The Art of Aging: The Voices and Choices of Our Generation

When I began my “Mami” journey a year and a half ago, I jokingly touted my style and message to my friends as the “Voice of Our Generation”.  Hoping to appeal those of the “slightly old” set, I wrote on serious topics that I observed and assumed were global to us: toying with the idea of retirement, the fear of aging, and the death of a friend.  For fun, I wrote about dressing appropriately in the later years, Barry Manilow, my obsession with the Royals, and the pressures of Christmas decorating. In between, retrospection and remorse took hold. In any case, my ramblings were musings of the pre-elderly me.

As for getting old, my initial reality check happened years ago when I received my premature invitation to AARP shortly before my 50th birthday. I was somewhat offended and minimally amused, knowing that this reality was years off.  As I anticipated the joys of a life free of the daily grind, the idea of being referred to as a “retired person” was incomprehensible.  The years flew by, it is suddenly ten years later, and retirement is a daily topic. When I left my job earlier this year, the first question with which I was bombarded consistently was “Are you retiring?” It would be my guess that this question seldom is asked of a 50 year old in “transition” (the new term for not knowing what the Hell you are doing).  But at 60, the expectation is that you will just roll over and play dead in terms of career and spend your days on the golf course or joining a Mall Walking Group (yes, there is such a thing).  In light of my family’s life expectancy keeping us alive well into the 90’s, thirty years of “pididdling” was not an option.  

Thinking back on my years as a guidance counselor, a term evolved to refer to our middle school students – ‘tweenagers’ – not quite a child but certainly not a teen. Perhaps, our pre-elderly stage might be referred to as ‘tweenelder’ or ‘twelderly’, a gray area somewhere between middle age and old.  Unlike tweenagers, we are not in any rush to reach the next developmental stage.  In truth, we tend to look backwards rather than forward, holding on to every shred of what we perceive to be the definition of youth. We are a subset by our own design, with a youthful vibrancy not found in our predecessors and, in turn, we have redefined “old age”.

When I think back to my mother at my age, she was old! I remember the agony as she bent over to pick up something that she dropped or the moans from the act of rising from a chair. Everything was a physical challenge. Was it that being elderly happened sooner in those days?  In any case, this clumsy version of aging remains in my mind’s eye and I ask, “Am I there yet?” And I answer with determination, “God, NO!” Perhaps a delusion, I see myself as spritely, youthful, and energetic. I walk with a spring in my step. Old, or any connection to the term, is unacceptable.  Although Mami was designed to be the mouthpiece for “my people”, over time I realized that the “generation” with whom I hoped to connect as its mouthpiece had a diverse voice. We collectively have lowered the bar and adopted a determination to retain not youth, but simply all vestiges of midlife.  We have mobilized against aging.

Stemming the tide of aging has become an art form and an industry unto itself. As I stand at the checkout line in the grocery store, my attention is drawn to magazine covers promising all sorts of cures to reboot our thyroids, reverse the effects of time with simple yoga, workouts that can be done in 45 seconds, and all manner of youth recovery.  After a lifetime of sun exposure, drinking, eating Hostess cupcakes, enjoying a steady diet of red meat, and sofa surfing, I do believe we may be a little late to the triage. But still, I am intrigued at the thought of ’60 being the new 40′ and my wallet is $2.99 lighter for my interest in the promises within those glossy pages.

Sadly the magazines go unread in my bathroom but being of a terminally shallow nature when it comes to “looking old”, I accept the memories of my mother as a cautionary tale and take action. I exercise minimally as to keep marginally active and reduce the snap-crackle-pop of daily movement.  I refuse to groan or moan when I move around and I even occasionally ride my bicycle for enjoyment.  My lifetime membership to Weight Watchers affords me the ongoing privilege of attending meetings, resetting my intake, dropping a few pounds, quitting, gaining back the weight, and repeating the process. Yet, it keeps me honest and only a bit overweight.  As for externals, I drive a cute car, having graduated from a Solara convertible (the poster child car of the old) to a snappy Audi A3. I attend to the things that are somewhat under my control, the ones set apart from the run away, unwieldy decay of time that defy resistance.

