As I’ve mentioned in a few previous essays, I turned fifty-five this past August. I know that isn’t a major milestone birthday for most people, but for some reason, it hit me harder than expected. I realize that my age is just a number and doesn’t really mean much beyond quantifying the time I’ve spent on earth. However, since I’m a deep thinker who’s prone toward pondering all sorts of things, I’ve been reflecting upon the various facets of reaching this particular stage in life.
In late August, I published an essay on my feelings about the physical manifestations of aging. In that post, I wrote about the ways in which I’m feeling challenged about looking older. The two main drivers of my discontent are overidentifying with my appearance and buying into societal attitudes and pressures regarding getting older.
In short, I place too much importance and value on the way I look, and Western societal attitudes and norms only make it harder for me and other women in my cohort to age. I didn’t reach any major epiphanies with my August post, but I did gain a better understanding of the issues I need to work on in order to better accept the way I look now. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about the topic of aging in 2022 and beyond, so stay tuned.
But looking older is only part of the equation around aging, so I’m going to delve into some of the mental and emotional issues in today’s post. I intended to publish this second part of my “reflections at fifty-five” series a while back, but I got derailed by my explorations of wardrobe do’s / don’ts and “third piece” challenges. So, before I move on to the 2021 wrap-up posts that I have planned, I decided to complete and publish this essay that I started several months ago. It’s actually not a bad thing that I waited to get this one out, as I have a few new ideas to write about now.
Reaching “Senior” Status
When does a person become a “senior”? As with most things in life, opinions vary. It’s kind of like asking when a person becomes an adult. Is it when he or she is able to vote? When they graduate from college? Get their first full-time job? Become fully self-supporting? Just as there’s no one right answer about the onset of adulthood, there’s no definitive benchmark of senior status, either. In many respects, it’s more like a continuum that we advance along as the years progress.
Although I was eligible for AARP membership upon my fiftieth birthday, when I turned fifty-five, I felt a lot more firmly entrenched in senior territory. I’m now eligible to reside in fifty-five-plus communities and receive discounts on cellular service and at certain restaurants. I was even able to take the senior shuttle from the airport to my mom’s house during my recent trip to Lake Tahoe. I was worried about my mom having to drive to the airport to pick me up from my late evening flight (flights between San Diego and Reno/Tahoe are scarcer these days), but she mentioned the local shuttle service as an alternative. My quick retort was, “Isn’t that for seniors?” I was then surprised when she came back with, “I think it starts at age fifty-five.”
That “senior shuttle” was my first real foray into senior status, but I was grateful to be able to use it and save my mom a late-night drive on a winding mountain highway (ride sharing services don’t even venture up to the Tahoe area). I joked with my family all week about how I’m now a senior. It stings a bit, but there can actually be good perks involved with getting older. I’ll have to wait until age sixty-five for most senior discounts and Medicare, but the senior designation is gradually being extended to me as I approach my late fifties. Yes, it’s nice to receive certain discounts and privileges, but I think I’d prefer to hang on to being “young” (or at least “younger”) for a bit longer.
One thing that’s weird about getting older is the large number of people I now encounter who are younger than me. What’s especially strange is that most of the doctors and other healthcare providers I visit are now mostly younger than I am. It used to be that I viewed doctors as being middle-aged, but now I’m the one who’s middle-aged (and getting to the upper end of that category), and many of my doctors are younger than me. Before too long, I suspect that they all will be!
I Am Older, But Do I Feel and Think Older?
When I was much younger, I used to think that older people were a lot different than I was. I believed that they thought differently and felt differently. I felt that we were worlds apart. Sure, there are always generational differences, but now that I’m inching rapidly toward “senior-hood,” I’ve come to some realizations.
Others in my age group may disagree with me, but I have to say that I don’t think or feel much different from my younger self in a lot of respects. I may look older now, but I still think much the same as I did back in my thirties. I don’t even particularly feel middle-aged. I haven’t automatically become “an older person” in terms of my thinking just because the calendar has progressed significantly.
I’m still interested in many of the same things that I liked back in my thirties, and my attitudes and viewpoints are also quite similar. When I talk to younger people, I sometimes forget how much older I am than they are. Sometimes younger people look at me differently, but in my heart, I’m still around the same age as them! My mindset is still much the same as it was twenty years ago in most respects. I’ll address a few key exceptions shortly, but first I want to recount a short story and introduce an important concept related to the mental and emotional aspects of aging.
Letting the Old Person In
My husband goes on long bike rides twice a week with a group of men, most of whom are older than him by ten years or more (he’s sixty-two). Not long ago, one of those men suddenly stopped doing the rides. When my husband asked another member of the group what had happened to the missing rider, the answer he received was,
“He let the old man in.”
It wasn’t that he was physically incapable of continuing to do the rides, but he believed that he was getting too old for it simply because of his chronological age. He bought into the rhetoric that is bandied about in the media and social circles about what people “of a certain age” can and can’t do. His limiting beliefs and his fear were what led him to stop riding, not any major physical limitations. After all, this man is about the same age as our current president and probably in at least as good physical condition.
The above story gives me pause and makes me think about my own situation. Have I let the old woman in? Has my chronic pain and the associated fear led me to become old before my time? There are definitely some physical activities I used to do that I no longer engage in. In my heart, I’d still love to do these things, but it’s my brain that holds me back as much or even more so than my body. Yes, I have stiff joints, migraines, and other challenges that limit what I can do, but those issues don’t have to derail me completely, just as my husband’s biking buddy didn’t have to cut off the rides cold turkey. He could have made some modifications that would have allowed him to continue, such as doing shorter rides or purchasing an electric bike. I can do the same thing with hiking and other types of physical activity.
