Have you ever been driving down the road and suddenly become aware that you don’t know how you got there? It’s scary when you recognize you haven’t been paying attention for something as serious as maneuvering a car for the last five miles. Well, that’s the way I felt when I turned 61 this year and realized I had barely acknowledged 60.
It made me think how quickly and easily I could miss out on the next 15 to 20 years — if I’m lucky enough to get them. And since life doesn’t let us have do-overs, I wanted to figure this out. Except I wasn’t sure where to start.
Then fate stepped in, as it sometimes does, and I came across an article about conscious aging. The concept isn’t new, except to me, and it will be a different experience for each individual, which is also the point. Yet I loved the idea of not only being aware, but actively participating in growing older.
Is Everyone Wrong About Aging?
Like many, I’ve been exposed to the belief that the one true thing about getting old is that no one in their right mind would want to do it. But I started asking myself: What if everyone had been wrong? What if this really was a time that could open up possibilities for a life I hadn’t even taken the time to imagine?
I recently came across the website of Ashton Applewhite, activist and author of the book and blog This Chair Rocks, as well as her Q&A blog Yo, Is This Ageist? (Editors Note: Next Avenue named Applewhite our Influencer of the Year among the 2016 Influencers in Aging.)
If I consciously acknowledged, planned and lived my older age, what would that look like?
I started reading Applewhite’s blog and found she was talking about the questions in my head. If aging is nothing more than decline, then what about the research that shows people are generally happier at the beginning and end of life? Or what about our fear of having to be taken care of when most Americans over the age of 65 live independently? Or that the older people get, the less afraid they are of dying?
Where was all the misery I’d been planning on?
Telling the Whole Story
“There are a lot of challenges to aging, but there are a lot of wonderful things, too, that get way less attention,” Applewhite said, when I interviewed her a few days later. “We need to make sure that both sides of the story get told.”
I’ve always loved old people — which is good because I’m in the process of becoming one myself — but I’m not sure I’ve ever truly considered the other side of the growing-old story. I’ve seen the happy and the sad up close, but I’ve never thought through all the possibilities.
I was beginning to see where being conscious could come in handy.
It’s eye-opening once you start challenging your assumptions about aging, which I have to admit, in my case, weren’t negative as much as they were fatalistic. I thought there was nothing I could do about getting older, but I never backed that up with facts.
Fears ‘Way out of Proportion’
Applewhite points to dementia as an example of our disproportionate fears about aging. “Yes, it’s a horrible disease, but getting dementia isn’t typical of aging. And the rates and odds of getting it are diminishing,” she said.
It’s the same thing when we think about ending up in a nursing home. “Lots of people cycle in and out, but the odds of you having to live in a nursing home are low,” Applewhite said. “Our fears are way out of proportion to the threat.”
So I wondered what would happen if I deliberately shifted my perception of aging, right there and on the spot. What if I stopped rushing through life long enough to ask and answer just one question: If I consciously acknowledged, planned and lived my older age, what would that look like?
Letting Go of Old Attitudes
Our perception of aging is so internalized for most of us, that the first thing I knew I had to do was let it go. Orsborn says we often deny, romanticize or see aging as nothing more than a sad decline. But what we need to understand is that the longer our life, the more we grow not just old, but whole. We can’t overcome everything and there is a shadow side, but it also opens up potential in other areas.
I wondered if it was too late to challenge my old attitudes. Could I honestly view growing older as a serious opportunity for meaning and mindfulness? Could I really change my mindset?
Applewhite says: Yes. “Fifty years ago, we didn’t think a woman could run a company. Twenty years ago, we didn’t think gays could get married,” she says. “This is another profound cultural shift.”
It’s Up to Us
And then she reminded me of something that made total sense. “We’re the ones making up these ideas, so we’re also the ones that can change them. It’s a tall order, but we can do this,” Applewhite says.
There are two things about aging that we can’t avoid, however: physical decline and the death of people you love. And that’s just a fact. But nothing else is inevitable, says Applewhite.
This honest face-to-face with what’s ahead and understanding how many choices I still have seems to make it possible to embrace the whole of life and not see it only as a fading away.
We need to be honest, and Orsborn says there’s nothing wrong with grieving our losses. In fact, it’s the first step. “Mourn your lost youth, illnesses or other losses,” she says. “Acknowledge that it’s happening and is a passage you have to go through.”
But remember, even with declines, there can be benefits.
“We may have spent a long life trying to keep our ego from having so much sway, but when we get older, we seek fewer strokes for who we are and that leaves us with more energy,” Orsborn says. “We find the freedom to care less about what others’ opinions of us are.”
Many of us have found things to keep us busy our entire lives, sometimes to the point of distraction. But how we’re going to live our next years is too important to shrug off.
So I think we should ask ourselves how we want to age, because we’re not finished yet. And maybe the luckiest discovery I’ve made was finding that out. But Orsborn says conscious aging takes time.
“Be patient as you learn how to ride this shiny new bicycle of old age,” she says. “It takes quiet time and some disengagement, but it’s a gift to grow into your own self.”
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