As I contemplate my physical attributes, I observe others and make comparisons to myself. I assess the number of wrinkles on a 60-something visage and I make all sorts of assumptions about sun exposure and skin care, and then, rushing to a mirror, I take account of my own deterioration. All those years of Mary Kay moisturizer and a commitment to SPF 30 have really paid off!  Then there are the clothes about which you need to reconsider. Hesitant to wear sleeveless shirts and dresses, I look quizzically at those who bravely “bare” arms at my age.  Unless they work out regularly (and even those allegedly sculpted arms scream “old”), their arms are ravaged with crepey skin as are mine (as in resembling crepe and yes, it is a word), yet their wagging, flaccid biceps are cold comfort for my own modesty.  Truthfully, working out is futile in an effort to stem the tide; crepey skin is like a tsunami, and once you stop working against it in a concerted way, it comes back with a determination that only ancient, collagen-deprived skin can.  And gray hair?  Unthinkable, and I am not shy about my commitment to a color and a cut (the color being most necessary) every four weeks.  Roots would be a dead giveaway to advancing time!

In respect to my wardrobe, I acknowledge an impending progression:  JJill to Chico’s to Coldwater Creek to, if you are unfortunate to live long enough, Blair’s! Styles range from the tunic to stretch pants/leggings to the unashamed elasticized waist to a fully committed polyester ensemble of carnation pink pants and jacket to match, paired with a floral top.  Still at the JJill stage, I imagine a future relegated to brands created “for the older woman in mind” and I cringe.  And men, it’s a future of Sans-a-belt and sandals with black socks.  Sadly, there may come a point when you don’t even realize how ghastly that fashion statement truly is! Yet, with a new self-awareness in place, stretchy pants and polyester may never invade our closets.  We are the new brand of “old”!

As for living arrangements, terms like ‘aging in place’ and ‘downsizing’ define the housing arrangements of many of my aged compadres.  I employ neither term or embrace either approach. The thought of relegating myself to an “over 55” living arrangement terrifies me.  Somehow similar to a leper colony, the corralling of the ‘slightly old’ and ‘truly old’ connotes a “putting out to pasture”.  Leaving the home where I resided my entire married life to move into communal living is not my taste. I enjoy my privacy, my backyard, and my life, as is, until it is not possible, hopefully many years from now.  I watch curiously as a number of my neighbors and some of my classmates from my childhood sell their homes and move to these elderly compounds. It must be a culture shock of enormous magnitude.  In the same way that I avoid polyester, I resist the trend to abandon the peace of my little home and garden.  Yet, these options exist and work well for others, providing independence and carefree living for those who choose it-just not for me!

A “new age” old age has been created by the growing numbers of Baby Boomers as they reach their 60’s and beyond. The last chapters of life have been narrated in the cadence of many voices that direct each of our futures. We have choices that support a happy, healthy, late adulthood.  So in the end, it is my personal voice that sets a goal to remain a productive and contributing member of society for as long as I wish. I also plan to have a wrinkle-free face, have hair without gray roots, don clothes that lack synthetics, drive a cute car, and sit in my shady back yard. The “voice of our generation” sounds as different as each of our goals, hopes, and dreams.  We have awakened to the myriad of possibilities available to us. We know better than anyone the meaning of the saying, “It’s not over until it’s over!”

Like the years since my AARP invitation, time will fly by and Mami, ten years from now, may be in a very different place. Her graying hair and crow’s feet, despite her best efforts, may be more evident. But, undoubtedly, her voice, perhaps a bit more gravelly, will be fueled by a rabid determination to live with passion and tenacity; and, if she’s lucky, she will give in to a little “pididdling” and the continuing shallow and frivolous desire to drive a really cute car, that is, until the Registry pries her license from her mangled arthritic fingers.

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