Monday, January 21, 2019

Sharing Women's Stories On the 'Joy' of Aging

I study myself in the mirror. Shoulder-length blond hair—dyed to cover the gray. I work out at the gym three or four times a week, albeit at a senior’s class tagged Silver Seniors. I keep my weight down, have a fair amount of energy. I am a senior.

Which means old. Or, at least, that’s what the term “senior” implies. Just ask anyone.

I recoil at all the magazine articles detailing in excruciating detail how seniors/grandparents are being defrauded by scam artists … appalled at the ubiquitous television ads hawking “finding a place for Mom,” as if being older means you’re an invalid and your kids have to stow you away in a retirement home where playing bingo is considered a useful pastime. And how about all those medical ads? Living with diabetes, chronic migraines, COPD, chemo treatment. Ask your doctor to write a prescription! Try Trulicity!

Some of the brightest, most vibrant people I know or admire are “seniors.” Thanks, Glenn Close for highlighting this at the Golden Globe awards and saying that you don't lose your sexuality and "can have more fun than ever" as a senior. You can—and should—follow your dreams, no matter how old you are. Thank you, Maxine, my parish priest, for thoughtful and inspiring sermons and a hug and kiss every Sunday and your energy as a woman in her mid-seventies keeping our church vibrant.

Yet, aging is for real and not for the faint-hearted.
Anxiety and depression are often a by-product. No use pretending otherwise. In a personal essay by clinical psychologist and author Mary Pipher in The New York Times entitled The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70s, I thought this: it reads as a feel-good piece at a women’s writing conference peddling inspiration, which is great since that’s why you attend a writing conference. These are not words, however, for the general public of aging citizens coping with extremely challenging life situations, unless you’ve got a strong support system. Although I’m not yet in my 70s, I’m close enough. While I ponder that “happiness is a skill and a choice,” as the essay claims, it seems this placebo applies not just to seniors, but to all age groups.

So why this emphasis on seniors? I agree with Pipher that ageism probably is a bigger problem for women than men. And don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of Pipher's and even interviewed her once eons ago on her book tour for Reviving Ophelia. But when she starts talking about having decades to develop resilience (and therein lies “joy), I think about my best friend, Paula. At the age of sixty-nine, a confluence of tragic and unfortunate events landed her in a nursing home on the dementia ward. This had nothing to do with resilience, but the plight of many older women without family whose diets and medical and emotional needs go untended.

I think about a woman in her early 70s who emailed me she couldn’t afford to come to the writing circle because her landlord was selling the place and she and her cats had to find a new home, pronto. I know of another woman in her 70s who lent a man over $40,000, although she had never met him, so desperate was she for male companionship—thereby threatening her retirement money. Where's the joy in that?

Ageism in the workplace. That's a whole other topic. These are the stories that long to be told and will be told by writing and sharing them and honoring them. In the Women's Writing Circle we share and honor all stories. In the Women's Writing Circle we emphasize writing without apology for our voice and perspectives. In doing so, the hope and the challenge is to grow our empathy and understanding, not just of ourselves, but of others.

My own story is this: How did I manage all these years alone? Sheer luck. I own my own home thanks to my husband’s Army pension and some intelligent investing. I also had loving parents and a father who boosted my self-esteem. My health is good. 

I remember my mother, always beautifully dressed with heels and earrings and her blond hair in a poofed-up bob. Gertrude was lovely, unlined skin well into her 80s. She tried to stay youthful-looking until dementia and anxiety had its way with her within months after being widowed at the age of seventy-nine.

Life can be a soap opera at any age. The older you get, though, the trickier the “soap opera” becomes. What to do? Yes, I try to take in the smell of a vanilla-scented candle when I write. At the end of the day, I remember that I have done the things many have only dreamed of by traveling the world. I think of Lily, my companion and Zen-muse-of-sorts, and how much we can learn from a dog. I find solace and meaning in attending church, in sharing my words in community in the Circle. I find joy in thinking…today I can go to the orchid extravaganza at Longwood Gardens, if I want. I am one of the lucky ones. We are not all so lucky. And I think of them with empathy and understanding.

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