Carole Carson’s Joyful Aging: Two unique tasks
Living a good, authentic life during your final years is the reward for accomplishing two tasks unique to seniors. That’s according to what I’ve gleaned about aging from authors, philosophers, and researchers.
We have different tasks to accomplish in different seasons of our lives. For example, successful adolescence results in a transition from a protected, dependent child into an independent, productive adult fully engaged in the world.
Likewise, the final season of life involves the transition from being an adult fully engaged in the affairs of the world to a person seeking perspective and meaning before departing from the world. And research confirms that this transition happens because of how the brain is wired.
I’d be a hypocrite to suggest we seniors must withdraw from the world. After all, I’m still writing, including this article. And we have two people running for president who are both in their 70s. If we’re lucky enough to have survived to this point, many of us still have much to contribute.
Even so, we can’t allow ourselves to be distracted from the unique tasks of our final years. Again, just as a 7-year-old child cannot decide to become a productive adult but rather must allow for the passage of time and accumulated experience to move through adolescence into adulthood, neither can someone in his or her productive adult years tackle the tasks exclusively assigned to seniors.
As with earlier periods of life, time and accumulated experience are necessary precursors to undertake these final assignments.
The first task is to discern a common narrative thread woven through our varied experiences. By reflecting on the full scope and range of our history, we seek patterns, the gestalt of our life.
Perhaps we made mistakes but always recovered. Or, surprisingly enough, the worst things that happened to us turned out to be the best. What were the turning points?
We are, after all, the heroes in the story of our lives. The person we were is different at different stages of our lives. How were we changed by events, such as parenthood, marriage, death of family members, and so on? What are the recurring themes? What enabled us to get this far?
This task cannot be undertaken earlier in life because patterns have yet to emerge. Only after the weaving of hundreds of threads of daily moments can the pattern surface.
This process lays bare what was true as opposed to what we wanted to be true. I admit this is hard because an honest history (without editorial nips and tucks) includes the good, bad, and ugly. Disappointments and failures come to mind. Long-buried regrets over lost opportunities and roads not taken surface.
Paradoxically, at the same time, smiles can be brought back by happy memories and satisfaction in achievements large and small, like raising a child who becomes a solid citizen, or achieving professional goals, or learning how to quilt.
You may be surprised to realize that the most difficult periods of your life (and I had several) taught you invaluable lessons. And that the lessons gleaned from those tough times could not have been learned any other way.
Reviewing your life allows you to make sense of it, to find meaning and to come to terms with it.
The second task, and perhaps the hardest, is to accept the present — the what is true now — of our senior years.
It must be tough to do because so many of us refuse to do it and instead join the “forever young” movement. Millions of dollars spent each year on products (skin creams, hair restoration gels, etc.) and medical treatments (face lifts, hair implants, Viagra, etc.) attest to the movement’s size.
The problem with the forever young strategy is that it denies us an authentic experience of living consciously in the last cycle of human life. The strategy fails to acknowledge that the person we were at 40 is not the same person we are at 55 or 65 or 75.
When I look in the mirror, I often wonder why an old woman is staring back at me. Studying the image, I must remind myself I’m nearly 79 and that I’ve earned the wrinkles and strands of gray. And recognizing that since I’m never going to grace the cover of Vogue, I need to appreciate my body for getting me this far.
After a lifetime of abundant energy, I now must budget my activities. Admitting that a rest in the afternoon is a good thing and not a waste of time is a milestone.
I won’t be joining the forever young club because as difficult as these final years are — or may become — I want to live them authentically.
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens,” according to Ecclesiastes. When you have more years behind than ahead, it is the time for you to come to terms with your history and acknowledge the present.
Carole Carson, Nevada City, is an author, former AARP website contributor, and leader of the 1994 Nevada County Meltdown. Contact: email@example.com
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