The eighties, from near and afar

Several events have converged to make me think about the the eighth and ninth decades. My brother turned 80 last week, I saw the film "Amour", and I learned of the death of a cousin, at 86, following a fall.

I also returned to reading Susan Jacoby's well-researched, powerful "Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age".
Though tough, unsentimental, unsparing, I recommend both the film and book as preparation for the eighties and beyond, or for relationships with those there now. Both refute the myth that by the time we hit the eighties, if we get that far, the challenges of old age will be conquered through science and, if we have to wait, expensive creams  as a stop-gap.

The facts are different. If turning (as I am) 65 this year, Jacoby reports that I have a 50% chance of a) incurring some form of degenerative brain disease, or b) spending significant time in a nursing home in my remaining years. And, as they say, nobody gets out alive. Much as boomers would like, we will not be centenarians dancing on cruise ships with our bionic body parts, memories preserved by brain games.

Dad used to repeat the adage that "old age is not for sissies". It takes inner strength, a courage to face the losses, whether of your favourite glasses, your balance, or your dearest friends. You need strength to head out for a walk even if you're aching, to form new habits, reconcile your dreams with the reality of what really happened.

Strength cannot be developed without acceptance, and acceptance isn't forthcoming if a woman refuses (like Goldie Hawn) to be called "grandma" (or some variant), when she is one. 

Denying you are where you are in the process of living subverts the tasks of each stage, and you end up an immature 80-something. Believe me, I've known some; they and the people around them are miserable.

Those on the threshold of entering "the young old" stage (according to Jacoby, 65 to 80) are preoccupied with their changing looks, but such worries subvert the gathering of inner strength that we need to go the distance.

Charlotte Rampling (67) spoke recently about the urge to surgically re-set the clock in an interview:

You've got to wait," she says. "You've got not to panic, not to be frightened, and not to change your face. You need your face to grow with you," she says. You mean plastic surgery? "Yeah, because then people don't know what age you are. You look a certain age but there is a problem with that if women can't live with their faces as they're growing into them. There's always a frightening point when your face starts to change, and that's when you want to change it. But if you go through that change – and it lasts quite a long time, maybe 10 years – then you find actually that you've grown into an older face."

(Retrieved from The Independent, April 8, 2012)

Yes, Rampling's magnificent bone structure has given her a position of privilege, but whether beauties or not, what would happen if we rejected the idea that there is something shameful about wrinkles, sags or looking the age we are?

A lot less self-denigration and unproductive worry, for one thing. 

Looks are only a superficial, minor part of the journey, but I was heartened to see in "Amour", the co-star, Emanuelle Riva, with character and beauty abundant in her 85-year-old face. In an interview with Anna Tatarska, published on the web site Fandor, Riva said:

"The most important thing is not to fear life. One needs to keep calm when facing old age. Fear destroys everything. You have to experience friendship and love with such fullness and tenderness as in Michael Haneke’s film. I mean real love, not first affection or being enchanted. If we manage to direct our thoughts in this direction and receive similar impulses, we will get peace and happiness in return."

Jacoby would say that Riva is a lucky exception, a super-elder. But I hope she wins that Oscar for the magnificence of her performance. And if not, she will have won the admiration of many for her second-harvest artistry.



