“Nobody ages like anybody else.”
October 2, 2015 8:36 AM   Subscribe

What old age is really like. Getting beyond "Generic Old Man" and "Eccentric Old Woman" by examining literature by 'natives' of old age.
posted by BuddhaInABucket (6 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
As you get older the more you start envying machines with their replaceable parts.
posted by I-baLL at 10:10 AM on October 2, 2015

Thanks for the FPP -- I appreciated the essay a lot. I'm 52, and my parents, both of whom are alive and pretty darn healthy overall, are each 75. As the article points out, the stereotypes and the ageist antipathies that accompany them come all too easily. Real people who have lived (and are living) real lives are much more rich and complex than the simple reductions of "grumpy old man" and "quirky old woman".

It has been interesting seeing my parents maneuver into this phase of their lives. It's been a lot of other things, too, but I'll lead with "interesting". A couple of years ago they sold their home (our childhood home) because it was too big for only the two of them to maintain, and their master bedroom took too many stairs to reach. They were very fortunate and unquestionably privileged to have enough equity in their home that they could sell it and afford to rent a one level house about half a block away, allowing them to retire and remain in their old neighborhood. That was a lucky find, and it made it easier for them to transition from "working homeowners" to "retirees", ending one long chapter in their lives and beginning another with hope and some constancy of place.

Still, despite their own relative good health, it has been tough for them to watch their friends fall apart around them. Their friends are variously battling Parkinson's, cancer, dementia, osteoporosis, diminished sight/hearing/coordination/balance, frail bones, and failing joints. I think their own good health (and the fact that they are the outliers in their circle of friends) has also made them acutely aware of the temporary nature of "being healthy", and how it can all change in an instant. As they have aged they have become less at ease in their own bodies, and more finely attuned to any subtle change or perceived change. "Is this just a sore throat, or is it a precursor to something far worse?" "My hip hurts and it doesn't seem to be getting any better..." "My latest blood work showed higher than normal levels of [xxx], and my doctor wants to do more tests determine what's really going on." Etc. Their concerns and especially their fears are real, and it would be disrespectful to dismiss them out of hand. Time passes relentlessly, aging human bodies continue to fail both slowly and shockingly quickly, and it all takes a toll. It takes a toll.

The saying is that "youth is wasted on the young." I don't think that's true, but I do get annoyed at the casual ageism I often encounter online, even here on The Blue, and it makes me think about myself and what lies ahead for me. I'm 52, and that makes me an old (old!!) man to some of you, but perhaps I'm still a wet-behind-the-ears whippersnapper to a few of you. I don't feel especially old, but at 52 it isn't hard for me to look back 20 years and remember when I was in my early 30's, or look ahead a (now scant!) 20 years see me in my parents' position. It will make your head spin a bit if you dwell on it, but the future isn't all that far away, and it's getting closer all the time.

Where is this long-winded, in-my-day-we-wore-an-onion-on-our-belts monologue headed? Nowhere quickly, I suppose. Just some musings on age and ageism from the vantage point of someone who is waiting in the wings, a junior watching the senior class own the campus for the moment, but aware that their time is coming to a close and mine will be at hand soon. Not sure how I feel about that, but if I stick around it's going to happen whether I want it to or not.

So, all you young people reading this (which is everyone younger than me and my peers), please be kind to us old folks, and especially to those even older than us. Realize that each of us is an individual, and resist the urge to lump us all together -- not all old folks are grumpy, or quirky, or wise, or bitter, or really anything, other than born around the same time and not getting any younger.

And as the great sage once said, "Don't worry too much, it will happen to you."
posted by mosk at 11:21 AM on October 2, 2015 [15 favorites]

I'm 60. Trying find technical work with gray hair and 2 X chromosomes is really not fun.

My Mom was 87 when she died. The last 20 or so years of her life, it was so clear that the constant losses - friends, husbands, health - predispose old people to depression. Lots of old people have chronic health issues that cause enough pain and affect ability to make people sort of chronically cranky. Mom had COPD, in which the lungs are increasingly unable to supply oxygen. This makes the brain freak out, so she went from being Dragon Lady to full-on Holy Terror. Her life force was strong, and she was fierce. Respect. But, really, old people have some stuff in common, but are quite varied, maybe more so, as they continue to build experiences and thoughts.

