Reflections on Aging
PiAP is interested in expanding the narrative around aging by holding space and opportunity for our community to share aging stories that challenge stereotypes and offer positive perspectives on the aging experience. We recognize that getting older often comes with challenges and sometimes loss, but we hope this initiative will expand this narrative, placing a spotlight on the often neglected side of aging that includes real and transformative stories of positive aging across our generations.
Below are stories written by the 2019 PiAP leadership team. We hope you might take a moment to venture into these moments and reflect on their meaning and connection to aging. These are meant to serve as only a few examples of the many different ways aging experiences can be understood. As we gather more stories, we hope to post some here to archive an aging narrative that is more expansive than one centered around loss and deterioration. We want to spotlight the positive, adaptive, and resilient experiences of aging and recognize their value in the conversation.
Also, check out our storytelling event series “Stories Across the Ages” here.
The Gray Patch and the Top Hat
“Well, I’m glad to see that!” she said as she leaned forward and touched the quarter-sized patch of gray hair emerging in the front of my dark brown hairline. “I’m glad to see someone else in this program who is a little more mature – you know, not right out of school.”
I was certainly way beyond right-out-of-school status when my 40-something classmate in one of my first doctoral classes in 2010 decided to connect with my locks to celebrate our shared maturity. That patch of hair had given me pause in regards to returning to school; not only did I consider dyeing it to try and camouflage my atypical student age, but it was symbolic of all the justifications I had used to postpone that journey in the first place.
Fast forward nine years, I have to laugh at the irony that I did not keep my mature comrade company during her doctoral journey, as my own culminated just this past year after many unexpected twists and turns. The death of a parent, departures of co-workers whose roles I assumed, and the process of working through a health scare and potential cancer diagnosis all expanded the years between my first and final attempts at a terminal degree. The top hat that is awarded at the culmination of Ph.D. studies at my university in Sweden was placed upon a head of hair that is now more than half a gray. At the age of 58, shedding decades of beliefs about “age-appropriate” pursuits, I realized a 20-year goal and did so with a greater appreciation for the futility of gauging achievement by chronology.
I now find myself in the most interesting and puzzling place. The spring season of one thing—the pursuit of greater independence in academic work through my doctoral degree—coincides with the autumn of my overall career, which combines work in aging, education, occupational therapy, and folklore. Having never been able to decide whether autumn or spring is my favorite season, I am embracing both as partners in this journey. What lies ahead feels full of possibility, rife with change, and overflowing with (hopefully) just-right challenges. There is not yet any slowing down the train or letting go or moving aside. There is only full steam ahead with a strong combination of experience and humility, a pinch of wisdom and a pound of curiosity, and a top hat as my ticket to ride.
Days of Growth
Every day we’re getting older, but on certain days we really grow.
When I think about aging, I can’t help but think of my 74-year-old dad and smile. He has loved skiing for as long as I can remember. Seriously, one of his favorite stories goes, “you were skiing before you could walk! I have a picture to prove it. Now you’re beating me down the hills. But to be fair, I’d never been on skis till I was in my 30s.” He was in his late 60s when he retired from one of his many careers and moved from Ohio to Colorado to follow his dream of “working as a ski bum”. I think it was a little bit of his moxie rubbing off on me that gave me the courage to follow my own path and build a tiny house when I was 28.
People are always asking me why I decided to build my own 230-square foot tiny house. Well, there are many reasons, but one evening that started it all. I was driving home from work when I got a call from Ben. A man had come up to our sliding glass patio door. Ben opened the door to talk but quickly realized something wasn’t right as the man started threatening him and trying to get inside. Luckily, Ben was able to push him back and get the door locked. With our new puppy, Izzy, barking at his side, Ben watched from the inside of the glass as the man picked up our metal patio furniture and threw it repeatedly against the glass doors. Ben called security, and the man, who turned out to be having a diabetic low, was able to get the medical help he needed. As I played through different scenarios in my head, an intense feeling of relief swept over me. I realized the relief was not because the man hadn’t stolen or broken any of our things. In fact, I didn’t give a lick if he had. I was just so grateful that Ben, the man, and, of course, my dog were all ok. I was seeing clearly what mattered to me in life and feeling an urgency to pursue more of it. I reflected on one of my dad’s many lessons by example, that life is too short to waste time worrying about the things we own.
Over the next few months, I started learning about minimalism. Ben and I weren’t living a flashy lifestyle by any means, but I had managed to collect a lot of — what suddenly appeared to be — junk. It was time to be more intentional about my things, their impact on my relationships with myself, others, and the earth. Eventually, I came across tiny houses. My heart sang. I became obsessed with these small, ever so intentional spaces. Most people didn’t get it. Some even said things like, “you should be focusing on your career,” or “tick-tock, shouldn’t you be thinking about kids?” It was tempting to listen, but I couldn’t shake that feeling from that evening driving home listening to Ben. I didn’t want what they wanted. I wanted to pay off student debt and stop filling up the rooms of my home. I wanted to slow down, to connect to the earth, my inner strength, and creativity, and to make more space for relationships.