Many of us take an “all or nothing” approach with the things we do in life. If we can’t perform at the same level as our younger selves, we may think we shouldn’t even bother engaging in activities we’ve loved for years. I’ve seen this with my parents, who both have some physical limitations in their late seventies. My mom used to love going on walks, but she doesn’t do it anymore because she can’t walk nearly as fast or far as she used to. The same is true for my dad with skiing, and he hasn’t skied for years now that he’s unable to soar down the slopes as swiftly as he once did. But isn’t it possible to still enjoy activities at a slower pace? The mind is more of an impediment than the body in many respects.
Is It Too Late to Do Certain Things?
A related issue we can have with getting older is feeling like it’s too late to do certain things. This is definitely an issue for me when I consider pursuing additional education or a new vocational pursuit. I sometimes feel like I’m just too old to embark upon such paths. But we all read or hear about people in their seventies or even eighties who graduate from college or take on new professional endeavors, so why can’t I – or any of us – do that, too?
But age is just one part of it… We often get set in our ways and become “comfortable” with the status quo. It can feel like it might take too much energy to make a change. Additionally, if we’ve experienced a lot of false starts, dead ends, or disappointments (as I certainly have), it may feel like too big of a risk to dive into something new. We don’t want to get our hopes up too much, and we may worry that we don’t have the energy or the drive to do what it takes. But what if we were to take things just one day at a time and do things simply for the joy of doing them?
A close friend started to do art at around the same age as I am now. She also struggles with chronic pain and symptoms, and the art was recommended to her by a health coach she was working with. While she doesn’t make a living as an artist, the art has brought a great deal of enjoyment to her life for over ten years now. If she had balked at taking it on because of her age, she would have missed out on all of the joy that it has added to her life. I’ve heard many other such stories of people who’ve taken on new hobbies, passions, educational paths, and even new careers and businesses in their later years. Again, what holds us back the most are our attitudes and beliefs, often so much more than anything that actually has to do with our age.
Fewer Dreams and a Shorter “Bucket List”
Speaking of detrimental beliefs related to aging, I no longer feel like “the world is my oyster.” I no longer believe that I can do anything I put my mind to, and I no longer feel like I have plenty of time to do everything that’s important to me. In fact, I’m not even exactly sure what’s important to me in many respects. I’ve let go of a lot of the dreams that I had when I was younger, and I haven’t really let myself dream new ones. Many people have a “bucket list,” a series of places to visit and accomplishments to fulfill before they breathe their last breath. I can think of some items to include on my list, but I now view them more as things I could do rather than what I absolutely must do.
Is that entirely a bad thing, though? I used to look down upon those who embraced a simple, contented existence, but I now believe there’s a peace in such a life that can’t be found in continual striving. Have too many of us bought into the societal precept that our worth lies in our accomplishments and accolades? I know I have… but I’m starting to think that a change in perspective might result in less anxiety and self-deprecation – and more happiness.
The almost two-year-long pandemic has certainly made me better appreciate the simple pleasures in life that so many of us take for granted. Maybe the main focus for the rest of my life should be to simply appreciate and enjoy each day to the best of my ability, cherish my loved ones, and engage in activities that make me happy. Maybe I don’t need to have lists of “to-dos” to check off to ensure that my life has been worthwhile. Those lists have never made me happy anyway, as I always seem to feel like I’m falling short and not getting enough done.
So, I’m ending this second “reflections at fifty-five” post with some powerful conclusions, as well as ongoing questions that I’ll continue to ponder as I weave along my path in life. It’s interesting getting older because I’ve noticed shifts in recent years in how I look at my journey, how I want it to feel, and what I want it to mean. Yes, I still feel like I’m in my thirties much of the time, but I know that I’m not, and I understand that there’s less time ahead of me than in the rear-view mirror. That is a fact, but it’s not something I wish to dwell on. It’s much better to focus on the now, as that is all we truly have and it’s where our lives reside.
My priorities have changed as I’ve moved through middle age, and I now more fully value being rather than doing and having. This is an evolving situation, though, and I still struggle with the tyranny of the “shoulds” and believing that the “perfect” pair of pants will suddenly make the world feel less crazy. Although cultivating a workable wardrobe won’t solve all of our problems or somehow make us immortal, it can make a difference in our happiness and peace.
Because I believe that clothes matter and are an important means of expressing ourselves to the world, I’ll continue to center the majority of my posts in this space around wardrobe-related topics. However, I also like to take a time-out from my main topic from time to time to write about “meatier” fare. I hope you enjoy both types of essays, and I hope this one was insightful and beneficial to you in some way. I welcome any feedback you’d like to share, especially if it’s about how you’re navigating your own mental and emotional issues related to aging.
I look forward to reading your comments on this post. In case I don’t come back with another essay before Christmas (we all tend to have more going on this time of year), I want to extend warm wishes to all of my readers who celebrate that holiday. I know we all hoped the state of the world would be more favorable by now than it is and that the global pandemic would be better controlled. It’s not the holiday season that many of us envisioned, but I hope you’ll still be able to enjoy a more scaled down version of your celebrations. And even if you’re not able to share the day with all of your loved ones, may they feel your caring spirit from afar.
I wish all of you the best always, and I’ll be back soon with some 2021 wrap-up posts, including my best and worst purchases of the year. Merry Christmas to you!