From this article, this image.
posted by theora55 at 1:14 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, call it wisdom or whatever, but old people know shit.
posted by theora55 at 1:14 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

A bit off target, but the author of the cited article makes me think of the wonderful writing book called Writing The Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward that discusses how to write about characters that you are decidedly not! I think this works as well for old vs. young as it does for different genders, races, etc.
posted by BillW at 6:43 PM on October 2, 2015

I am sixty years old.

I absolutely do not feel that I am sixty years old.

My outlook has not changed that much. My personality has not changed that much.

I'm not sure that's a benefit, for me or for you.

When I look in a mirror, my brain refuses to accept what it is seeing. A good camera, in the right light -- that is what it takes to show me that it's true -- that I don't look as I did in my mid-30s, which is where I sortof place myself in my minds eye. (If I had the money, would I pay some doc to tighten things up, pull these lines out from around my eyes? Your goddamn right I would.) Having seen those pictures, I am more able to see what is really reflected in the mirror. Still, I don't accept it. And it pisses me off, what I'm seeing; I am not at all interested in going quietly into that gentle night or however it is that it goes; not only do I not want to go quietly, I don't want to go at all.

I've most always liked wearing a beard, and it suited me. I figured I'd maybe have that whole Kenny Rogers silver beard thing going on, that'd be cool. No such luck -- I've got this homeless-guy gray/brown/white thing, like an old dogs muzzle. I grow a beard nowadays, people start handing me dollar bills, they're being kind, help this poor homeless mope buy a cheezeburger or whatever. Fuck. No more beard.

I am accorded with respect: I am extremely fortunate to be situated in my life -- through sheer circumstance -- I am a member of a large community of people where holding to a fairly rigid discipline is honored, especially if that discipline has been held to over long years. And not just respected by people of my age, but by young and old alike -- it's sweet. I mentor four younger men, aged 31 to 43, I have a picture window into their lives, it is how our relationships are structured -- I know their whole story, all of it, thus over the years I have come to know these men well; we meet weekly, for an hour or two, we talk it out, we talk it through. I really love these men, and they really love me. It's a really nice piece of my life and one which will hold, also, unless/until I lose myself to dementia.

That is my largest fear -- Alzheimer's. It's all over my fathers line -- his mother, most of his sibs. I have lost a lot of my snap -- remembering names is particularly difficult -- and every time I cannot pull up a name or a word when I'm writing I am convinced that I'm beginning to tumble down that particular flight of stairs. That is *not* a flight of stairs I intend to allow myself to stumble down -- I have asked people to keep a watch on me (including those four young men that I mentor) and to let me know if I am showing any real signs of dementia. Dementia of any kind -- Parkinson's can be particularly nasty in this regard, and there are other causes also -- but Alz, that's The Big Fear, over here on Riverside Drive. If/when it does come on me, I'll go somewhere sane and civilized, where I can have sane and civil docs pull the plug on my life in a medical setting; the main reason that's A Big Deal for me is that I surely would like someone to use my eyes if they'd need them -- yes, they're used, these eyes are used, but they've seen lots of beauty, I'd like for them to help someone else see some more, maybe I'd make an insistence that whoever gets them has to either go to an Art museum 4 times a year or have grandchildren who would bring them joy to see. Maybe make them take the grandkids to an Art museum; I rather like that idea.

As an extra selling point, to get them to accept the whole museum trip I'd be sending them on, I'll let it be known that while my eyes are sortof a gray/blue, when I wear a light blue shirt they turn Paul Newman neon blue, and when wearing a light gray shirt they pick up on that, also. I've always liked that part. They're my fathers eyes, pretty much, his were a shade more blue but not that much, and his did the whole "color match feature" depending on shirt color.

Also, Harvard wants my brain -- the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center wants people with serious mental illness to donate their brain upon their death; I have this manic depression thing going on, and a sister has schizophrenia, pretty sure my father was manic depressive also. So they're wanting to have my brain, and I damn sure want them to have it -- if it could help alleviate the suffering of another, if it can be diced and sliced by some brilliant doc and help said doc find something of interest, I sure do want that to happen.

The rest of this crate I guess I'd be fine with some med student hacking into, finding out how the knee-bone is connected to the ankle-bone etc and etc. Use it and then chunk it into the fire -- once Life has left a body, it's just a husk; I think cremation is the best, I think burial is pretty much wacky, now that we know of a better way. I'd be perfectly happy to have it all chunked out into the woods or into the ocean so that the animals could have a go at it, but no one gets my eyes that way, and Harvard doesn't get my brain, etc and etc.

