Talking about aging is like having an impacted tooth pulled without anesthesia—excruciating, ghastly. It’s like having flesh ripped from the bone. The open socket and dull pain that remain are reminders of what we’ve lost. We have all been affected by our appearance-conscious culture, which has convinced us that it is disgraceful to be anything other than young and beautiful. People over forty are likely nearing the stage where they are vulnerable about aging. Out of the blue, wrinkles appear, double chins form, and gray hairs sprout. These telltale signs of aging are seen as an affliction that must be nipped, dyed, and drenched, but never welcomed.
In a society riveted by what we can control, growing old has become a lifestyle choice that cannot wholly be avoided, but certainly delayed. We are passionate in our mission to stop the hands of time and every effort is made to stay young. With improved health care and cosmetic surgery, one need not grow old until he/she is ready. Forty is what fifty used to be. Many faces in this generation confirm the peculiar fact that human skin can be pulled as tight as a drum. We can now have wrinkle-free faces from birth to the grave.
Anything that threatens our illusions of immortality—the chronically infirm, the dying, the elderly, the deceased—are segregated in nursing homes or swept briskly away to hospices to die out of view. The dead are quickly buried or cremated. Death, it seems, is no longer a part of life but a mere interruption. So we hold on to the delusion that we can eat healthy, exercise, lower our cholesterol, take vitamins, and cheat death forever. We have an arsenal of age-fighting weaponry: there is Alpha Hydroxy for the sagging skin, Rogaine for thinning hair, Meridia for the expanding body, and Viagra for the … you fill in the blank.
I felt like a fish out of water, surrounded by middle-aged men and women who were aging and hating every minute of it. While I was savoring in my youth and making party plans for the upcoming weekend, these guys were lamenting about receding hairlines, aching joints, poor eyesight, Social Security, and retirement homes. Before long, my own fears about aging, which were never apparent before now, began to emerge. One need not be over-the-hill to know how tough it is to watch yourself age and to lose the immediate value that youth bestows. As our faces change, we begin to sense that our ability to be loved and valued will soon fade. Clearly, growing old defeats anyone who is not profiting from the multi-billion-dollar cosmetics industry.
I had never given aging much thought. Maybe I believed that I’d lived in a perpetual state of youth as if my face was frozen in time. But after a co-worker announced to the staff that I had two gray hairs, the reality of aging hit me like a swift snowball to the head. You’re getting old, Kay! I thought. I realized that at some point I would be one of them, and what a horrifying thought!
Aging, in this society that fears death, is seen as a failure, a humiliating embarrassment, something that people dare not do in public. Most approach aging beset by a dull sense of dread and swayed that old age will be a time of depression, infirmity, and loneliness, which is why few of us look forward to it. I’d been privy to countless age-related conversations from the over-fifty crowd, particularly those on staff at Catauga Power Company.
Ross, a self-proclaimed genius with salt-and-pepper hair, was at it again, bitching and moaning about the lack of recognition he received from the company and its preference for younger employees. “I’ve worked like hell for Catauga Power for twenty-five years, and what did they do? They filled all of the upper management positions with new recruits who are all under thirty, hired for their image, not their expertise.”
“So I’ve heard,” I whispered.
“This new dream team is driven and energetic,” he went on. “Quite frankly, most of the older employees kind of feel inferior to them.”
“Well …” I said.
“No one gives a damn about a fifty-year-old employee anymore,” lamented Ross.
“The company wants us out like yesterday,” Nick, his partner in crime, added.
Close to retirement, Ross was certain that his goals with this company were never going to materialize. He lived with a fear of never achieving greatness. Though he had considered getting another job, he was convinced that a fifty-year-old employee didn’t have a chance in a job market with an affinity for twenty-year-olds. Ross promised himself daily that as soon as his son graduated from college, he’d retire.
“After fifty, life only gets worse,” Ross continued. “No one thinks you know anything.”
“Sure you do,” I assured him, hoping the fuming would end.
Ross had a point: The job market for the over-fifty crowd was somewhat strained. Employers were looking to hire young computer whizzes who could perform similar tasks for half the salary of a “seasoned” employee. These new hires had connections in the industry and were years away from retirement.
Ross was visibly upset. He hadn’t made a million dollars and hadn’t done a damn thing worth public recognition. Isn’t it odd? Sometimes we don’t know who we’re angry with or why. I was tempted to ask him, “Will a billboard with your face on it suffice?” Ross needed reassurance that he was contributing to something big and making a difference in the world.
