Embracing Elderhood by Joyce Zonana


jz-headshotIn Europe and Mexico, younger women and men of all ages regularly offer me their seats on buses and metros. I usually refuse, although at home in New York City, I’m always a little miffed when no one bothers to make a place for me. Yet cashiers never balk when I ask for a senior ticket at the movies or in museums. At first I was surprised: how do they know, I wondered. But of course it’s the gray hair, along with the wrinkles and  sagging skin that now mark me.

I first decided to let my hair be gray fourteen years ago, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I was on the road, blindly driving north with my laptop, my passport, two cats, and a friend beside me when I knew it was time to let nature run its course. For some ten years before that, I’d been religiously dying my hair dark brown or black, visiting a hair salon every four to six weeks for long hours of “treatments,” compulsively keeping my hair in a meticulously trimmed pixie cut. But the storm emphatically taught me how life can definitively change us: we are transformed, sometimes in an instant, both internally and externally, by our experiences–and I no longer wanted (or needed) to hide that change. I enjoyed letting my hair return to its natural colors, and took pleasure in the new measure of respect some people gave me.

Yet these days, I find myself a little shocked to notice the almost daily changes in my skin, and I’m tempted, like so many others, by products that promise to “reduce the visible signs of aging.” Really? Why? Is aging something I need to hide? Be ashamed of? When people say, “oh, you don’t look your age,” should I be pleased or annoyed? Annoyed, I now think.

Just last week, on the day of the Summer Solstice, I went to the Social Security office in Hudson, NY to apply for my Social Security benefits. (I’ll be turning 70 in a few weeks.) I left the house early and drove to the small office where—after waiting for half an hour—I was told they could not process my application because they are understaffed; they’d gladly make a telephone appointment for me—some six weeks hence—but really, the best option was to apply online. And so I drove back home and filled out the simple form I found after logging in to “My Social Security.”

I was disappointed, because, actually, I’d been looking forward to the in-person interview, imagining it as some sort of rite of passage, marking my official entry into—what?—elderhood, as geriatrician and professor of medicine Dr. Louise Aronson calls it in her new book, Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life.  In lieu of that interview, I now write this piece, publicly claiming my elderhood. Perhaps I’ll even arrange for a croning ceremony, though I don’t think it’s necessary.

Aronson argues that elderhood is the “later life analog for childhood and adulthood,” an extended phase of life that deserves to be honored and taken seriously–not simply when there is a medical crisis, but throughout the whole period that usually begins when we reach sixty or sixty-five. I love the analogy with childhood and adulthood, giving elderhood dignity and space.

In a thoughtful interview with Terry Gross, Aronson soberly details the various changes most human bodies undergo as they age. Insisting that “old age is not a disease,” she describes the inevitable biological changes in multiple organ systems–including the immune system, the liver and the kidneys, and the skin. What most impressed me as I listened to her speak was the matter-of-fact calmness in Aronson’s voice, her obviously deep acceptance of the biological facts associated with her patients’–as well as her own–aging. When Gross asked how she feels about death, Aronson replied with this eloquent, inspiring statement:

Well, many people take the approach that if you don’t tackle it or look at it or think about it or plan for it, it’s better. But actually, it’s really not. I mean, I’ve seen – so now I’ve been a geriatrician for about 25 years, so I’ve seen so many deaths and so many ways of dying and ways of aging. And I think it really demystifies it. It makes it less scary.

I’m not saying that everything is happy. You know, get yourself a geriatrician, and you’re going to age perfectly and die, you know, happily with your family surrounding you every time. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying that I understand its realities, and it’s not – it doesn’t scare me. I feel like there’s so many ways this can happen, and I understand what they are.

I’m also really clear on my values, on who I want to make decisions for me, on what I would want to do and not do in various conditions. And the best way of getting the old age and deaths that you want are to plan for them and to make sure the people around you know what it is you really value and what it is you don’t much care about.

Back in the 1970s, when I was in my twenties, I’d read Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan books–fact or fiction, what does it matter at this point?–and been deeply struck by the Yaqui shaman’s advice to the young Carlos: to live always with the sense that death is right beside you, just over your left shoulder. I’d taken that advice to heart then, and kept it with me ever since.

But now that I am facing my own mortality even more directly–death not so much over my left shoulder as right in front of me–and with the loss of numerous acquaintances and relatives in the past few years, Don Juan’s words are even more relevant and more liberating. Along with Dr. Aronson’s wise observations, they help me to embrace elderhood with gratitude and joy. Let the wrinkles and other changes come . . . I’ll be too busy hanging on to bus straps to pay them much mind.