Moving on. Deaf -- you betcha. All those years on construction sites, all that noise -- that's had results. Also, I have the best stereo in Texas in my pickup, and Stevie Ray Vaughan sounds so, so much better when the volume is set on 11, and I do the same when on bike rides -- loud headphones and I have listened loud. Results, you bet. I'm fine in speaking one on one, or in an intimate setting -- no problem. Put me in a loud restaurant, at a large table with lots of chatter and clatter of forks and knives from the whole fkn room and I'm toast -- I cannot hear what you say to me, even if you're right next to me, or immediately across the table, whatever. So I don't go to those kind of places. Clubs are the same, and shows -- I love the music but I don't have the slightest idea what the wait staff just said. I've had it tested -- there is an entire aural register that I absolutely Do Not Hear. I used to wear this one digital watch, it had one of those little "beep-beep beep-beep beep-beep" alarms that went off at 11:07 PM every night, everyone else in the room heard it, they're all pointing at me, and/or at the watch; I thought for the longest time they wanted to know what time it was. "It's 11:07." I'd say helpfully, glad to be of service to them, but they generally didn't look glad to get my help.

Vision. Reading glasses a must. I'm three years younger than one of my sisters, she had to start wearing glasses at 40, I'm all laughing at her, calling her an old broad ha ha ha ha, she's all like "You just wait, it's gonna hit you, too." and I laughed at her, and sailed past 40 no problem, and 41, and 42, and 43, and one day at 44 I found myself moving a book I was reading into the sunlight and I'm like "Ah shit!" and it's been reading glasses since. Total pain in the ass. I buy them maybe 30 at a time, at the dollar store, I've got them littered all over my condo and my pickup truck and tool boxes and I've generally got a pair of them shoved into my jeans pocket and if they break, hey, chunk them out the window, it's just a buck, and I've got another pair right here. One afternoon I was driving with a friend of mine, I was explaining it to her, she didn't really believe me (though she knows me well enough to know that anything can happen, and probably will) and I took the pair I was wearing and threw them out the window, there at the stop light. This is a woman who can stretch a buck to where it's big enough to wallpaper a room, my doing that was actually rather painful or something, certainly surprising, though as I said she should know, Alison if anyone should know.

So that's the short vision thing. The long vision, the last time I got my drivers license I just barely cleared the last line allowed, the clerk told me that next time I'm in there I'm going to have to put glasses on my head. I'll go with that laser thing instead, probably. I know a guy who's an optometrist, he asked me if I could watch a whole movie without going in/out of focus and I'm like "No way." but that I could get it back in focus, and it's not that distracting or anything. He told me he could fix that, put glasses on my head and that jive would instantly stop. But -- he told me that the day he put those beauties on my head that my eyes would lose their ability to come in and out of focus; they'd just be out of focus if I wasn't wearing the glasses. I'm like "No thank you." and that's where we stand today. Thank god my puter monitor happens also to be my television, and is 50 inches across, and when I get tired late at night I can hit CNTL+ CNTL+ CNTL+ CNTL+ CNTL+ about 700 times to where the font is as big as a truck and I can keep writing. Though I've found that resting my eyes, even just twenty minutes, it sortof resets them, sortof like a coffee break for them, and then they start back anew.

Love. I am appalled to admit it but it's true -- I still do not know how to do this thing. I've written voluminously about it here on this site -- I'm as ridiculous at 60 as I was at 11. It's humbling. Part of it is pride, and I see it as A Good Thing -- I have seen so, so many people hang together, get together and then hang together, because they don't have the jam to walk alone rather than stay in dead relationships. Which are friendships, really. And/or partnerships. The Convenience Factor -- hey, we've been doing this, we know the score here, better the devil you know than the ???? I have refused to settle in for this, and I do refuse to settle in for this, and I've spent most of my life without a partner. If I were to confess it here -- which I absolutely would never do, because it's just too revealing -- If I were to confess it here, what I would confess is that this being alone bit is the most painful part of my life. Bar none. You can clearly see why I won't talk about it here, or anywhere -- imagine how vulnerable I'd have to be to pull that rabbit out of the hat. Jesus. So anyways. I have seen only about 14 relationships that are really working, and worth staying in, and believe me, I have seen clearly and closely into many marriages. Even if started well, people lose their nerve, ends up they're buying bigger and bigger couches to sit on while watching bigger and bigger TVs, bigger and bigger bowls of chips and dip as they watch the latest movie stars capped teeth kiss the other movie stars fake breasts...