My dad taught me to try to see possibilities in aging and ignore the “shoulds”. It wasn’t easy, as there were plenty of internal and external voices of doubt. You see, I had never built anything in my life. I didn’t even know how to operate a power drill. Yet, that summer, Ben and I decided to be more intentional about what really mattered to us. We adopted another dog. We got rid of almost everything we owned and moved to live on our friends’ homestead in Durham, North Carolina. There, I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, designed, and built our very own tiny house. Aging is full of adventures. Sometimes we get to pick the ones that help us grow. For one person, that might be moving across the country to work on a ski mountain. For me, this time, I gave myself the room to grow by going tiny.
Oh, and you’ll never guess who was right by my side — probably more clueless than I, but never doubting me — holding the 2x4s square as I loaded the nail gun and fired for the first time. Thanks, dad!
Out of Step in Time
My grandmother, Dodo, worked as a seamstress until she died at 98.
My Uncle Jack became a millionaire at age 80.
My Dad worked full time until he was 92.
These people are my role models. Each one, in different ways, influenced the atypical life choices I have made around my own age and aging.
Dodo raised five children during the Great Depression. Her family didn’t have much money and sometimes lacked enough food to go around. However, she loved to sew and used this talent to create bridal dresses for the rich ladies in Charleston. She could make something beautiful out of scraps of fabric that others had discarded. In my teens, Dodo taught me how to sew on the Singer machine that I still use today. From her, I learned that re-purposing second-hand stuff was a way to save money and create something new. Perhaps it was her inspiration that gave me the confidence to give up a paycheck and return to school, graduating at 53. (And I still enjoy trying to turn second-hand stuff into something beautiful.)
Uncle Jack, who just scraped by most of his life, became rich at age 80 by selling golf umbrellas. He never thought he’d be rich, but millions came his way anyway. This I remembered as I considered marriage and children. My husband, David, is 11 years younger than I am. If not for my study of aging, with the knowledge that widowhood averages 10 years, I’m not sure if I would have said yes to our first date. Further, David, grew up expecting the natural order of things to be: marry young, wait three years, and then have children. So much for natural order! I was 41 when we married and even though I had hoped for children, this window of time seemed to have already closed. However, at 44, I became a millionaire anyway when we adopted our daughter, Lila.
Dad had his dream job all his life. He left the office at age 92, got sick, and died reluctantly 10 months later. He loved being a physician and he was beloved. For 30 years, he practiced with the same doctor and nurse. His secret for long relationships, be they marriage or business, he found in the song, People. It goes, “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world”. This I’ve tried to remember as I go along my career. Unlike my Dad, and even though I enjoyed my work as an exercise physiologist, physical therapist, and public health researcher, it wasn’t until I was 60 that I got my dream job with UNC’s Partnerships in Aging Program. I hope I’m just warming up.
A deep breath pushes into me as my hands struggle to figure out where they need to be. I feel the weight of my heart through my back and into my thighs as I sit on the stone wall next to the campus soccer fields. My eyes linger on my shoes, having nowhere else comfortable to rest. So much thought and time and fear have led to this moment of decision, a moment of necessity, a moment of love…although I’m sure it doesn’t feel that way to the person sitting next to me.
“I’m attracted to the same sex,” stumbles out of my mouth into a long and awkward pause.
I had never before said that to anyone. I had never truly said it to myself. Yet, over the past two and half years, it had gradually become an acorn stuck in my shoe, slowly prodding me to shift uncomfortably in my relationship, to either dig deeper to let it come out or stop moving altogether – being still is not my forte.
“What does that mean?”
Four years of thinking, analyzing and debating with myself and others at a Jesuit university had given me time and experience to look deeper into the issues, the texts, the realities of being a queer person. Until just recently, I had not realized I was looking into myself, growing, and developing my own identity.
The pain in my girlfriend’s eyes was – surprisingly – a relief. It confirmed what had made me pull the acorn out and set it between us. It was also hurting her and would blister us both more deeply if not revealed. As I matured, as I grew into my own skin and learned about the power and risk of adult relationships, I knew that going forward together was not the loving decision. I knew the acorn needed to come out and be cultivated into something that was not causing pain, something stronger, more powerful, and more courageous.
“Because I love you, we can’t stay together.”
An adult decision – with hope, the first of many more to come. I was grateful for getting older in that moment, for maturing into someone who could recognize true adult relationship. While poignant, I had gained an experience of profound introspection paired with deep consideration of another. I experienced what it meant to cultivate a deep foundation of the self so that I and another could appreciate each other more fully.
The experience that grew from setting that acorn down between us has become the underpinning for values and principles I hold dear in relationships. Remembering the experience itself is a constant prompt in every stage of life – as I age even today – to continuously look deeply into myself and reflect on how I connect with those around me. The nourishment and renewal I gained from the choice to come out, even though painful, is a helpful reminder that each day I grow older offers opportunities for continual growth, revelation, and transformation.