Caryl said…
What an extraordinary (and beautifully-written) post.
I too am turning 65 this year and I am beginning to
think of it as the age of the acceptance. All this
fuss about my physical self changing of the past
few years has given way to an understanding of
what it mean to be alive, stay alive, embrace living
in all its dimensions in the years to come. And, like
you, I am rooting for Riva!
Madame Là-bas said…
Yes, this post is meaningful and relevant to many of us.
I will order the book. As I watch my parents and their friends in their 80's (20 years older than me), I wonder
will it be dementia or heart problems or Parkinson's for me and Monsieur? Appearance is important but it will not stop us from getting old. My grandmother and mother have been blessed with lovely, wrinkle-free faces which in some ways have made ageing more difficult.
We can take care of ourselves physically but we still need to do the emotional and spiritual work to achieve acceptance because we will need it. For a year, before my father died, I was visiting the Extended Care Unit, and I am no longer afraid to look at the frail elderly. My mother, who is 81, felt that my dad's situation was demeaning. It is because we only see the portrayal of super-elders. Thanks for sharing this post.
Susan said…
One of the most frightening sights (in my opinion) is an obviously older woman who has had so many "things" done to her face that she looks desperate, unhappy, scary, and decidedly not very attractive. I LIKE the idea of embracing an older self. In fact, I find it fascinating. At the same time, I've just begun the journey (at 60). I am very well aware of limited time. Almost every day my husband and I remind ourselves to have fun, enjoy ourselves more, and make the most of every day.

Thanks for this post. It was beautifully written and I will think about it all day (especially as I am off to a doctor's appointment. I like the fact that my doctor is both a woman and just a few years older than I am. She has been a great mentor for menopause.)
materfamilias said…
Couldn't agree with you more, especially as I'm currently staring my Mom's 80s in the face, and only 22 years younger than she. I had hoped to see Amour yesterday on the day I declared a just-me, catch-up day, but it turned out I need more rest than I thought I did. I hope to see it soon.
Anonymous said…
I also read Susan Jacoby's book and although I am not yet 60 I live in an area full of 80+ people. I have seen what living too long does to you and I see the way they deny, deny, deny. My neighbour's husband had Alzheimer's and yet she herself went into denial that she would ever get the disease herself.

I am so adamant about not ending up in LTC that I will stop getting any sort of cancer testing by age 70. Very shortly assisted suicide will be available for terminal cancer but not for people with dementia. I will take the SAGE test every year and at the first sign of dementia I will take a big pile of street drugs, heroin or methadone will do the trick nicely if I can't get a hold of barbiturates.

There is no way I would wish to live long enough to die of Alzheimer's and it's my worst nightmare but unlike 99 percent of people I plan ahead. I am amazed at how many people just accept it and have no plans at all. They are like my neighbour just live in a state of denial of old-old age until it hits you smack in the face.
LunaStitches said…
Thank you so much for your lovely post. Your comments brought tears to my eyes. At 57, I am missing my parents and thinking of how much time I have left (not that any of us know). I am trying to remember during my busy days to truly focus on my friends and loved ones and to let go of any unproductive attachment to superficial things that I can't control - not always easy!
Lorrie said…
Aging has been much on my mind lately. I'm 56, my parents are 76 and 78 - healthy and active. But they are slowing down. It's inevitable and I am working on acceptance - both of my parents' aging and my own.

My husband directs long-term care for our region and he says a heart attack while active would be a wonderful thing.

Life is a precious gift. I'm not afraid of death itself, but I'm not looking forward to getting there. Acceptance is more important than appearance. Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post.
Chicatanyage said…
I too saw the film Amour. I thought it was wonderfully acted and produced and Emmanuelle was superb. She deserves to win an oscar. It was also very thought provoking and sobering. I intend to have practical plans for the future after which not dwell on it too much or I risk missing the present.
Duchesse said…
Caryl: I love your term, the age of acceptance.

Mme: Not a cheery read, but important; full of facts that counter the myth. Time in care facilities and even retirement homes gives us a truer picture. One of the things my parent's oldest friends said we "Travel while you can."

Susan: Not many doctors discuss aging in a preventive way (figuring, I suppose, it's depressing) but more are starting to. Mine is dedicated to bone density.

materfamilias: If you are sensitive to searing movies you might want to wait. You are living certain aspects of the film now.

Anonymous@11:20: Oh you *must* see the film "The Barbarian Invasions" (2003, dir. Denys Arcand) if you have not. Here in Québec, we are moving on legislation similar to Oregon's, which I support.

LunaStitches: Gracefully put, thank you.

Lorrie: Though I see the grace of a quick death, I have also seen people want time to say their goodbyes. Both my parents were adamant that they did not want to linger, kept alive artificially- and they did not- but they planned and also had some luck.