 

Joyce Zonana served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual.  She is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey and has two translations forthcoming: Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble [A Land Like You] (Seagull Books) and Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (New York Review Books). She is currently completing a translation of Joseph d’Arbaud’s La Bèstio dóu Vacarés.



Categories: Aging, Death and Dying, Feminism and Religion, General, Ritual

Tags: , , , , ,

43 replies

  1. It happens to all of us–if we are lucky enough to live that long! So might as well accept it, I guess. xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful article! In honor of your Elderhood! much love, Karen

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  3. I just read Joyce Zonana’s post Embracing Elderhood, and feel reaffirmed in my commitment to live this life stage fully. I would love to read about embracing the second part of elderhood, the constant body pain and diminishment. This stage is harder for some than for others, and as I cope with it the dance of life and its relinquishments become more difficult. Is there someone among your list who might like to take that on?

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    • What an important question, Karen. I hope others will indeed respond . . . I was just talking today with a friend who experiences chronic pain; the only time she feels better is when she is engaged in making or looking at art . . . . another dear friend is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. She just keeps going, engaging in life as fully as she can, and also talks freely about her sense of loss and diminishment. I think it’s something we all need to face.

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  4. I like the use of the word elderhood and think I will begin to use it now. So thank you. I also want to encourage you to hold a croning party. It was a wonderful experience for me to do with my women friends. We partied and celebrated being women (We made our own crowns & proclaimed ourselves as goddesses!) and, yes, some of us celebrated being elders. Our culture does not create opportunities to celebrate ourselves so we have to do it on our own.

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    • Thank you Beverly. I’ll very serious consider having a croning celebration. You’re totally right about the need for us to celebrate ourselves. As for “elderhood,” I love the word. . . I don’t think I’d heard it before, but when I did a search for Dr. Aronson’s book, I found a great many books using it in their titles. But I think it needs to be more fully brought into our everyday language: childhood, adulthood, elderhood!

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  5. My mother-in-law—who lived to be 96–used to tell my first husband ‘whatever you do don’t let yourself get old.’ I thought this was strange advice for a mother to give her only child and clearly reflected the challenges she faced in her own aging process. Although clearly her advice was in no way causal, my husband did kind of take it as he died in an accidental drowning at age 56.

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    • Ah, Mary . . . what can one say? Simply, “May his memory be a blessing.”

      And yes, for many people getting older is indeed challenging . . . but that’s why I think Aronson’s work is so important.

      Blessings to you,

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  6. I’ve been pondering my response to this post, which I absolutely agree with – in theory. In reality, I’m going kicking and screaming into elderhood. Part of it, I think, is that feeling of now being ignored or discounted. But the biggest reason is my feelings of regret at so much of my younger years spent in difficult situations. Now that I’ve gone through a lot of recovery work, I would love to have those years back again to enjoy to their fullest. Futile, I know, but things like continuing to color my hair at least helps maintain the illusion. At least for now.

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    • In many ways I feel as if I am just coming into my own now . . . I too certainly “lost” many earlier years not living my fullest self . . . But I’ve also come to believe that all of that suffering and loss was necessary for what I am now experiencing, and so, instead of regret, I’m actually grateful . . . And each of us must make her own decision about hair and everything else . . . it’s how you feel that matters!

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  7. This is so beautiful and amazing. It makes me feel relieved that I wasn’t the only person surprised at looking in the mirror one morning before work and wondering where all the wrinkles under my eyes came from. I suppose I just never noticed or don’t scrutinize my face or the light was better in that hallway mirror? But they certainly did seem to crop up out of nowhere. Thanks for sharing your experience. You are such a wonderful writer as well. You make crone life and elderhood something I want to look forward to. Thank you.

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  8. Thank you for this beautiful, honest post on a topic vital to us all. Kudos to you for how you are managing the journey we all face.

    I think I was born ‘old’ … I was eagerly looking forward to 50 and even more to 60 (in 2 years). I felt like the age would grant me cultural permission to Be Me without all the external paraphernalia and expectations; of course, really, I was the only one who could do that. ;)

    I’m going to get that book you mention; I’ve been reading a lot of those types for years now, mostly to try and understand my mom’s aging but found it SO helpful for me, as well. My favorite recent book on aging well has been “Winter’s Graces” by Susan Avery Stewart — marvelous book in many ways.

