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old age: 'foreign country in an unknown language'

when the table turns: old age

by Judy
June 23, 2013 

I recently came across a quote by the late poet May Sarton about old age. It read: “The trouble is, old age is not interesting until one gets there. It’s a foreign country with an unknown language to the young and even to the middle-aged.”

I find this quote so strikingly true. Of course even the concept of “when one is old” has changed so much. Not that long ago, someone in their sixties or seventies would be considered very old and certainly depending upon who is looking, one still might be considered that. But here I am in my sixties and I don’t feel old at all and I don’t think I’m alone in this. And here I am with my ninety-seven year old mom, helping to take care of her, and still there is a sense in myself that I will never be old. Isn’t that fascinating? We know it’s coming of course but at the same time it’s hard to imagine one would be so slowed down, so changed physically and mentally. 

I asked my mother the other day if she feels old and she said no. She has no connection to being ninety-seven years old. When I asked her what age she would choose for herself, she said sixty. This is also an interesting phenomenon that I have observed over the years. Often one doesn’t “feel” one’s age. I know for myself it doesn’t have much meaning and at the same time one does know, just as my mom does, that we’re not young anymore. Years of experience are “under our belt;” we have changed, hopefully matured and we do know conceptually the clock is running out. What does it actually mean to not feel one’s age? I think it points to this sense of oneself that has nothing to do with age or for that matter any identification. We live with our ‘self’ all our lives and of course that self is also transforming and doesn’t have any age attached to it. There is a kind of essence of who we are that goes untouched by the changing landscapes of our personhood.

Going back to the original quote about old age being a “foreign country with an unknown language” and “not interesting until one gets there” - as I reach the outer edges of getting old, I  am curious about it especially since I’m in such proximity to it now. In observing my mom, it’s definitely not always an easy time on the physical/emotional level and yet I do see a certain dropping away in a positive sense. For example, when my mom smiles now, it’s so sincere, so simple - there are no “put on” smiles anymore for the public. Potentially, in other words, it’s really a time when the “veils” of the persona can drop. No longer engaged in the world of endless doings and responsibilities, what can emerge is someone very authentic and relaxed. Without idealizing this time in life or the elderly, because getting older does not necessarily mean being nicer, wiser or less self-centered at all - we can even be worse - and it certainly isn’t always an easy ride, but ideally as we age, we let go, are more real and perhaps even sweeter with an awareness of our limited time on earth.

I read in a book called, “Gifts of Age,” about a woman who lived to be one hundred and five years old. When she was one hundred, she said, “I realize I am always adapting to the next lesson in life….I thought I was old at seventy, but then thirty more years have just flown away. I’ve had a lot of adapting to do with each decade.” Amazingly even when she was one hundred, she said she had one last lesson. She expressed the need to learn how to adapt to the fact of death.  

This last lesson to learn, this final letting go, a letting go which levels the playing fields for us all, can bring a heightened poignancy to our life right now. I find that reflecting upon the aging process that most of us eventually will go through, whatever our age is now, potentially can bring us to a deeper place within ourselves, help to strip away the nonessentials and allow our humanity to truly flower.

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