Chicatanyage: I believe there will be a great 'revolution' in options given to the terminally ill, in many more countries than currently available. And since everyone is terminal, that's a good thing.

Thank for this excellent post. The issue of ageing well and gracefully has been on my mind for a while. Although I am not entering my 80s (actually I am turning 40 later this year), my mother turned 70 last month, and she has been obsessing over the changes in her face and body for the past few years. She comes from a traditional Chinese background and a generation of women who were brought up to be "tai tais" (I guess the closest English equivalent would be "ladies who lunch"). She feels sad and desperate and in turn, I feel sad and desperate for her. I am hoping she will learn gradual acceptance in the coming decade.

I will go check out the book and the movie - thank you for the recommendations.
Anonymous said…
Thank you so much for this. I have lost two friends in the past month, one a little older than I am, and one who was only 37. It does take courage to face life, whatever it brings.
Jean S said…
Yes yes yes. A wonderful post.

As the writer Annie Lamott says, "We are all terminal on this bus." And Caryl, I also love the "age of acceptance."

I have restarted my yoga practice. One thing I love about my current class is that most of the people in it are women in their 60s and 70s. Hurrah to them!
Susan said…
Duchesse, Bone density is so important at our age. I am just home from my exercise class a bit ago--a class that centers on weight bearing exercise which stimulates osteoclasts (I think that's it) in our bones. Ideally, this type of exercise needs to be done three times a week for a period of time. I need to up my weight bearing exercise by 1/3.

Our nutritionist told us just today that this type of exercise is much more important than taking calcium supplements or eating calcium rich foods (even though this is important too). SO MUCH to think of as we age. One thing that has helped me reach acceptance of changes in my appearance body is the fact that I have never been happier. I just feel fortunate that age 60 is such a happy time for me with relative good health and a happy marriage and family. A few wrinkles or a bit of sagging is small potatoes.
Marti said…
Thank you so much for your post today. I have turned 68 recently and also spent the past year adjusting and coping with the fact that I have an incurable cancer that is now, thankfully,in remission. Surprisingly to me it has been a rich and fulfilling year of focusing on the important, beautiful and joyful things and people in my life, and the worries of looking and feeling older have been supplanted with a true thankfulness for each day. Live each day at a time always sounded so trite, so to find such peace in that wisdom, still has me astounded. I am so enjoying your blog. Thank you for your wisdom and insight.
Susan Partlan said…
Thank you for this thoughtful post. I'm about to turn 55 and am highly aware that this is the beginning of the home stretch.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for this post! I've just requested "Never Say Die" from our library system. I'm a year behind you - just turned 64 - but am really starting to give thought to entering the last stage of life. My health, other than weight, has been good and I pray that continues. But I think a lot about the "nuts & bolts" of life in the future for DH and me. So many unknowns!
JoyceP in Wisconsin
gaby daly said…
There IS a way to maintain.

If you follow this link for information about a BBC Horizon program you can see Dr Michael Mosley trying it out.
pinkazalea said…
I love your blog. But sometimes I wish we were all sitting around the table talking about these things. I am 62. I have not had plastic surgery, but some day I might. As I age, I plan to stay as fit and limber as I can and keep my weight where I feel good. I feel better on the thin side. We have two older friends, a married couple. She is seventy-something and he is eighty-ish. They are both involved in the local opera. She does Pilates. He volunteers teaching medical students. Yesterday they were hosting a dinner party for the medical students/spouses. Their garage apt. usually has a visiting musician, singer, or dancer. Vital, energetic, and fun-loving. I want to be like them.
Anonymous said…
You have been very thoughtful in your posts lately, Duchesse! Another one hits home. I have no plans to see Amour, since I think I will find it depressing. It's just two years since my mother died, at age 84, and I feel like I know plenty about old age and its challenges.

