aging. Has aging also become a ground for polarization? Are you pro or anti-aging?
The art of aging must include not only working with changes in our bodies, hearts, and minds but also the negativity and disempowerment that our society currently holds toward us. I am grateful to those who have worked and continue to work hard to recognize elders as a protected class. I am inspired to help reclaim our importance for society.
To help plan for my later years I’ve recently used lifespan calculators to estimate how long I might live. These calculators use questions on health, lifestyle, and circumstances to deliver percentages on how long you might live to different ages - which could be longer than you think. More people are living to 100 and medical advances are increasing the likelihood of living to 120. It’s not crazy to plan for 30 years after 65. Yet, at the same time, climate change and current world events are posing serious risks to all of our lives. Regardless, old age is potentially a big space of time - a large canvas to work with - if we want to approach our elder years artfully.
THE ART OF AGING - THEMES
In preparation for this article, I scanned what’s out there and discussed the art of aging with others. Some collective guidance has emerged and I have highlighted a few themes below. This is not a comprehensive list but a teaser to engage you. And, it is not just for seniors – we’re all aging!
See Aging as a Series of Surprises or Events: My friend Amani Loutfy holds grief retreats and is actively grieving her beloved mother Dorothy Clardy Loutfy. Amani recently posted this quote from her mom: “Aging isn’t a gentle slope; it happens in phases, events. I didn’t understand this when I was younger.” We tend to imagine aging as a gradual deterioration but it frequently presents as surprises and often shocks, without warning. Elders will say “I didn’t know it was going to be this way, nobody told me” and “I could walk and thought I would always be able to and now I can’t.” Be forewarned that there may be no warning. Things happen and we need to adjust. How have you worked with shocks in your life previously? What can you tap into that you already know about your own resilience? On the other hand, much of what we imagine as the gentle slope of deterioration can be actively mitigated with good self-care.
Practice Mindful Habits as Self-Care in Action: Speaking of self-care, it is never too late. I have tended to take a reckless and neglectful attitude toward my physical well-being and am now increasingly aware that this will not serve me well over time. I notice that I need to be more mindful of how I move and what I eat and drink. In the same way that we attend to the deferred maintenance of our homes like, for example, a roof overdue for repair that leaked terribly in this past season’s rains, we can attend to the deferred maintenance of ourselves. Research shows that we CAN teach old dogs new tricks. We can retrain and develop positive habits where we had negative ones.
Use Invisibility as a Superpower: As elders, we experience increasing invisibility -- not being seen as attractive, not being seen at all, not being asked for our input, and being dismissed. This is hard. And, if people DO see us, then they may see us as disabled of body or mind. I encourage you to notice when you feel not seen, and when you’re dismissed. Be empowered in experimenting with looking into what’s going on and calling it out in a non-aggressive way. Also, alternatively, and perhaps devilishly, see when you can accomplish things wearing the cloak of invisibility that might have been hard for you to do otherwise.
Act your Age in All its Glory: How often have you said to yourself “I shouldn’t do that - I’m too old”? How is the inner voice of ‘act your age’ limiting you? Where did that voice come from? Have you limited yourself to peer age group situations? Do you have friends older and younger than you? I have been inspired and delighted so many times by the playfulness and freedom that elders afford. Act your age! Let yourself go!
Activate Compassion through Grief and Regret: As we age, we encounter losses, disappointments, and regrets. Our loved ones are gone or going, we feel let down, and we are haunted by mistakes and choices we’ve made that we wish we hadn’t. Life review is happening whether we’re conscious of it or not. If we allow ourselves to open our hearts to these things, and not avoid them, then they can be a doorway to opening to compassion for ourselves and others. This is where we work in Karuna, which is a training in compassion-based skills. We celebrate the transformative capacity of our limitless hearts. What pain or regret is stuck or frozen in your heart?
Fall in Love with the World Daily: it’s never too late to fall in love with the world on a daily basis. Our sex and intimate lives morph over time but it is continually possible to swoon with delight at birdsong, flowers opening, music, art, wind, water, good food, beauty, life’s comedy, and the delights of the world around us. Joy and laughter are just around the corner. What brings you joy?
Find Strength Through Belonging: Who knew that asking for help would be such a big deal? Our society emphasizes the independence of the individual at the expense of being held in communities. How strange that we are ashamed of asking for and needing help. Right now, many people have hearts aching with loneliness and desperation. They feel helpless, and they blame themselves. Suicide rates are rising rapidly, especially for elders. And, so many of us can’t find support in our families. We live far apart, or if we are close in distance we may feel far apart or have rifts based on family history, politics, or religion that make it hard to be together. Help! The fabric of our lives is coming apart!
There are good ways to find community, to find friends, and to be there for each other. It can be through shared interests, spirituality, recovery, activism, volunteering, or things like games, gardening, walking, or sports. Give yourself a nudge to get out there a little and make connections. Ask someone to be an ally for you in doing this. There are also ways to listen, forgive, heal, and move forward with our families, to both move beyond and be inclusive of our differences with those we love. Finding belonging is key to the art of aging.
Stay Curious – Communicate Across Generations: How many times has an elder told me they stopped listening to music after a certain year and that they don’t like Hip-Hop? How many times has a younger person told me that they dislike old fogey music and please don’t make them listen to a Broadway show? We can be so far apart in our tastes and so siloed in our generational groups. This is exacerbated through social media and the algorithms that narrow our world through where we browse, and our ‘likes.’ Several people I spoke to for this article shared the delight of their discoveries from listening to and learning from people older and younger than them and expressed a longing for more. Staying curious and interested beyond our initial reactions and generational silos is pivotal to keeping our minds flexible, and adapting to change.
Make Friends with the Present Moment: As we age our cognition changes. We do things like making lists, setting reminders, and putting things in the same place to help us remember and stay on top of things. We engage in activities like playing games, reading fiction, and writing to exercise our minds. Research shows that over our lives we spend around 40% of our time worrying. As we age, our worries can both increase and decrease based on our cognition, emotions, and life situation. Regardless, finding ways to make friends with the present moment and worrying less can be very helpful. Meditation, which is the cornerstone of Karuna Training, is a time-tested method that can help us see when we are present and when we are not. It strengthens our capacity for present attention and sharpens our awareness of the changing nature of our minds, and of reality.
Make Friends with Death: The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron entitled her most recent book How We Live is How We Die. Death is real and is happening all around us. The more we can attune to the reality of death, and how we relate to change, the better prepared we will be for our own death. And, making practical preparations like having your house in order, a will, a medical directive, and funeral arrangements can give you peace of mind and make it easier on those taking care of you, and after you. You can make your last acts artful too.
What do you think contributes to the art of aging? What have I left off this list?
There is a lot to talk about on this topic and this is just a start. I hope you’ll join me on Saturday, July 15th, from 10 -11 AM Mountain Time for a Karuna Live! shared group exploration.
Till then, sincerely,