On growing old gracefully – or not

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
January 2nd, 2024
aging, time passage

As I sit at my desk in a too quiet house, I am thinking about my wife who is spending the day with a friend on a senior citizens’ bus trip to view the New England countryside from a vintage train. The trip comes with a turkey dinner served on board what is naturally called the turkey train. She invited me along, but I declined, giving my usual explanation that I will look forward to these kinds of excursions when age robs us of our ability to drive and set our own schedule. That time has not yet come, but, as I am reminded every day, it is lurking around the corner.

There is another less practical reason for my reluctance to engage in many senior citizens’ activities, and because it embarrasses me to admit it, I’ll just quote a joke that an old friend recently sent my way. “It’s weird to be the same age as old people.”

I would not think like this if I was growing old gracefully. It is the same kind of thinking I criticized in my parents when they shunned their town’s senior center because it was frequented by too many old people. I should know better, and I do, but as any psychologist will tell you, there is the knowledge of the intellect and the knowledge that you feel deep down in your bones.

In the year before he died at 80, my father told me he did not feel any older than he did when he was 18. That was deep down bone knowledge that rubbed up against his rational thinking that told him he was far removed from his teenage years.

And when it comes to recognizing that we are growing old, we can always rely on our bodies to support our rational thinking with daily reminders of our decline. I won’t get specific here and go into what we seniors call an organ recital, but it’s easy enough to do when we get together with our peers.

The problem is that time moves too quickly and passes before we know it is gone. We are so busy living our lives, building our careers, and taking care of our families that we don’t realize how quickly the years pass.

Consider this nugget sent to me by that same old friend: 1970 and 2023 are as far apart as 1970 and 1917. Whoa, I remember 1970.

I was in my first year of grad school. Back then, if I ever thought of 1917 at all, it was the half-remembered date of the start of the Russian Revolution, something I read about in a history book that happened long before I was born.

Is 1970 really that far away from us now? Funny how the mind works, it seems like only yesterday.

Aging takes us by surprise though when we are young, we know it’s going to happen, and as we get older, there is plenty of evidence that it is happening every day. We can always make excuses for the physical signs of aging, but the social signs are harder to ignore.

Just watch the puzzled looks on the faces of young interns when you mention cultural icons of the days before they were born or make references to things like long distance phone calls, TV dinners, or uniformed gas station attendants who clean your windshield while they fill your tank.

I always knew that if I was lucky enough to live that long, I would get old. As a young boy excited to be traveling on the train to celebrate Thanksgiving with my cousins in Brooklyn, I couldn’t help noticing the train on the opposite track making the return trip that I would be taking in just a few days.

Joyful arrivals are still tinged with the anticipation of sad partings. Once, in the full bloom of young adulthood, my wife and I canoed the Concord River to the site of the 1775 battle between the colonial militia and the British regulars. We arrived just as a bus carrying a group of senior citizens was pulling into the parking lot, and I knew it was just a matter of time. My wife was on a bus like that today and I could have been with her.

It is always a matter of time, and while growing old may be one of biggest surprises that life gives us, another surprise is the gifts that our senior years bring. In her book, “The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully,” Joan Chittister lists some of the developmental challenges of this time of life, showing how every emotion or issue that aging highlights can be a burden or a blessing, depending upon how we use them.

Regret, meaning, fear, joy, possibility, time, limitations, ageism, and many others have lessons to teach and pleasures to savor if we learn to see them in the right way. There is plenty of work to do, and our senior years is not the time to stop growing but “to grow in new ways” and “make sense of all the growing we have already done.”

Richard Rohr sounds a similar note in his book “Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Second Half of Life.” Drawing on the work of Carl Jung, Rohr describes the first half of life as the period devoted to building the container of our lives by establishing ourselves in careers and family life.

In the second half of life, we fill that container with all that nourishes our souls and use the person we have become in the service of what we value most. Neither Chittister nor Rohr minimizes the physical or emotional challenges of aging, but both believe that we can thrive even in the midst of limitations and loss.

To the extent that I value the perspective of these writers and others like them, I am trying to grow old gracefully. In the second half of my 70s, my well-established values have been confirmed and the shaky ones reinforced.

Friendships, always important, are even more precious. Conversations are more honest, and laughter, more necessary. Idealization gives way to mature affection. We don’t expect others to be perfect, but we appreciate when they are honest as we ourselves try to be. We look for the good in people, but we do not deny the existence of evil, and still don’t understand its depths.

When you are well into your 70s, you have the opportunity to know people in every decade of life. Children, teenagers, young adults, the middle aged, peers, and mentors are all there to remind us of the rich tapestry of human experience and help us see our place in something much bigger than ourselves. We are all here together to instruct, to learn, and to grow old gracefully.
Yet, even so, I am still surprised when younger people offer me their seats on the subway. When my back hurts, I support myself with a trekking pole, never a cane, as if I am trying to give the impression that I had just returned from a walk in the Hindu Kush.

And you know that little emoji of the man waving hello? I still use the one with brown hair, though my own is almost white. As for senior citizen bus trips, my wife is back from the one she took today. “How was it?” I asked. “Did you have a good time?” “Horrible,” she replied. “Never again. Two and a half hours on the bus, two more hours on the train, and another two and a half on the bus. We didn’t even stop at the gift shop they advertised.”

“We’ll take a nice drive tomorrow,” I replied, “Anywhere we want to go for as long as we like.”

The bus will be there when we need it. It’s just a matter of time, but not yet.

4 Responses to On growing old gracefully – or not

  • January 7th, 2024 at 4:36 pm Joe Kish posted:

    Extremely well written and touches on each nerve-but gently. Thank you for the tips on Rohr and Chittister.
    So glad you joined our bible study!
    Joe K

  • January 8th, 2024 at 11:51 am Steve Etkind posted:

    Always a pleasure to read your perspective.

  • January 20th, 2024 at 6:35 am Kathy McBeth posted:

    As a psychologist nearing retirement your article is both comforting and thought provoking leading me into aging gracefully. Life has been so meaningful with more to come in this next chapter.

  • January 31st, 2024 at 2:25 pm Kent Rude posted:

    Alan-
    I am sure to read your piece in every edition although usually I wait for the paper version. (I am a dinosaur. Still prefer the Globe in newsprint.) This one was e-mailed by a friend so I can compliment you on this essay. Yours are all excellent, but this one was superb….and hit home to someone who turns 75 next week.
    I enjoyed thoughtful conversations with you long ago and far away at Solomon Carter Fuller when you were my supervisor and I was a raw practicum student. I stuck with psychology and am still working in the field with kids, adolescents, young adults (Kid patients who have grown up!), and families; but starting to wind down a bit.
    Keep writing!

    Kent Rude

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