A New Beginning: Crossing from Aging into Old Age.

I’ve lived with death or the anticipation of death for at least fifty years now.  That was when my father died.  His early departure somehow convinced me that my own would follow by the time I reached fifty.  Bleak as that may sound, I learned to deal with these feelings in ways that have not limited the way I live.  By emphasizing how fragile and uncertain life is, the nearness of death taught me to value and savor life much more.

While on friendly enough terms with death, I’ve kept old age at bay.  The kind of limitations and decrepitude it spoke has remained someone else’s business—until recently.

Recently, a friend, Ronni Bennett, noted a comparable shift of consciousness. “When I started this blog back in 2004, there was literally nothing good being written anywhere in the popular press about growing old.”  Everything people did write “made getting old sound so awful…that I thought then I might as well shoot myself at age 62.”  Instead, Ronni, like almost every other aging blogger and memoirist, wrote about the virtues of aging.  Lately, while struggling with pancreatic cancer, Ronni says that she’s come to believe that she’s “overdone the positive sides of aging or, maybe, underplayed the difficulties…Getting old is hard. Most younger people (including ourselves back then) have no idea what courage it takes to keep going in old age.”

She continues:  “From simple aches and pains with or without a particular cause to the big deal “diseases of age” like cancer, heart disease and others that afflict elders in much greater numbers than young people to counting out medications, following special diets, exercises, etc., it takes a lot of work, a lot of gumption to grow old.”

Most of us who have crossed into the seventies know this list very well but, except among ourselves, limit our complaints. There are many reasons why.  To begin, we know that young people don’t especially want to know.  It bores them. It frightens them.  It represents a kind of burden or potential burden .  Then, again, we, ourselves, don’t want to know.  We don’t want to project a terrible future for ourselves.  We are also afraid of not being taken seriously, of being discarded, which is what happens when we emphasize our diminishment.  Then, too, we have our own deeply internalized injunctions against kvetching and making a burden of ourselves.  Some of us retain certain arrogant ideas about ourselves—others my age are diminished but not me.  I’m stronger than most.  Translated, this means that we believe ourselves to be more virtuous.

I visited Alaska recently and met a women who fashioned herself a tough old bird.  She had read a few of my essays, liked them well enough to talk with me, and wondered if I wanted some feedback.  “Of course,” said I.  A week later, she wrote back a scathing critique of my “whining.”  What’s the solution to the vulnerability I wanted to articulate as prelude to my wondrously positive conclusions?  “Buck up,” she advised.  My new Alaskan friend might be tougher than most, but she represents feelings that many, maybe most of us share: a preference for stoicism.

On January 2, I had shoulder surgery, nothing compared to Ronni’s struggles.  But it is a notoriously painful operation, making it hard to sleep, unable to move freely—the shoulder and arm have to be immobilized for five or six weeks.  The sleeplessness and inaction along with oxicodone and Tylenol dulled my mind, limiting me to reading pulp fiction and staring glumly at TV series.  I have needed help with almost everything, from dressing to making a cup of coffee.  Having built a life around a an overly independent and highly active temperament, the neediness and dependence have been depressing.  Even as I reminded myself that this condition should be brief, I didn’t entirely believe it.

In youth, I’d readily write off such fears as neurotic and momentary.  That was then.  At my age and with the spate of illnesses, injuries, and surgeries I have had during the last few years, these premonitions seemed apt and not so exaggerated.

Of course I still have the freedom to respond to these ‘realizations’ in many different ways.  Stoically, for example, is my default position and I still do it pretty well.  Denial is a second strategy.  But I don’t do denial very well. I’ve always been pretty honest with myself.  If I see a trend—more injuries and illnesses, leading to greater inaction and dependence—I see a trend.  My best temperamental quality, though, is my belief that I will see difficulties through, that I will ultimately learn and profit from them.  If, in old age, I can’t return to athletic form, I can at least grow wiser.

That belief has been the gist of my essays: transforming lemons into lemonade; learning from fears and vulnerabilities; growing deeper through insight into my problems.  I have long seen this kind of learning as the road to wisdom, and wisdom has long been my goal.  So why would I deny or shuck off the very experiences from which I learn the most.

For the simple reason that the promise to cross over from struggle to triumph, to emerge on the other side, seems less of a sure thing when you are older—and older in that new country where you are likely to face more and more powerful challenges with diminishing resources at hand.