Okay, now you're going to read that last paragraph and jump up waving your finger around as you with gleaming eye proclaim "Curmudgeon! The guy is Clearly A Curmudgeon! Capital C, too." To which I say "Bullshit." To which you might screech even louder, and shrilly, also "Curmudgeon! Curmudgeon! Curmudgeon!" To which I'll say the same "Bullshit." Which could of course lead us into an infinite loop, but neither of us is silly enough to continue with that; what with being all grown up and stuff, it's time to Move On.

Sex. Well, since I'm generally not partnered I'm generally not getting laid. (Which, I might add, neither are most people who are partnered, but that would be a digression, a two-paragraph leap up the page, so I won't say anything about it. Though it's certainly The Truth.) So anyways, I'm not mostly getting laid. And, also, Mr. Happy is not nearly as jumped up about things as in My Faded Youth. So right here right now I will take the time out to thank the brilliant pharmacologists who came up with Vitamin V, and also Vitamin C. I refer here of course to Viagra and Cialis. Neither of which I have ever taken of course, just going by what I've heard. (Which is to say -- goddamn right I've taken that stuff.) That shit really, really works. Man. I had a doc maybe 15 years ago give me some samples -- they've generally got tons of the stuff -- and I didn't need it, I don't know even why he gave them to me, maybe just something like "Hey, you're 45, look at these blue pills here." And they stayed in a drawer, ho hum, all is well. I thought one time to give it a whirl, when I was going with Sheila, just a "What the hell." sort of thing and Oh. My. Fucking. God. did I learn something that night. Here's the news, boys and girls: Those drugs are not *only* to get Mr. Happy all jumping up and ready for action, though they certainly do that. But they are also recreational. It is like being 16 years old again, the intensity of the orgasm is remarkably heightened. I can't recommend this shit highly enough, it's great fun. Of the two, Cialis is generally regarded as the better, both for the intensity of the sexuality but also because you can take it on Friday and Mr. Happy is still going strong on Saturday, whereas with Vitamin V you take the stuff that night, an hour or two before operations begin. (Pro Tip: There is a generic for Viagra, it's named sildenafil; if you can get your doc to write you for it you'll save a ton of dough. Pro Tip 2: www.goodrx.com is a great place to get the best price on many drugs, sildenafil certainly one of those.) My understanding is that Cialis in particular is often good recreationally for women, bring on huge orgasms, and of course there is that new pink pill coming out, though I understand it works differently than either Vitamin V or C, which are both about blood flow, to the penis or the clit. I've only read about these drugs helping women have fun, I've not spoken with any who have given it a shot. But I damn sure know a *lot* of men who love these things. They're certainly not going to tell you about it, esp if they are younger men, but fact is that ED is A Real Thing and even if it wasn't, these particular vitamins would still be in high demand, due to the recreational component. I mean, come on -- orgasms like when you were 16 years old! Sign me up!

So there's that.

Declining health. I've got this manic depression thing, and while it's got it's good bits it was pretty much hell until I finally reached medicinal armistice with it, like 12 years ago. It still flares, kicks the shit out of me sometimes, but compared to what it was, it's currently like a girl scout picnic. I've been dead, those heart attacks killed my lame ass, but these amazing docs with these amazing technologies brought me back; I'm 11+ years past my "Expired Upon" date. I'm in great shape now, my diet is great and that is so, so important -- when I saw my cardiologist in July, he looked at my cholesterol numbers and shook his head, said that if he didn't know it was mine he'd swear that those numbers came from blood drawn out of the arm of a skinny high school girl. So I take care of that. I've had a few scares in the years since that all came down, thought I was having another heart attack, went to the ER and they checked me in but never was -- Did you know that after 24 hours your blood shows if you've had a heart attack or not? Amazing technology. -- I never was in any trouble and anymore I'm not afraid of it, I pretty much don't think I'm going to have another heart attack, I hardly ever carry that little bottle of nitro pills, mostly when I'm on a bike ride or whatever.