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    • Thank you Darla. And I will look for the book you mention! Although we are of course the ones who give ourselves permission to be, I think that getting older genuinely makes new things possible. We could not be as we are without all that time and experience under our belts. Really! I am just discovering a whole new career, one that makes me happier than anything I had done before. But I don’t think I could have done it in this way before now.

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    • Darla, 50 – 60 also has its rites of passage. I discovered during that period of my life that I became much less visible to the male gaze.That was surprisingly annoying as well as liberating.

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  9. I think it’s a two edge sword this aging business. There are regrets.. losses increase. Physical problems shrink my world too. In theory, I want to be comfortable in my skin – wrinkles don’t bother me much but loss of life energy does.

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  10. Thanks for the honesty! This spring my eldest grandson, 23, on the occasion of his birthday told me, “Gee, Grandma, I am seriously getting old!” Four weeks from 73, I smiled.

    Around me I hear comments like, “Age is just a number.” I smile then too. The comment comes from the younger for sure. It’s easy to look in the mirror and see … my Mom. Although she is gone now 18 years, if go home where I grew up, the very elderly outright stare. I am the second coming. White hair? At 16, the hairdresser suggested I dye the white streak that would eventually become a full bob!

    I can related to the seats offered on buses … I take them. The offers to bag groceries, push carts, or lift heavy items? I take those too. I call it, “Giving the young a chance to be gracious!”

    In truth, living to 74 has been a rich blessing indeed. I got my doctorate at 63. I call it “crone written” because studying consciousness and dreams in transformative education fed my soul purpose. I published my first books at 73. Enjoy 7 grandkids. Love my garden and working with many women who come to study dreams with me in my sunroom on the farm.

    I read Betty Friedan, The Fountain of Aging, a few years back. It was struck by the fact that at the turn of the 20 century, the average life expectancy of women? Somewhere in the 40s. In 1993, it was in the 80s. Now in 2019? The Women’s Movement is fueled by age.

    Yes, there are regrets. Clinical depression robbed me of a good deal for many, many years. Healed that in 1989. The body response to 41 years of repressed trauma? Difficult and somewhat daunting. But. There is dreams, art therapy, reiki, shiatsu, shamanism and meditation just to name a few! The richness of life! As the great mystic Rumi said, “The wound is where the light shines through …” Age combined with sufficient resources to continue learning? Wonderful. The aches, pains and assorted other losses? Bearable.

    Thanks Joyce for your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So beautiful, Peg. Thanks for sharing your rich experiences and perspective. Maybe you’ll consider writing for Feminism and Religion too?

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      • Thanks Joyce. I do enjoy reading the many articles on Feminism and Religion. One of the first books in the beginning of my intense journey out of depression was Womanspirit Rising. I had to get a second copy last year! The first one was in just too many pieces.

        Every single essay provided another explosion large or small within my psychic space. Eventually, the decolonization process pushed me right out the door of My Father’s House! The Feminism and Religion Forum is now a part of my day. I only found it a few months ago.

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  11. Thank you for addressing this issue! I will be 65 in a few months and am constantly struck by how bad I feel about aging–how I feel diminshed and less than–and I know part of this is from an awful childhood, but a large part is also the messages our misguided society gives us.

    However, I am loving who I am now, and my comfort with myself, and even with my now-less-than-perfectly-attractive body. I think there are a lot of gifts to living to a “ripe old age”.

    As for those advertisements–they are mostly hype and BS! I teach about herbal skincare and for the most part, unless you use enzymes and chemicals and so on, there is nothing magical in those products. They only want you to think so. Using everyday oils and other ktichen ingredients can do as much for skin at a fraction of the cost of high-end products. And without a lot of chemicals that actually can have a detrimental effect on your skin and you (you absorb all those cheap preservatives and emulsifiers and colorants and so on through your skin).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Iris. Yes, our society certainly gives us terrible messages about aging . . . and we are indeed, largely ignored . . . except for in those ads for “anti-aging” products! I’ve started using natural oils as well. :-)

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  12. The greatest blessing that age has given me (I am 76) is that it has forced me to really look at my priorities. I simply don’t have the energy to do everything I want to do, so I have to decide what is important. My choices often surprise even me. Instead of working on a new novel this morning, I decided it was more important to play with my kitties, and now I have the compassion to do more writing. Age is quite wonderful that way.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi MaryAnn,
      Thank you so much for your comment. Yes. Exactly that. I was just talking with someone about the freedom to choose, to do what one wants, when one wants to . . . a matter of being oneself, without apology or fear. Our elderhood helps to grant us that.

