Other Voices: Paradox of age: Looking older, feeling young
It stands to reason that by the time you have reached your mid-80s, you may have had to undergo some overhaul and repair, not to mention a replacement of parts. You’re going to have some cherished contemporaries who have an assortment of things wrong with them. At this time of life, I notice we inquire after each other’s health somewhat diffidently.
“Um, you’re looking fine, are you feeling OK?”
Last week, when a friend who has been dealing with a series of health problems called from Southern California, I nerved myself to inquire how she was doing.
“Well, I’m seeing every kind of doctor but an obstetrician,” she replied with a laugh. Then she went on to tell me about a long trip she is planning to take next month with a favorite travel partner and after that described the wonderful cruise they enjoyed last spring. Apparently during the intervals she spends at home, she allots whatever she considers a reasonable amount of time for various specialists to do their probing and testing and then away she goes again to have a good time.
For many years I have carried on an alternate-month correspondence with a Cheyenne high school classmate who lives in Laramie, Wyo. We have not seen each other since 1940. Of course, we both know we are “little old ladies,” but I still picture her as “Miss Frontier,” the queen of Cheyenne’s famous Frontier Days rodeo, and I suppose I still appear in her mind’s eye as young and reasonably fair. There is something to be said about this kind of relationship.
One of Oscar Wilde’s witticisms was, “The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.” This the paradox of aging: outward appearances often belie how one feels on the inside.
When my friend and I write to each other, we discuss our feelings about everything from arthritis to widowhood to retirement homes, acknowledging that these are facts of life for us, but any melancholy is removed because we are, after all, still young girls together.
We go on to speak of books and family and all the things that make us happy. I describe my garden and give her the details of my grandson’s wedding. She tells me of cross-country skiing with a group of seniors and admits she feels silly and kind of guilty over having recently purchased a small SUV. I tell her I hope the SUV is a red one.
The Southern California friend mentioned earlier once told me, “I don’t mind getting old, but I do mind getting ugly! Just look at all these lines and age spots!” I was taken by surprise because I consider her very attractive, and I was privately marveling at her vitality and intelligence. I took her age spots for granted just as I accept my own most of the time.
However, sometimes one is jolted into awareness of the ravages of time by such things as the unblinking stare of a great-grandchild who remarks, “You’re awfully old, aren’t you, Grandma?” or the over-solicitous young hostess who does everything but follow you about with a wheelchair in case you might be going to have a sinking spell. There is no way to explain in these circumstances that, although you appear rickety, desiccated and pre-historic, and may actually at that very moment be experiencing mild indigestion plus a certain amount of chronic join pain, you are still enjoying life immensely and are terribly pleased to be around. There is no point, either, in quoting Oscar Wilde.
It is true that many old people are prepared to respond with a detailed inventory of body parts when someone asks how they feel. They are like the old gentleman who, when asked how he was, replied, “Well, my head aches, my elbow is stiff, my back is sore and my feet hurt. And to tell you the truth, I don’t feel so good either.” There is a temptation to dwell upon a long list of fascinating infirmities and to compare scars. The complaints are legitimate.
On the other hand, it is equally true that when some elderly persons with multiple health problems say, “I feel fine!” they are speaking honestly, too. Their reply is from that contradictory inner self that dismisses outward appearances. They are still welcoming life’s possibilities, no matter how limited they may be. Quite often there is a smile, and even a hint of mischief, in their eyes.
Lucille K. Lovestedt lives in Grass Valley.
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