“Tell me, where the hell is Easy Street?” Ross asked jokingly.
“I don’t have a clue,” I laughed. “But I sure hope you can find it.”
Ross was questioning what all of his struggle and sacrifices were for. His home life offered him little reprieve because there his darling wife spent her days pacifying her mother—the Anti Christ—a permanent guest in their house whose very presence had given Ross violent stomach ulcers. He’d given up on an empty nest.
Then in walked willowy Polly, fifty-two and holding, refreshed from her morning workout, carrying an oversized Prada handbag. She had flowing bleached hair and her makeup was done to her idea of perfection. Tanning salon bronze, she made a star-like entrance, sucking up all of the air in the office. Beneath this outward show of confidence, Polly was consumed with a fear of aging and had already had several nips and tucks. This fear would probably kill her long before natural causes.
As soon as Jim entered the office, he had a joke for the day, as usual.
“Hey, Kay, did you hear the one about the senior driver?”
“No, and please spare me,” I replied.
It would be just another trite joke on aging and I’d just about heard them all; we all had.
No doubt aging is made more difficult by an anti-aging disease spread by social delusions, which is fast approaching epidemic mass hysteria. People are on edge about aging thanks in part to the media, which offers a barrage of advertisements about loss of bladder control, electric wheelchairs, hearing aids, baldness, age spots, Alzheimer’s, job loss, and preplanned funeral arrangements. Naturally many of us have come to associate old age with frailty, sickness, and ugliness. We’re all haunted by the grim specter of joblessness and lovelessness that accompany the loss of youth and beauty. Most of us are frantically trying to avoid both fates.
As we age, we lose some of the things that we have been taught to value, like health and good looks. Time strikes a rough bargain, and our faces wrinkle, our eyes get puffy and lined, and our features shift and sink, changing the natural contours of our faces. More, our bodies soften and our bones get brittle. For many (people like me), the thought of this happening to them is absolutely frightening. I’ve heard people comment that they’ve glanced at a reflection of an aging face in the mirror and then slowly realized that it was their own images. Scary stuff!
An Obsession with Youth
Youth is a national fixation and looking younger is more often highly regarded by the masses than a Nobel Prize. Even twenty-year-olds are concerned with looking younger. Take my cousin, Lela, for instance. She is turning twenty-five and she is already watching the clock. Sitting around the kitchen table at my mother’s home late one Saturday evening, we snacked on popcorn and sipped our sodas.
“Are you planning to celebrate your twenty-fifth birthday?” I asked.
“I’ll be twenty-five, but I won’t be celebrating,” Lela answered swiftly. “I can’t believe that I’m five years from thirty. I’m getting old.”
“You’re hardly old.”
“Sure,” she giggled. “At least I don’t look my age.”
Lucky her. For a long stretch I had also enjoyed the perks of looking younger, which engendered the divine fantasy that I was younger. I’ll admit it was quite flattering for me to be called “Miss” in public at my age with the weight of gravity slowly pulling me down. I kind of liked it.
The message in our culture is clear: Once you’re older, you’re out of the game. So Americans want to stay young looking to beat the clock, so to speak. Not only do we not want to look old, we don’t want anything old. Our reasonable desire to not look old has ushered in a deliberate propagation of adult immaturity as a cultural norm. In prior generations, people may have tried to defy time and appear younger, but we’ve gone a step further. Today’s current fascination with childlike things—games, toys, movies, and dress—among adults seems to be indicative of grave insecurities about aging.
Forty years ago, society was concerned about what was age-appropriate and women over thirty typically steered clear of jeans. Today, fifty-year-old women, lusting after the latest must-have look, shop at the GAP and Abercrombie & Fitch for the same fashions that their daughters wear. While many adults are wearing miniskirts, hip-huggers, ponytails, and barrettes, children are increasingly dressing and behaving more like undersized adults. Something is definitely haywire when major retailers are selling sheer lingerie and padded bras in the children’s department while adults are lounging in pajamas with Mickey Mouse logos. Adults have definitely hijacked the kids’ world.
Few things are more embarrassing than an adult desperately trying to look younger by wearing teen fashions and making other weak attempts. Rather than looking younger, most tend to look ridiculous. Their efforts are transparent and what people really see is a picture of insecurity and fear. Tell me: When did we become a nation of teens?
Holding Back the Years
Back at Catauga Power Company, Polly was trying hard to stave off the ravages of time before any permanent damage was done. After being away for a few weeks, she appeared at the office on a bright Monday morning with a new face and dressed in a fuchsia miniskirt, a low-cut fitted shirt, and platform sandals. As soon as she entered the office, you could hear giggles from members of the staff.