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    • MaryAnn, great comment and perspective. And you are SO right … when I choose to play with my dogs or kitties, it brings tremendous joy and compassion and connectedness to whatever I do afterwards … it offers into my activities a “participatory consciousness” (am reading Berman’s “Reenchantment of the World” right now and that’s a phrase he uses that I very much like).

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I loved this post and all the comments it elicited. Elderhood is an opportunity that our foremothers didn’t have (or at least had fewer years to enjoy). There is a great deal of wisdom to be had during this time of our life, and I agree with those who suggested that we celebrate that fact.

    When I turned 65, I invited my closest friends and family to help me celebrate my croning. Each one created a 2″ x 2″ square that represented a piece of their love for me OR a piece of what they considered my wisdom. From this a professional seamstress friend of mine sewed a crone stole, which I wore when we gathered. We spent the time together discussing the many forms of wisdom and eating good food. It was a wonderful event, one that I would highly recommend.

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    • My suggestion for women who have not yet stopped bleeding is that you dip a Q-tip in your monthly blood and write the date on a card. That way, you have the date of your last period to use in a ritual way at your croning ceremony, which traditionally is a year and a day later.

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    • I love the idea of the crone stole! So beautiful . . . I’ll do it.

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  14. This post and these comments were all exactly what I needed to hear today.

    I turned 67 this spring and decided it was time to stop putting henna on my hair to hide all the gray. It was just one simple step to push me face first into elderhood(yes, a wonderful word!). I’ve been fighting its advances, but looking into the mirror with total honesty I realized that I am not doing so bad in comparison with how my mother looked and felt at this age. Aging is definitely a time to take stock and see how far we have come but also to realize as someone said that everything we have been through has brought us to this place. I too suffered many years of depression and coming to terms with a messed up childhood. I choose not to wallow in the self pity of wishing it had been better but rather, relish the fact that I was strong enough to fight my way out of it and land here a much stronger elder woman than my female ancestors were. I feel I have broken the chain that kept them all from enjoying their elderhood (none of them lived past 69 and all of them suffered from depression till the day they died). I feel my life, though it was a struggle has some how liberated them as well as myself giving me the right to enjoy these aging years no matter what they might bring. All that struggling was well worth the fight.

    We all must realize that we have done the best we knew how at the time we did it. We have to leave that past behind where it belongs and move on not letting it bog us down. Whatever we find in these elder years that makes us happy or at least content we should do that with all our strength, whether it be physical, mental or spiritual strength.

    Thank you, Joyce, for this liberating post.

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    • Thanks for joining the conversation “Treetalker”! . . . So much of what you say is so important . . . Letting go of the past, embracing the present/future. One thing, too, that your comments make me realize is that many of us are so much more fortunate than our ancestors . . . We have benefited from the women’s movement, feminist spirituality, we enjoy greater health and economic freedom, etc . . . I also love the idea that your/our liberation can help liberate our ancestors. When I think about my mother (who died three years ago), I know that my living fully today is the best gift I can give her.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I love this post Joyce, it really spoke to me!!

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  16. “To be or not to be”, there is no question here, we are all “to be” rich in our journey through life (Bad or Good). I found your post very enlightening and a life-journey of , “Achievement” in my humble opinion. I know as I age, I look at everything much differently, appreciate and know that every wrinkle, every white hair, is a testament from where I have been, and will go. White hair? well that’s the light that’s shining from my experience, “Follow me out of the darkness” (Wisdom), I’ll tell some of my friends jokingly. Its been a wonderful journey!

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    • One of the women in my drum circle showed up with her white hair newly dyed – blue! I admire her, I only have the courage to wear blue nail polish.

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  17. LOL that you were looking to your Social Security interview to be part of your ritual of aging. In the absence of that it sounds like this discussion offered so many good ideas and thoughts of how to do it with loved ones with internal resonance. Your writing makes me think about how I need to focus on this process. I will be 65 next year so that will be a nice point to mark.

    Aging has been an interesting process for me. In some ways its is like the reverse of puberty in that we/me/I need to get used to my changing body. Its not so tight in areas where it once was and my once skinny legs look like tree trunks no matter how much exercise I do. Oh well, with tree trunks, I get to carry around my own roots and plant them and seed the land as I choose.

    I really like Nancy’s crone stole idea.

    Thanks for this discussion Joyce

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