How to Be Old

We kids used to call our grandmother “The Colonel” (behind her back) because she marched through life, giving orders. She was German, you see, and she fit the stereotype perfectly. She was inordinately fond of order, and she found little of it on her semiannual visits to her daughter’s disorderly family. “You people,” she’d grumble, shaking her head and waving an accusatory finger, as if we were aliens and hopeless cases.

When Grandma wasn’t criticizing she was complaining about this or that — mostly about her failing health and her sad lot in life. Her only other child, a beloved son, had died young; and her loving husband had died not long after. We couldn’t replace them.

Nothing seemed to cheer her, nothing that we kids did to amuse her – dance, sing, tell silly jokes – succeeded. Without meaning to she became our role model of how not to be when we got old. Who needs a grumpy old lady in their life, anyway?

Now that I’m considerably older than she was when my sisters and I were small, I find I have more compassion for her. It’s no joke being an old person, I now know. Old age presents enormous, unforeseen challenges, pains and losses.

As the body, this shell we’re wrapped in, begins to break down, we feel betrayed. As the face, which used to catch men’s eye, becomes unrecognizable, we feel invisible, negated. As stamina wanes, we feel increasingly limited. In case anyone is interested in knowing this, it’s really, really hard to be a cheery old person – and especially, speaking from recent experience, a cheery old lady.

So what to do? Take happy pills? Fake it? Keep your mouth shut (as Dale Carnegie admonished in his super-best-seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Never criticize, condemn or complain”)? Put a make-believe smile on your face at all times in public? Wear wild, brightly colored scarves and large, jazzy jewelry to distract and elicit compliments from onlookers? Strive to be younger and cooler than you ever were?

In an effort to try to answer these questions, I did a little research this week on the subject. I ordered several books on Kindle on the general topic How to Be Old, and I read them in quick succession. What a disappointment. What silly, stupid, shallow so-called “books” (I hold real books to a higher standard) these were. I must keep searching.

Dead leaves on the walkway by the duck pond in SMA, MX

In the meantime, I can say this for sure — to paraphrase Kermit the Frog — “it isn’t easy being old — looking and feeling like a pile of dead leaves….” So, I tell myself, we must take up the challenge and work on it every day: Draw on our inner strength (I ask God for my daily dose of strength each morning), stand as tall as possible (given the givens), keep going forward poco a poco, count blessings and eschew criticism and complaints (because what good do they do?).

Here in Mexico some of the sting of aging is assuaged by the fact that elders are generally respected. You can always count on getting a seat on a bus, for example, because a young person – usually a gallant young man – will rise quickly and give you his.

But I’m not really talking about externals here. What I’m driving at is the inner issue: How do we live with ourselves as old people? How do we look at our foreign reflection in the mirror and face the person we’ve become – despite our best efforts to arrest our inevitable decline – and embrace her (or him) with love, dignity, and grace? How do we make friends with this person and exude some joie de la vie for the rest of our vies?

If you’re looking to me for answers, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m still seeking them myself. All I know is I don’t want to be remembered as a grumpy old lady like my German grandma tended to be. Perhaps she knew no better. I have no such excuse.

30 thoughts on “How to Be Old”

  1. Oh Bonnie, I so hear you. I guess I just remind myself to be grateful for all the little things, having no choice but to renunciate the big things that will never happen.
    Yesterday. I got a text with a copy of my granddaughter’s list of what she was thankful for and I made it to number one. This is a grandchild of love not blood, the daughter of a student who took me as her mother 25 years ago and I opened my arms to that, not knowing the ups and downs of what that life journey would mean. My granddaughter amongst other things said she was most grateful for the memories I always take the time to create with her and that she will keep this in her heart forever.
    25 years ago I might have resented anything that took me away from my studio in my free time, but now I realize that the gift of old age for me are the experiences and life lessons I can offer her. Hearing this from a 13 year old made me happy to be old and wrinkled because that means I am wise enough to know how this little gesture will overflow my weary arthritic bones with gratitude and love. It is the beautiful gift of living this long. I will try to remember this when I look at my unrecognizable face in the morning!
    One thing I am truly grateful for is finding your WOW writings in my inbox. Thank you!

