The Elegance of Aging: Working Compassionately with a Long Lens on Life

By Melissa Moore

Last night, I dined with a 92-year-old woman and her 98-year-old husband, both still in good health; although she has severe osteoporosis, she is still gardening, throwing pots on a kiln, and he is golfing twice weekly - and only stopped skiing less than five years ago. It's wild how enamored I was of their energy at their age - they had been married for 71 years. The woman joked and said,’ You mean our denial of aging.’ This made me wonder if aging is as much of a mental process as she makes it sound – and if how we hold our age impacts the aging experience. 

Colorado is full of healthy 85+-year-old folks all over the slopes, cross-country skiing in the winter, and running and biking up and down mountains at high altitudes all summer. This is the state with the lowest BMI per capita, and the idolization of being active and fit while elderly is a State obsession. It is a common topic at dinner parties. I see it all as further ageism and ableism – yet I’m guilty of the same infatuation and aspiration as I age. Ageism is the degradation of aging, making a natural process something to hide or be ashamed of. Ableism is thinking that everyone has all the capacities to achieve and succeed, especially physically, with enough willpower, not realizing the impact on people with disabilities. 

Undoubtedly, there is a skillful means to the aging process that challenges the impact of ageism and ableism.  To grow old is good fortune for most - old age is a precious time to review the choices we’ve made in our life, our regrets and our accomplishments, the decisions we felt forced into, and the lifestyles we crafted – all bearing fruit in old age in an air of ‘looking back.’. Sorting through all of it is deemed a necessary exercise. Much like sorting one’s things, who will mess with all the stuff when we are gone? 

It's also true that we have learned some things and accrued wisdom in life, which longs to be shared and witnessed in circles of openness. We only sometimes find those opportunities in families or nursing homes across North America. Although there are many open-hearted people and programs for the elderly, we often encounter a warehouse of the elderly, lonely, confused, and frequently feeling they have inadequate help and nobody to talk to.

What would the world look like if we honored and appreciated our elders—as most indigenous cultures have always done? We would honor the fact that a long-viewed perspective is valuable and can only be attained through old age. We have life experience and a historical perspective that can be necessary to understand where we came from, our ancestors, and the lost generations and stories.   

What will the world look like as we are forced to return to intergenerational homes due to economics, where the babies are cared for by elder relatives, and the family is operated as a system for all versus just the individual? Today’s food and housing costs are forcing families to try on the time-tested model of intergenerational households; unfortunately, many youth interpret this as a failure instead of the opportunity before them. 

In Karuna Training, the cohorts we gather for our training are often multi-generational in age range, with youth and elders mingling. We’ve found a wholesome example of respect for elders' experience in our circles, and when we don’t make a big deal about age but interact as humans in a circle of equality. 

As elders, we bring responsibility into any communal space to take our seats and remember our potential contributions. Sometimes, we need to notice our habits of mind and speech, and together, we support one another in opening up. Here are a few ideas that we could practice:

We need to learn to express gratitude for life's long view. History always swings wild in a lifetime, as do inventions and so-called progress, which always look different from the lens of old age than it does to the youth. We can learn to express our gratitude to have witnessed such history, whether we understand it or not. 

We must skillfully work with life’s regrets and acknowledge our lessons learned with humility rather than self-blame. The old’ if we knew then, what we know now’ meme applies here, and we can adapt that meme with humor and humility, looking back with compassion and understanding for our life experiences, painful or joyful, all part of the soup of life. 

We should review our narratives with a healthy dose of a ‘not-knowing mind.’ We could review our narratives in life—what is right and wrong, political, cultural, religious, or otherwise influenced—with curiosity and let go of knowing all the answers. Especially if we desire to have a conversation, we can be curious about what and why others think what they do! 

To release what was, embrace what is. Old age requires us to release past identities and capacities that separate us from what we know. This loss can bring complaints and suffering, thus reinforcing our cultural conditioning of old habits. We could begin to open our minds to the wonders in front of us now, which may mean procuring a source for the wonder, when possible, strolls in nature or sitting on one’s front stoop as Spring dawns. When we only see doom and gloom, it may be an indication to raise our gaze to the present moment and allow the elements of wind, water, air, and sun to do their magic. 

    These are not prescriptions by any means, but they support reflection on elegant ways to age gracefully and to aspire to be as open and in awe of the world as possible.  

    Please tune into our Podcast, to listen to an invigorated conversation with four Karuna-infused wise women who will discuss the details and skillful means of aging elegantly.

    Article written by Melissa Moore

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