When Aging Feels Hard, Look to a New Way of Reflection

I am aging. There, I said it! Getting older is not necessarily distressing, but it is pretty darn perplexing. Most times, I don’t feel as though I’m getting any older, particularly when I spend time with colleagues and friends in their 30’s and 40’s. It’s as though we’re all the same age. But then, I’ll see my reflection in a window or a mirror and, well you can imagine how the rest of that conversation goes in my head. I continually ask myself, “Where did time go?” One day I was 35 and living the life. The next thing I knowI ’m two years into Medicare! 

I enjoy a good joke about the aging process – well, mostly. Afterall, it doesn’t have to be dreadful. At times though, while navigating this transition, I do sometimes feel afraid.  The story I tell myself unfolds as seeing myself as the stereotypical old person – less productive, constant health issues, more losses and a sense of feeling lonely.

Just recently I saw that Mary Pipher, PhD (Clinical Psychologist and Anthropologist) had just published a new book called, Women Rowing North – Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age. I was excited that insight into this scary transition in my life was literally at my fingertips. Maybe this book would be the one to help guide me away with outdated versions of aging.  My hope gained a new perspective as “flourishing” was a different way to look at this time in my life, instead of buying into the thought that aging is a decline.

In 1994, Dr. Pipher wrote Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. It would appear that her latest book on aging would be in direct contrast to a book about adolescents.  However, Dr. Pipher explains, “Both teenage girls and older adults must craft for themselves a place in society with new responsibilities and goals.  And they must cope with a radically changing body and a new set of expectations…”   I was pleasantly surprised that this fit so well with my personal comparison of life now to how I felt as an adolescent: What are these body changes? How do others really see me? Where do I fit in and do I fit in? All reminiscent of being a teenager.

Questions we ask ourselves as we age, as Dr. Pipher presented in Women Rowing North are:  

Am I making “…good use of my time and talents?”
“Was I loving?”
“Am I now?” and, most importantly, the encompassing question:
“What is my place in the universe?”

Recently a friend of over 40 years and I took a “deep dive” into that very topic. Sharon’s reflections regarding aging were really inspiring. She pointed out that from the ages of 50 through 67 she started to accept loss as a part of life. When we’re in our 20’s and 30’s we experienced most loss as unfair, coming out of nowhere and failure.  However, as we age, we’ve had enough losses that we realize we have survived these losses and are actually stronger and more resilient than we imagined. In our 50’s, 60’s and beyond, our  losses ignite our grief but at the same time can be opportunities to being grateful for the blessings and opportunities we’ve had and continue to experience. Everyone understands the concept, but once we really begin to experience so many losses – loved ones, careers, opportunities – only then can we truly realize how much loss is woven into the fabric of our lives.

The solidity of inevitable loss helped Sharon sense within her a “fierce determination for accomplishment, experience wild abandon and become the person she wants to be.” Sharon further realized that as she retired and became still for the first time in a long time, she was able to be open to what the Universe was offering her – new stories and new opportunities she hadn’t thought about, let alone possible.

In retirement, Sharon knew she was “…ready to change up the landscape and redefine how…” she spent her time. Spending time with her young granddaughter, a very vivid passion of painting and expressing her artistic creativity, are but a few of the things Sharon finds meaningful and purposeful. She believes the Universe puts “…us where we are supposed to be.”  One month after she retired her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Her retiring naturally gave her more free time, which enabled Sharon to help care for her mother. She considers this journey significant, a time of love, healing and reconciling differences, all the while saying goodbye.

Although aging can be a time for growth, acceptance, gratitude and more, we have new choices to make. We can choose to:

Redefine our beauty by realizing vulnerability, courage and self-compassion can be a healthy beauty to aspire to.

Let go of how we think others may see us and live our lives exactly as we are.

As Dr. Pipher states, “…acknowledge and accept our negative emotions and flaws, but also our deep desires to be honest, joyful and free.” Realize now more than ever, we can spend time with only those we truly enjoy, “…expect a reasonable number of mistakes,  upset feelings, and setbacks.” And, as Dr. Pipher indicates, “… understand that all of us are wounded and flawed,  but that we also are worthy of love…” and belonging.

As aging women, we can acknowledge this getting older process can be quite tricky –   new health and financial challenges, as well as a change in physical abilities. It also can be a time for growth, acceptance, joy in the ordinary, and authenticity.  We can hopefully give ourselves permission to become friends with the most important person in our lives – ourselves.  

It’s not realistic for anyone to be happy all the time.  As we age, though, we have the knowledge that nothing stays the same. When we experience negative emotions we understand they don’t stick with us. With this knowledge, we can remain calmer and more responsive and thoughtful.  

What do I want to do as I age?  Embrace Dr. Pipher’s poignant view that as we get older our lives consist of both “…suffering and happiness…” which can enable us to live in “…both/and terms.”  I believe I must both honor all my losses – the ones that have occurred, along with the losses yet to come and continue to love, create, help, make meaning, let go, and become whole.