  2. Bonnie,
    I thank my long-gone mother every day for her negativity, grumbling and pessimistic outlook. It’s true, she had a difficult childhood, unloved and made to feel a burden. It’s true, life was an increasing disappointment, and by the time she lost her health and vigor, there was the having to deal with the disappointment of her failing body, and the reliance on her daughter- me! Losing one’s independence is a bitter pill to swallow. But my gratitude arises because I constantly reminded her of what she DID have, and in my efforts to make her less disappointment, I worked hard at coming up with a plethora of positive, wonderful things to be grateful for. This exercise from a young age, became ingrained in my psyche.
    Now, in my 60’s, I too am shocked by the failing of my body. Where is the strength I have always relied on? The loss of estrogen feels like the greatest betrayal that Mother Nature has gifted us women. The thinning hair, the loss of elasticity of one’s skin. Even when I feel emotionally terrific, the image in the mirror portrays a lacklustre similarity to my youthful image….That is, until I smile. And then the focus becomes the merriment of the eyes. The windows of the soul, are they not?
    My response to getting older? To provide my body and mind with what it needs. Healthier food, good sleep, lots and lots of water, and three types of exercise. Stretches to remind my body that it still is required to function, and a little weight training. I fill up two plastic bottles with water and lift them in various ways for 10 minutes.
    I am a gardener, when the time allows, and dealing with the challenges of each season, distracts me as much as it inspires me.
    I am a lover of music and reading and I seek to be stimulated and inspired by beautiful creations from brilliant composers and writers.
    Because I am a mother of an 18 year old son who suffers epilepsy, I am isolated from a society that is focussed on their successes and materialistic gratifications. Instead of feeling bitterness (which I nearly became swallowed by), I discovered friends through the virtual world of the internet. What a wonderful journey it was to learn about people’s lives in different parts of the world. To learn, too, that we all have our insecurities and fears, despite appearing not so.
    The cultures that have got it right, are the ones that value the elderly. Their experience and different ways of looking at life are valued and rejoiced. Indeed, grandparents fill such a role in a young child’s life, that it makes me realise that having children is perhaps our first go at it, and being a grandparent allows us to focus on the important parts of the relationship, without the “daily rituals” of earning a living, cooking, cleaning etc.
    I will probably never be a grandparent. My future is an uncertain one because I worry about how my son will manage when I am gone. Again, the internet is giving me the information that could perhaps cure or reduce his seizures. It is a condition after all, in his case, that is probably metabolic. There are instances that I’ve read about where the person is totally cured. So why not him?
    I have written too much for this forum, but I’ll finish up by saying that the way I cope the most, is to focus on others. Find people that you can laugh with. Laughter is so healing! Without that, seek things that bring a smile to your face. I am not perfect, and I struggle too, but I really am grateful to still be alive. So, so many people have not had the chance to grow older.

    1. Dear Loula — You have not written too much for this forum. I love the fact that WOW readers can chime in as they feel inspired to and share their thoughts on these issues. Thank you for sharing yours. We all can benefit from them. Best wishes to you always. And Happy Thanksgiving. — Bonnie

      1. I am a lady who just turned 80
        In my head I’m far from dead
        I face each day as a fresh start
        With the joy of “being”
        With Love in my heart
        I may not look like I am young
        But I still have many songs unsung
        Laura Rauch Feldman

      1. Thank you, dear Dorothy. I love the fact that so many WOW readers are responding to this post and adding their own insights. I’m thrilled that this blog is becoming a meaningful conversation (and not just my own thoughts and words). — My best to you, Bonnie

  3. This reminds me of the first time I felt old. In 2010 was in Florence where all the women are young and thin. I felt myself lumbering through town, frumpy and invisible. And I decided right then, I was going to feel young inside and do things that would make me feel young inside (like you). I know that feeling probably won’t last much longer, but I’m hanging on to it for now. 🙂

  4. Very thought-provoking, Bonnie. What a great contra-role model your grandma was!

    Having turned 70 just last July, I don’t really know what it is to be old—yet. I hear the 70s are shocking, and since I’m just entering them, I can’t yet testify. But something happened to me the week before I turned 70. Or maybe it was the day before. I realized that I had lived a good long life. That I had less to lose now that my life was 70-80% over, at least. And with less to lose, I could risk more. When you have nothing left to strive for, you can start to truly live life according to your own code, whims, and desires. It’s liberating. xoxo ~ Be

    1. Yes, BeDear. And my father was a great contra-model too! 🙂 Your comment triggered memories for me of Janis Joplin’s song, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Yes, the 70s DO feel liberating — as in, Who cares what anyone thinks about me now?! Turning 70 is truly a big turning point, and a really good one. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. — LU, BB xx