Confronted with this very vivid reality, there is a second, strangely attractive path to follow.  Yielding to age, suffering, dependence and all of those terrifying possibilities.  There is something seductive in diminishment.  It’s like the approach of a lover who is both beautiful and ugly.  She’s singing a quiet song, promising comfort: come to me; it’s not so bad.  Be honest.  Just look at yourself.  You can’t deny the decline.  Why fight it?

As with everyone I know, some small part of me has always wanted to give up.  When I’m challenged.  When I’m defeated.  When I’m down.  When I simply don’t want to please all those voices in my that have urged me to keep trying, to succeed, to be strong, to be good.  They have been such powerful  voices that, paradoxically, part of me has also wanted to defy them.  Yielding to the siren song of resignation can seem restful, peaceful. “I’ve done what I’ve done and don’t have to do any more.  At last, I can rest.”

But I’m not ready to rest—not yet; hopefully, not for a long time; and there may be something for me to learn from crossing into a new reality of old age.

Oddly enough, old age feels new, and, in spite of the great metrics of my recent bloodwork, my shoulder surgery, my broken wrist, and my hiatal hernia, seem to have hurried ushered me into old age.  I’ll have to wander in this  new territory, get the lay of the land, figure out how not to dwell in its terrors, and, by keeping an open mind, learn to observe what is deep, beautiful, and lively.  How strange.  To come a new place and, once again, become a learner.





Is Friendship Enough

(In this essay, I mention my sister and her depression.  She has written very candidly about her condition on Facebook, wanting to bring depression out from behind the veil of secrecy and shame.  She has read my essay and has encouraged me to publish it with her name in tact).


When her husband died ten years ago, my sister suffered a terrible depression.  Since then, she has tried almost every therapeutic approach—to no avail.  I just spent three days with her at the Mayo Clinic, where she is undergoing Electro Convulsive Treatment—Shock Therapy—as a kind of last resort—and that, at last, seems promising.

When she’s not depressed, and even when she is, Jackie is an extraordinary person.  She created, owns, and manages the major art gallery in Alaska, gives hundreds of thousands of dollars of its pretty modest proceeds to charity, plays a significant role in the civic life of Anchorage, and has many good and devoted friends.

During hours and hours of conversation, as we sat in Mayo’s Med-Psych unit, I asked Jackie why her friendships had not been able to nourish her, to provide enough affection and companionship to finally let the loss of her husband fade into the distance.  “They don’t fill the void,” she said.  “And Mark did?,” I asked.  “He adored me,” she responded, as though that clarified matters to me.  “It’s not the same.”

Friendship is enough for some.  Our mother, for instance, also had many close friends.  She always wanted to have a man but, late in life, she settled for friendship.  It’s like having what the British psychiatrist, Winnicott, famously called a “good enough” mother.  The sufficiency of friends also seems beautifully lived by Ronni Bennett, the wonderful author of the blog, Time Goes By.  Just three weeks ago, she had surgery for a raging pancreatic cancer.  While she regrets the absence of family (link), Ronni seems almost entirely able to depend on friends.

Why isn’t friendship enough for some, or most, of us?  Why is friendship so undervalued?  We live in a society that has greatly diminished the hold of extended families and larger clans.  Sociologists continually worry about the growing social isolation that comes as a result.  Why doesn’t friendship save us from that fate?  In fact, the opposite may be true.  Friendship may even be in decline in American society.

Most of us would agree that friendship is immensely satisfying.  It provides companionship, warmth, and reassurance without the restrictive bonds of families.  We choose our friends because they charm or intrigue or touch us.  We choose them to match our needs.  Friendship is even healthy. People with more and better social relationships, including family and friends, live longer and healthier lives.  The opposite is also true: social isolation is as much a health risk as smoking.

And yet, all of our surveys show that friends lag far behind romantic partners, children, parents in our hierarchy of relationships.  Take a look at your local bookstore and you’ll find the shelves bursting with advice about couples and families but almost nothing about friendship.  Go to a professional conference and you’ll find very few panels or seminars on friendship.