We were at once lucky and unlucky that all my grandparents lived to be quite old (85, 89, and 2 at age 91). So we were lucky to have had them for a long time, but also had to struggle through the decline. My experience is that once you hit 80, things start to go bad.

My personal goal (I'm 56 and quite healthy, as far as I know) is to "age gracefully", and to be ambulatory as long as possible; and also to have all my marbles, God willing. This is not to say I'm not concerned with my looks, because I totally am! But I doubt that I will do any surgery or fillers. I don't want to look weird!

Based on living with my dear mother the last two years of her life, being her caretaker, I am painfully aware of the critical importance of being able to walk with confidence; and most critically, retaining one's faculties. Poor Mom was so frustrated with her increasing dementia, and it was terribly hard on all of us. I understand the commenter above, who plans to end it all if dementia takes her over. Not saying I would do that, but I get it. Hope this red wine I am drinking right now is helping my brain!

---Jill Ann
LPC said…
Your post is excellent, profound, pragmatic, honest.

Let me take this to the shallow end, as you have covered the deep. I think it's her hair that serves her best, cosmetically. Let us all take her as a model.
Duchesse said…
Louise: Perhaps a more accurate translation would be trophy wife? In all cultures, there are women prized for their charms, and when those inevitably fade, they are afraid. I hope she feels the love of her family and can come to terms with it.

wendelah1: Losing friends is deeply sad, and so young. I am sorry.

Jean S: A longtime practitioner, I find yoga terrific for retaining range of motion. If I were supreme ruler it would be free for all men and women over 40.

Susan: Upping weight-bearing exercise is easy, can even do at home. I added weights to my routine.

Marti: Yes, it is often when we take time to reflect that old truths have renewed meaning for us. We connect to them, rather than merely approve. I am happy that you are in remission.

Susan Partian: I remember when I got my first senior's discount (Florida, 55)! I was stunned, but it did make me realize, wow, I'm there.

Anon@9:20: That's it, the unknowns. But totally different from the unknowns when we were teens.

Gaby: I think this comment belongs to another post, but- I would not fast 2 days a week and eat "whatever I want" the other 5. It's a kind of bifurcated approach to food that is just not me, though I see how it worked for him... and of course he wants to sell that book.

pjnkazelia: So do I! I know couples like that too. I think it's a combination of great self-care, genes and luck. And as my bro (a retired MD) likes to say "Some people are just built better than others."

Jill Ann: Mobility is an extremely desirable goal and I pursue it by doing everything I can to maintain. But as far as my marbles go, it is much harder to prevent cognitive disability. I like to think studying another language helps (some findings suggest it) but there is no magic bullet.

LPC: Riva is lucky, her hair is still thick. A good cut helps, no matter how much one has at 85.

Anonymous said…
A very thoughtful post!
I'm 57 and have been thinking about this a lot lately as my parents enter their 80s. They have always been healthy-lifestyle-obsessed and - I'm sorry to say - quite judgmental about people who didn't eat the same low fat, high fibre diet they do, or people who were "heavy," which they define as anyone heavier than their own naturally thin selves. They are very healthy, but I think they are unpleasantly surprised and a little bitter that nonetheless they have some health problems at their age. I'm afraid that they are still in denial about how much control people have overall, and I foresee some rocky times ahead...
Anonymous said…
Without question, acceptance is key; aging brings inevitable changes and losses. One's inborn temperament plays an important part in how one adjusts, I think. My father, who died last summer at 97, was a master of acceptance who weathered increasing deafness, blindness, and episodes of disorientation with a sweet and stoical nature. He learned to take pleasure in smaller and smaller things--a good meal, a joke, an audience for his stories--with the result that, until his last few worn-out weeks, he enjoyed life. My mother, 13 years younger, was a tense and vigilant survivor of childhood bereavement who fought every loss of autonomy and ability with desperate panic, clinging to an isolated house that drained her of money and energy, and doing everything herself in spite of painful, crippling arthritis. When my sisters and I finally insisted on a change, however, her fortress crumbled. She is now living in a sunny apartment in a well-staffed assisted living facility, and doing amazingly well. Having given up the control she so feared losing, she seems free to be her softer self. She is fond and appreciative of the attendants who help her, and, in her eighties, is at last enjoying some leisure and learning to trust. Giving up independence is difficult, but learning to depend on others can bring a kind of grace.

