In 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.