Friendship seems to have a clear developmental trajectory.  It is strong in adolescence and youth, often close to romance in its intensity.  With marriage, children, and work, it tails offs considerably, reassuring in its presence and possibility but too rare in daily experience.  Retirement and old age bring renewed energy, time, and interest in friendship.  What’s more, our friends are also available.  And not just those you have kept up with but also friends from all stages of life, some of whom you had lost touch with for decades. With retirement, it feels wonderful when a friend asks when you’re free and you can say “Any day next week works for me.”  What a relief that I have friends.  What a joy.  What a key to late life, or so it seems to me.

Joyous as it is, however, it does not have the weight of family, certainly not the importance of husbands, wives, and children.  Given the availability and renewed pleasure, I thought it worthwhile to speculate about the limited value we accord to friendship, even when it serves as our daily bread.

First, and most obviously, the cultural imagery that we grow up with lends much more weight to family.  “Blood is thicker than….. “ … you name it.  We are trained to be deeply loyal to family and only modestly so to friends.  This isn’t just internalized imagery.  It is enforced day after day by people around us.  How could you not visit your mother in the assisted living facility, loan money to your brother, and, most of all, take care of your children.

Family is bound by ritual in ways that friendship isn’t.  Weddings, christenings, bar mitzvahs.  Birthday and Christmas parties, Passover seders and Easter hunts.  Year after year, they signal a bond.  Friends may create ritualistic events—annual Fourth of July parties and the like, but, like everything else, those ‘rituals’ primarily populated by friends feel voluntary, less weighty.  That may be why we love them but they’re not as important.

Second, there is something paradoxical about friendship.  It is freely chosen but it is also freely departed.  It’s as though the freedom reduces its emotional hold on us.  Similarly, the informality of friendship—“Just call when you want to get together”—is a balm and somehow minimizes its weight.

Talk about paradoxical.  I keep using words like “weight” and “bound by,” indicateing a strong valence, and using it in a mostly positive way.  But I wonder if the comparative “lightness” and unbounded quality of friendship robs it of its importance.

In families, the issue of control is ever present.  Parents and children struggle over control throughout their relationships.  Couples regularly struggle for control.  These struggles begin at marriage and birth—finding names; determining rituals; deciding whether to buy a house—and last beyond death—what should our will should say; how shall we should be buried and by whom.

Friendship is virtually defined by its lack of control, its informality.  Strange that this may be why we value it less?  Control issues enter friendship, as they do any relationships, but are managed much more simply, much more lightly.  “Where should we meet for coffee?  I guess we met near my place last time.  I’ll come to you.”  At the hint of struggle, a friend might back off for a while, then ease back.  It works so well.

Third, I think we “invest” less of ourselves in our friendships, less of our self confidence and identity.  They don’t define us the way family does.  Again, we come to the idea that the freedom of friendship somehow lessens its value.

Finally, there’s the question of stress.  We bond with far greater intensity with people with whom we’ve shared intense, often stressful experience.  Families are like army units who, when facing enemy fire, depend absolutely on one another.  The connection becomes profound.  Families become like Spielberg’s and Hank’s “Band of Brothers,” whose characters touched us so deeply.  The usually peaceful culture of friendship, however relaxing and reassuring, doesn’t seem to measure up.

Ultimately, I am raising this question because I would like to find a way to bring the nourishment of friendship more deeply into my heart, into our hearts.  Friends matter to me.  Day by day, they give my life much of its color and flavor.  Every time, I look forward to coffee at 11:00 and drinks at 5:00. I am particularly candid with some and they are with me.  We know each other.  We learn and hold the stories of each other’s lives.

I don’t know if friends would be enough if I lost my wife and dread even the possibility of finding out.  What about you?

Introducing Time Goes By

Dear Readers,

I’d like to break precedent.  Instead of discussing my own ideas, I’d like to introduce you to a wonderful new friend and resource.

I’ve recently gotten to know Ronni Bennett,  who a mutual acquaintance calls the Empress of Aging.  Her Time Goes Byhttp://www.timegoesby.net/ , is the most delightful and informative blog on aging that you will find on the net.  She keeps you up to date on news and strategic thinking about aging, health care, and the politics of both.  Her blog often takes the form of moving, hilarious, and personal essays, written with a light and deft hand, through links to tv programs, webinars, John Oliver-type humorists, and music to remind us of the nineteen fifties, sixties, and seventies.  In a recent conversation, Ronni confessed that she was imprinted by Ed Sullivan and her blog does, in fact, serve as a variety show for our generation—and others.  You’ll love it.