So I'm not scared of manic depression too much and I'm not scared of cardiac arrest much at all -- great news. I am not in constant pain -- I have arthritis all over my spine, a couple of joints fused together low and some in my neck, also -- construction accidents, car wrecks, just generally abusing my body, young and dumb and thoughtless and careless. I was always so strong and took it for granted, took for granted that I could do whatever the hell I wanted and not pay a price for it. Surprise -- that didn't work out for me. Still, I'm not in constant, nagging pain, just that I can get there pretty easily if I'm not careful. I'm going to wax my pickup today, and that's nothing, right, just moving, not heavy work at all. But I'll be sore as hell tomorrow, moaning and groaning, my low back reminding me of what I did to it over the years.

I'm sortof writing about that because I *do* take it for granted, take my overall general well-being for granted. I'm a young 60, still like to bound around, and I totally expect that to continue for the next 60 years, also. The idea of death infuriates me, esp since I've already gone there, I'm all like "Get the fuck out of here! I've already done this. Fuck you." Etc and etc. I was 49 when I died, I really do want another 49 years before we even have this fkn conversation again. I'm all like "Hey, I did my part already. I gave at the office. Buzz off." Etc. The thing is, I might get my next 49, too -- life expectancy does keep on moving further and further out as these brilliant docs figure out how to defeat this illness, and that illness. Truly, had I had my own cardiac even even two years before I did they'd not been able to have gotten me back. I always think my luck will hold, I'll not get cancer or parkinsons or whatever else.

But though I damn sure intend to keep on thinking as I am, I sure do know many people who are suffering chronic illness(es), some of them not much older than I, some of them in fact even younger. As a privileged person in a country with good health care, and access to it, I, like many others, see death as an insult, see illness as unfair, and why does this have to happen to me? All I'd need to do is move to flippin' Mexico, see these funeral processions with coffins not much larger than the box my microwave oven came in, a child lost to an illness that wouldn't come near to killing that child if he/she lived here in the states. When I was a kid, it was fairly common to see people with these big honkin' goiters; they'll catch your eye, for real, a huge knob of skin on someones neck or face, they are something to see. I have not seen a person with a goiter in a long, long time. But I'd bet I'd see one inside a week if I was in a third world country.

I've gone long here, just paused to consider and, shit, it's been hours I've been in here. I've got a truck to wax, and other chores, too. How to finish?

My father, and my oldest brother. They are great models for me. They just kept of keeping on. My father was rockin' on down the road until a brain tumor got big enough to where it really jangled him, and I'm no doc but my take on it is that it also allowed the opening that Alz was waiting for. He declined, and fast. Two years -- gone. And not a fun two years, either. My oldest brother, he's 72, he's out and doing it every day, still driving a semi when the work is available, still working with his horses, continually moving. I can't help but think of that Willie Nelson song when I think of my brother Phil, Still Is Still Moving To Me. Phil's really cool. So was my father. I'm not saying I'm cool as they were/are; I'm not, not by a long shot. But they've got the attitude I want, and sometimes can have. Phil is out in an apple orchard this weekend, with a team of his Belgian draft horses, people come from all over to this guys farm that's just this huge apple orchard, they park their cars and they and the kids get into my brothers wagon and he takes them out to the orchard, it's this great thing for people to do, and Phil is in his element, he'll pick up a little kid and let him pet the horses head (Belgian's are *huge* -- I'm 6'5" tall and standing straight up wearing boots I can just barely see over the horses back) and the people love the orchard and the horses and Phil is moving moving moving... I'd bet two hundred bucks he'll die in his horses pasture, I'd bet two thousand that's where he'd want to die, and I'd bet five thousand that he's not thinking about dying, he's busy holding that little kid up and smiling and talking with the parents and whoever else.

Myself, I'm young. So I wouldn't fit into the whole curmudgeon bit, not yet. Sometimes I'm happy, and if I'm not it's my own fault, it's just not clear thinking -- I've got a pretty good life going. Though I don't have a woman to give my love to I still have plenty of places to hand love out and I sure enjoy to do so, and I've got plenty given back to me. Sure, it's annoying that I have hairs sproinging out of my nose and twisting out wildly from ears and eyebrows, but I've got a good barber, not to mention all kinds of implements to hack all that shit back. I don't like that I'm going to be sore tomorrow but I'm damn sure going to enjoy driving that pickup around, showing it off, maybe the stereo too loud buy maybe not, maybe I'll try to act more normal today, more like a regular person would. I'll let you know how that works out.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:13 AM on October 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

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