“What the hell is she wearing?” said one guy, laughing like a hyena.
“No clue,” another answered.
Another offered, “That skirt probably would have been cuter on her about thirty years ago.”
“Is she blind or desperate?” another chimed in.
“She’s never going to be twenty-one again,” said one.
“And where’d she leave her face?” laughed another.
“Yeah, the new one is tighter than Dick’s hat band!”
They all laughed and quickly resumed their talk.
“If women are so insecure that they’ll spend a mint to get noticed, they deserved to be fleeced,” the first guy added.
“Nature always wins,” replied another.
“You guys are being way too harsh,” barked another.
Another said, “My wife has had work done and she looks fantastic.”
“Right, get with the program,” another guy tossed across a cubicle wall. “By the way, men are having work done too.”
“Is there a sucker in the house?” yelled another.
All of the guys laughed heartily, dispelling the strain in the office.
A few of the women on the staff complimented Polly for looking so young and striking.
“Wow! What an adorable ensemble,” said one.
“Makes you look ten years younger,” another said gaily while gesturing towards Polly.
Polly responded, “Thanks! I may not be able to compete with the young girls, but I can still turn a few heads at my age.”
Four other women in the office were prompted by Polly’s remark to provide their take on the issue of aging.
Chloe was also having a time since she turned fifty-six. “I’m sick of these hot flashes, mood swings, and bouts of vaginal dryness. I haven’t been on speaking terms with my vagina in years.”
“Aging is hell and certainly not for the vain or the weak at heart,” said Henrietta. “The fresh face doesn’t last, and those who are enamored by their own youth and beauty will surely be devastated by the loss. They should do themselves a favor and die just before they break.”
Youthful looking Annette, age fifty-one, knew that aging was certain, but offered that she was not as uptight about it as most women.
“I live a very active life! I exercise, travel, volunteer in the community, spend time with my grandchildren, and work in my garden. I don’t want to give in to fears and stereotypes about aging and lose my zest for life,” she said.
“Most of who I am comes from the inside rather than from my outward appearance,” said Ellen, who was sixty-one and retiring in another month. “The more secure I am with that image, the less I need to tamper with my face and body.”
After Ellen’s talk ended, I returned to my desk just long enough to tie up a few projects before my five o’clock alarm sounded. This day was done so I logged off of my computer and headed for the parking garage.
Another Look at Aging
Old age does not have to be a death sentence. It can be rewarding if we remove some of the stereotypes and social barriers that we’ve created. I know of lots of golden girls and boys who live very full lives and turn the fear of aging on its ears. They maintain a healthy diet, hike, golf, dance, socialize, exercise, travel, play bridge, have sex, and volunteer in the community. These people are not waiting to die. They have chosen to live!
Margaret, a seventy-eight-year-old member of my church, once said, “When you reach your seventies and eighties you don’t have to be envious of those with youth because you can say, ‘I was young once and had a ball!’ I was once twenty-one. People seem to forget that fact.”
Norah, another dear friend and a Silver Fox at eighty-five, summed it up this way: “The face tells the story of a person’s life. It is the face they have created in many ways. Old age, and whatever comes with it, should be accepted in the same way that we accepted the faces of our youth. Changing the face shows the fear inside people who yearn to be young and lovely again.”
My neighbor, Esther, offered another view of aging: “Actually America is the only culture that refuses to age gracefully. Other Western nations and all Eastern ones value age and the elderly. In France, a woman is not considered interesting until she’s thirty-five and has had the opportunity to gain experience and the knowledge and wisdom that come with it.”
Face it: We are all going to grow older and eventually die. Death is inevitable and a part of the circle of life. The Bible, in Psalm 90:10, promises us the possibility of “three score years and ten,” or seventy years. After death, our faces, bodies, or careers will no longer define us. Instead, we will be remembered by how well we loved and were loved by others. Facing the loss of love and life should make both all the more precious because we know that they are fleeting. Wouldn’t life be a lot merrier if we could learn to rejoice in the time we’ve lived and all of the knowledge we’ve gained? We can only hope one day to create and live in a society that cherishes the elderly so that growing old won’t be so dreadful, or better, that we learn to value ourselves as we grow older.
At some point in our lives, we all discover the bittersweet truth of the Biblical admonition, “To everything there is a season.” It matters not whether we like our current lives as they are or wish for change; nothing in life remains the same by virtue of its own will. To the extent that we resist change, we will cause our own suffering.