Duchesse said…
Anon@9:55: Jacoby notes that all the good health habits help one stay as well as possible but do not prevent aging, which is not in itself an illness. I find this distinction crucial to understanding what is controllable and what is not.

C.: My mother went into assisted living at 94 (she had been widowed for 10 years), fighting tooth and nail, and lived there until 99. She never mellowed, exactly, but the benefit of vastly improved nutrition and care benefited her greatly. While I'm generally a proponent of "aging in place" sometimes it is not the best option.

Eleanorjane said…
A bit of a scary topic. My mother, grandmother and uncle died young of cancer (in their 50's and 60's) so my brother and I have a high risk. I really need to stop burying my head in the sand and pursue regular screening...
Val Sparkle said…
I have to say that it really helps the process by reading about other women and their own journeys into older age. The thing I fear is that my husband and I will age very differently. It happened with my parents, but I don't think I have as much patience as my mother. I know I need to prepare to cope with an old man! Of course, it could go the other way...
LaurelH said…
A very thoughtful piece, thank you!

For a brief period many years ago, as a newly licensed acupuncturist, I had the opportunity to work with hospice patients. As life would have it, these desperately ill and dying patients were young (40-60) and all confessed to regular exercise, no smoking, no drugs, eating well, and moderate to no alcohol. These patients were near death; I have no reason to believe they were lying. They were also flummoxed. Having done “all the right things” they believed would prevent their suffering they were, in fact, dying. My “takeaway” from this was to make certain that my life choices were based on positive goals … of sobriety, of feeling fit, of enjoying wholesome foods well prepared, etc. In other words, choices framed (when conscious) as moving toward something positive vs. running away from known or imagined fears. None of us knows how it will end … but to face the end without regrets – because we take pleasure in our choices – is something we do have power over.
Duchesse said…
Eleanorjane: I appreciate your comment for its efficient transition: "scary" to "stop head in sand" to "regular screening"!

Vsl: No a minute before your comment was up I had the same thought, and will write about it.

LaurelH: I cannot help but think of the words of the famous psychologist Albert Ellis (which he said in his 80s): "You're gong to die anyway, you might as well have a f-ing blast." I don't take this as in an invitation to debauchery but rather why not a cupcake or a G&T if you feel like it?

When I am around a bunch of extremely clean-living people (whether dying or not) I find myself uncomfortable and longing for a little more oomph out of life.
Susan said…
Thanks for reminding me that I can augment my group exercise classes at home and still achieve weight bearing benefits. You are right, it will be easy. I do enjoy the company of a group of women all working towards some of the same goals together in my exercise class.

I will consider aging in place until a certain age (if home maintenance is not too much of a chore), but would enjoy a "retirement community" if I found myself a widow in old age. My mother (age 90) enjoys her community immensely. I have seen her health and vitality improve in the two years she has lived there.
Anonymous said…
I too am turning 65 (in March) and I'm thrilled! What is disconcerting to me is when blogger I read faithfully says how sad she is watching her Mother grow old before her eyes. I say, let it go - you're getting older too, so enjoy both yourself and your parent. Live is far too short to wish for other things that can never be and for most of us, life is pretty darn good - I still ride almost every day and my horse isn't complaining about my age!
Duchesse said…
Susan: The great thing about yoga is that you can use your own body weight, no equipment needed.

Margaret: I see it a little differently; it's hard to see a vital parent diminished.

Certainly, as you say, we can enjoy ourselves and our parent, but there is a place in mmany adult children, I think, that wants to believe our mothers will always be there. When we see the inevitable beginnings of what Jaooby calls "old old age" (past 80) we must face the fact that it cannot be.

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