I was talking the other day with a friend of mine, discussing the pain of getting older. She was telling me that she was having this pain in her chest, radiating out from her breastbone, and all she could think of was that she was having a heart attack. No, heart disease. No, it must be a tumor, and it was so large it was pressing against her chest and causing pain. She had better get herself to a specialist. Right. Away.
It was her underwire bra.
Ever since my father died, I have had a weird relationship with death. No, not with death but with dying. Death, I’m actually okay with. As far as that goes. I’d kinda like to wait a little bit but you know, when it’s time it’s time…. It’s the dying that everyone, including me, think about. How will it happen? When? What will it be? Will it be painful? Will it be quick or slow? With my father, I wrote during his processing and departure. It helped me process what was happening at the time but it hasn’t helped since. Why? Because I think as we get older, we stop talking about the aches, pains, process, and thoughts that go along with aging. We know no one cares, not really. We know that what happens in our own minds is a playground of direness and struggle that are just too much for the younger generations to care about. Nor should they. So, you’re going to have to forgive me if the rest of this gets a little graphic here, and I’m outing myself in some cases, but I hope you stay with me.
At the same time that I was living with my father in hospice, I was also going through menopause. Now, I am a reader (you’ve seen the library) and researcher. I’ll be honest – up until the time I started feeling different, I didn’t care about these things – never really gave it much thought. Certain things were just a way of life. I knew how my body worked for the past 40 or so years, and it was familiar. It was me. I knew me. When I had a hunger for chocolate or became really emotional, spastic even, I knew what was going to happen tomorrow.
So, here we go into the next phase. I get night sweats (what the heck is a “night sweat”?) and some hot flashes. I think they are, at least. I’m just guessing because we don’t talk about these things. Some body parts become more painful, and some less. I’m erratically emotional and even things like vitamins don’t work the same way they did, say, six months previously. My mother and grandmother never talked about these things. Never. Whatever I knew, I knew from books. But, that’s not experience and it can’t confirm for you what will or won’t happen. You hear things from doctors, you hear whispers from some older women in the gym. We as a culture and society do not communicate the upcoming changes in life from one generation to the next. I was literally swimming alone in a vast ocean of change. What is normal? What should I be worried about? What was I before? What am I now?
“A woman must wait for her ovaries to die before she can get her rightful personality back. Post-menstrual is the same as pre-menstrual; I am once again what I was before the age of twelve: a female human being who knows that a month has thirty days, not twenty-five, and who can spend every one of them free of the shackles of that defect of body and mind known as femininity.”
― Florence King
So, for the months that I’m living with Dad, I’m also not sleeping. Is it because of Dad? Or is it because of menopause? I don’t know. Frankly, I didn’t care. I was consumed with the process of dying and of trying to help my father find comfort in his last days. I remember going into my father’s office to work, closing the door, and calling Doyle to cry passionately about how I couldn’t go on. I have no idea what was talking – stress or menopause, or maybe both. Did it matter? It did, only inasmuch as those moments carry with me to the current and present time.
We are two and a half years later. Dad’s ashes sit in a beautiful urn on my wall of celestial icons. My body has begun to settle down into a new way of being, but not my mind. I’m seeking the new normal. Now I ask myself, what is happening to my body – is it dying or is it just my new body? What do I not know about aging? What do I have as a legacy from family members about how the body feels in aging? Scarce little. What do I not know? When should I see a doctor or when am I being a hypochondriac? When is the doctor going to pat me on the head and say ‘there, there?’ When is a pain something to monitor or when is it to ignore?
A mentor and friend of mine, some time ago, was relating the story of him taking care of his mother while she was going through breast cancer. I believe she was in her 70s and her son was in his late 40s. He said she was in a lot of pain for a long time. He asked her, “why didn’t you say anything, Mom?” Her response was, “I just thought it was part of getting old. Aches and pains.” How does one know when something should be discussed or just let go? That seems to be the eternal question in this age. We don’t keep our elderly family members with us as they age, so we do not get to live with them first hand through these experiences. Not any more. We put people into “retirement communities” where they can talk with each other about the day to day; yet, we, out here, are the ones who need that talk. We need to see it, live it with them, and then let others live it with us.
From the US Census Bureau, “Data from the 2020 Census will show the impact of the baby boomers on America’s population age structure. Born after World War II, from 1946 to 1964, the oldest boomers will turn 74 next year (2021). …about 10,000 a day have crossed that age threshold and by 2030, all boomers will be at least age 65.” It’s not only all of us who might be boomers or might be Gen Xers who are starting to age out. With the average life expectancy on the rise (78.4 in the US), we need to talk about aging. (Side note: I did not know that the IRS kept life expectancy tables and that they were updated in 2020. It means Social Security distributions will be less going forward, after 2022, because we’re living longer. Other mind numbing reports can be found at irs.gov.)
Hence, we get back to the idea that our society doesn’t talk about aging. We never tell our daughters that all your hair will go gray or white, if it turns at all. All of your body hair. We don’t tell them that hair will start sprouting up on your lip or chin faster than you can find it, or that it will be one inch long before you actually SEE it. We don’t tell them that over time, diet matters a lot and what worked before may not work later. We don’t tell them that no, their body will not just shut off at menopause but it will be a long, slow process taking probably years as your body shifts, and what those shifts might be. We don’t speak about how “use it or lose it” is real. We don’t tell younger people that you really need to moisturize as you get older because skin is thinner – do it now, ladies, do it now! There is so much to discuss. We need to discuss these things because if we don’t, we do a disservice to our fellow humans. We need to latch on to a community of conversation around aging.
But… what if they, the Gen Xers or the Millenials, don’t want to hear it? What if they don’t want to know what to expect? And who is to say that things won’t change? There is a lot of progress in the world, both medically, technologically, and what if aging changes over the course of our lifetime and well into the next. It is conceivable that people will regularly be living into their 90s and 100s and still be skiing or hiking or weight lifting. Look, they already are.
Is age really all in our mind? Perhaps the moment we decide that we’re done, we’re done. Until then, we can either worry about it all or just live. Push past the worry, the fear, the chaos, the change, and just go. Do. Be. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for talking about it all. I think I may have talked myself out of talking about aging. I think, for now, I’ll just keep working on being the best I can be at this moment. I guess that’s all any of us really has.
Growing older has such rich complexities. Do we chose to close ourselves down or keep open to the possibilities? How does our inability to remain open to what is contribute to the letting go of our physical form?
Thanks for sharing your experience and truth with the rest of us; for giving voice to experience that has remained muted for far too long.
Similar thoughts about aging (and dying–not the same thing) assaulted me when I was 75 and six years later I’m still thinking and writing and speaking about it. Doris Carnevali (99, retired professor of nursing) examines these “age-related changes” in her own aging body and mind on her blog, Engaging With Aging. I love her approach: neutral language and a practical way to tackle every change. So I say yes, do think and talk about it 🙂