  5. Oh no Bonnie, I was hoping you had a crystal ball. We were all once at the top of the food chain, and now yesterday’s left over. There has to be a way for us oldies to shine as we paved the way. I remember some time ago, you mentioned someone that you interviewed working on a book about the aging process. Can you remember who that may be? There must be a way to celebrate us WOW’s

    1. Dear Terry — You’re not the only one who wishes I owned a crystal ball; I do too! 🙂 At this point I think we all have to muddle through on our own, doing the best we can to stand tall and shine bright. As for the person who was working on a book about the aging process, no one I know (besides myself) comes to mind. (Memory loss???) I once seriously considered writing such a book, but no publisher was interested. Instead, they seem to want to publish jokey, cartoony books about old age. Sad. 🙁

  6. Lovely and thoughtful post Bonnie. I’m hanging on to that younger feeling daily too, and am grateful I’m still able to do all I do every day is truly a blessing! Xx ~susan

  7. I didn’t know I was old until the pandemic. Our local news advised us to look out for our “elderly neighbors” and as I talked about how I would assist ours, Señor Roberto informed me that we were the elderly neighbors that were supposed to be looked out for. It came as somewhat of a surprise to me despite being 74.

    My mother was a model on aging well. She lived to be 95 but more than that, she lived well and on her own until her last few months. I’ve tried to look at what her secrets might have been — exercise, eating right, gardening, a community surrounding her –all the things the experts tell us that the super old do.

    But I think it’s more than that. A while ago, I had lunch with a cousin who is a just a year or two older than me. The entire time he complained about “the young people these days” “nobody was raised like we were” everything is broken, the world has changed and all for the worse. It sounded so old to me. It’s not just the body that gets old, I think the mind gets old too, struck in the past.

    I have somewhat recovered from feeling old during the pandemic. Partly that’s because I was recruited for a high level lawyer position with a firm in London and I work every day from home and commute there every two months or so. I lead a group of lawyers younger than my children and I respect them for their endurance and enthusiasm and they seem to admire the strategic thinking and perspective that my years of experience bring. I think having younger friends is good medicine.

    There is always something that needs to be done and sometimes those of us who are “old” are the ones who need to do it. I read somewhere that the fight for legalized abortion in Ireland was begun by three or four “elderly” women who turned themselves in to the Irish police for possession of illegal contraceptives. Really, no one wanted to prosecute somebody’s grandmother for possession of contraceptives.

    So much to think about on this day of gratitude. Happy holidays, dear Bonnie and thanks as always for the thought provoking post.

    .

    1. OMG, dear Carol, how I appreciate your input and p.o.v.on this. I especially love your line, “There is always something that needs to be done and sometimes those of us who are ‘old’ are the ones who need to do it.” You are the perfect role model for “doing it.” Mucho love and enormous thanks, BB xx

  8. Dear Bon,
    I have no answers. Either it’s a question that has no answers since the combined wisdom of ages that follows your blog hasn’t figured it out or everyone has to find her or his own answer.
    What I do know is you are one of the least grumpy people I know. This blog proves that. You bring light and joy to everyone who reads it. Grumpy people aren’t capable of that. They withhold all their love and approval because they believe they receive none. You have always been able to find those things around you because you radiate them from within. And you always will because it’s who you are.
    Love,
    Paul

    1. Dearest Paul — your lovely comments should come with the disclaimer that you are the president of the BB fan club! 🙂 (My mom used to hold that position, but since she’s long gone…) Thank you, dear one, for your sweet words. I guess I just don’t socialize when I’m feeling grumpy. But, yes, I do think we all have to grope our way to the answers to these questions for ourselves; we’re all on different paths. Mucho love to you from MX, BB xx

  9. I have a MUST read for all of you. Barbara Pagano has just published THE 60-SOMETHiNG CRiSIS-/How to Live an Extraordinary Life in Retirement. Well Written, we’ll-researched, packed with actionable advice. She talks about 4 life portals. The third portal is freedom. This portal is about “fiercely owning your life.”
    I have just returned from SMA. A project I was passionate about came to fruition. I had just read Barbara’s book. One of her questions, “What yield do you want?” Her book helped me center on my goal.
    Anyway, the only limits you have are self-imposed…. I will be 76 in February. Most of us are in the “4th quarter.” Barbara’s book will help you make it your best! And Barbara will be in SMA one more week!

  10. You articulate well what many of us older woman are dealing with daily. I do try to live just one day at a time and stay focused in the present moment. It helps somewhat to keep those boundaries intact. I have a hybrid memoir coming out in 2023 where I also deal with aging: DREAMING MYSELF INTO OLD AGE: ONE WOMAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING.

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