I saw it for the first time on a department store escalator. I thought I was hallucinating, but there she was in the mirrored walls, and before reaching the next floor I said aloud, “What are you doing here, Mom?”
It wasn’t her, of course. It was me. In that moment, I realized I was aging.
My mother didn’t age well — she wasn’t physically or emotionally healthy. I wanted to age differently, but was unsure of just how to go about it. Talking about growing older was not a hot topic of conversation with my girlfriends.
Thinking Differently About Aging
One of my favorite graduate school professors encouraged us to believe that we have a great deal of influence over how we grow older. She had us imagine ourselves as 85-year-olds. What would we be doing? Who would we be around? Where would we be living? I’ve used that exercise in countless presentations on aging, caregiving and elder care.
Aging fascinates me. I wanted to learn all I could about it, so I’ve listened to older adults’ stories on how to age well. Along the way, I started seeing aging up close and personal in my bathroom mirror. Wrinkles. Around my eyes and mouth. From a strictly academic perspective, I welcomed these badges of aging.
On a personal level, however, I got hooked by a JCPenney advertisement for the miracle wrinkle cream. This cream was “tested” and “proven” to reduce, or even eliminate wrinkles. I justified buying the wonder cream as “aging presentation research.” Secretly, I was hoping it would at least soften my increasing wrinkles. I applied it liberally and waited.
I tell my audiences that the trick here is to make a list of the 'undones,' be they emotional or tasks, and let the list guide you.
Seventeen years later, I’m still waiting. Dry skin runs in my family and no amount of skin cream or oil will change that. My hands have been wrinkly and rough since I was in grade school, when my classmates called me “Granny Hands.”
Standing in Front of a Mirror Naked
I’ve grown accustomed to my wrinkly hands. However, being at peace with other bodily changes requires a completely different kind of strength. I’ve always said that we must love ourselves.
“Stand in front of a mirror naked,” I’d tell my audiences. “Look at yourself and treat yourself like you do your best friend.”
Many women tell me I’m nuts. The biggest change I see these days when I stand naked in front of a mirror is that I bear a slight resemblance to a kangaroo. I’ve got a little extra pouch, which, try as I might, doesn’t want to leave me. There’s a general overall extra layer of padding around my middle.
In my 20s I would tell my audience that this body change had more to do with activity and eating. In my 50s, I can now reveal the truth. There’s a special fairy that comes to us while we sleep, and unlike the tooth fairy, this fairy leaves something behind: Fat. She strategically deposits fat on the back, making it no longer possible to wear a bra without bulges.
I wish I could say that I laugh off all my aging changes, but I don’t. I do, however, want to go on this aging ride with my eyes wide open.
How Do You Age Well?
While working on my master’s degree, I talked to, and listened to, hundreds of older adults, asking them to divulge “the recipe for aging well.” Their stories were unique, but shared a common thread: They learned how to enjoy today, put the past in its place and let go of their futures.
I then came up with a simple personal aging guide. “Taking this quick inventory will help you prepare for older age,” I’d tell my audience. Now it’s my turn to use it.
Think of it as cleaning your house: The “attic” is where you store emotional and physical stuff; the “ground floor” is where you live day to day and the “eaves” represent your future.
In my case, my attic has been cleared and cleaned out — of physical stuff, that is. A couple of years ago, I downsized so that all my worldly belongings fit into three average-sized rooms. This wasn’t easy, but living with less “stuff” has provided me with a wonderful sense of lightness.
Unpacking Your Baggage
My emotional baggage is more challenging. I’m Lutheran and I’ve got guilt — guilt for things I should’ve done and for things I still haven’t accomplished.
I tell my audiences that the trick here is to make a list of the “undones,” be they emotional or tasks, and let the list guide you. When your attic space is clear, it is much easier to live in the moment.
The ground floor is by far my biggest challenge, but I’m learning to recognize when life is good — not excellent, but simply good. When I catch myself in a cycle of ruminating, I’ve trained myself to laugh out loud, “Oh, chewing on that same old cud again, eh?”
This simple act of noticing brings me into the present. Slowing down, eating more deliberately and really tuning in to someone when they’re talking are all straightforward ways be in the here and now. Five minutes of petting a dog does a wonderful job of connecting me to the simplicity of the present moment.
Just as we need to let go of our past, we also need to give our future wings.
What Is Your Future?
I will never forget presenting this aging inventory at an assisted living community. When I started talking about the future, I was harshly scolded, “That’s mean of you to talk to us about our futures; we don’t have one,” one resident said.
She was right in that we are not guaranteed a certain amount of time, and certainly we have less time as we age. But it’s important to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. What gets you excited to wake up? What do you look forward to?
Have goals and plans. I make lists for short and long term “to-do’s.” Once my thoughts are on paper, I can return to living in the present.
I used to deny the resemblance to my mother, but not any more. Just because I look like her doesn’t mean that I have to age like she did. You, too, have a say in how you respond to the natural progression of age. Will you deny or embrace the process?
Aging happens and there is no right way to do it. But if you accept the natural changes with all the grace and humor you can muster, it can be your time to shine.