Carole Carson: Adventures in Aging — What about aging scares us?
A fertilized egg begins aging seconds after conception. Nine months later, family and friends welcome a beautiful baby. The aging process has worked perfectly.
At age 5, having been transformed into a walking, talking, learning sponge, the child begins kindergarten. Once again, aging has performed a miracle.
The child welcomes passing months. Age is proudly measured in fractions, like 7 1/2. And what celebration be more important to a child than a birthday?
The advent of maturity — marked by the onset of menstruation for a girl or the deepening voice, growth spurt, and facial hair of a boy — are welcome signs that the aging process is again working its magic.
As the teenager moves into adulthood, we continue to rejoice in the rites of passage — graduation, a new job, marriage, and the arrival of offspring.
WHEN DOES FEAR OF AGING BEGIN?
When does fear of aging (gerascophobia) set in? What is the precise moment aging is no longer viewed as a natural process to be celebrated but an unavoidable depressing reality? On our 40th birthday? When our first gray hair appears? When our hairline begins receding?
Does it happen when death takes our parents, and we realize we are next at bat, so to speak? Maybe not. Researchers tell us that 61 to 87 year olds fear death less than individuals age 50 and younger.
Nonetheless, the fear of aging is real. Why else would we spend billions each year on anti-aging products, services, and devices? Why would we spend thousands annually on anti-wrinkle creams? Why would we submit to surgery to remove excess fat or uplift breasts? Why else would we spend thousands of dollars on cosmetic surgery to tighten sagging eyelids, jowls, and facial muscles?
And women aren’t the only ones spending money to hide signs of aging. The men’s hair industry reported a study in which men said they would rather have a small penis than go bald. Backing this up: men spend several billion dollars annually on transplants, and the number is rising.
Physical changes are one source of fear; others are just as pressing. Will we become obsolete in an increasingly complex world of technology? Will we lose our marbles? Our health? Our driver’s license? Will we become invisible? Will we end up alone and penniless?
WHEN DID WE ACCEDE TO A YOUTH-DRIVEN CULTURE?
Living in a selfie-obsessed world, youth seems to be the primary driver of today’s business and culture. Hundreds of media images promote beautiful people and the newest technological toys. In this world, old people are barely people.
When did we buy in to the cult of youth? What cultural forces drove us to live in a world in which growing up — not to mention growing elderly — is something to dread? Does being grown up really mean accepting the depressing limits of reality?
Permeating our culture is the notion that life is a grim march from the happiness of our youth into the valley of death. Yet research doesn’t bear this out. We’ve learned that happiness is distributed like a reverse bell curve. We’re happy when we start out in life. We reach the low point of happiness in mid-life. And as we move into old age, even with whatever losses we endure, we become happy again.
THE PRIVILEGE OF AGING
In 1900, the life expectancy of men was 46 and 48 for women. Most parents did not have the opportunity to see offspring reach middle age. Nor did they have to worry about saving enough money to last through their retirement years.
Living into their 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond was a luxury few enjoyed in the millions who lived and died before us. Clearly, we don’t have centuries of tradition to fall back on to tell us how to live these additional decades.
Should we worship at the shrine of juvenescence and seek the accoutrements of youth until they fail us? Or should we face our fears and look for a new way of experiencing the luxury of longevity?
Without forebears to lead the way, we are forced to become pioneers in defining the meaning and usefulness of the last third of our lives. However much we might seek to avoid this task, I know of no one who prefers the alternative. Aging means living. We shouldn’t confuse it with dying.
At 78, I know I’m not young anymore, but I don’t feel old. Instead, I see myself as an elder-in-training. Going forward, my goal is to celebrate passage into the next stage of life as much as I celebrated those of my youth. Will you join me?
Next month: Six Myths about Aging
Carole Carson, Nevada City, is an author, former AARP website contributor, and leader of the 2004 Nevada County Meltdown.
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