In a previous blog post, I introduced my readers to Dr. Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist and writer. I had enjoyed his recent book The Thing You Think You Cannot Do and wanted to pass along some of his observations of the psychotherapeutic process.
One of the essays in this collection is entitled "Old Age Is the Revenge of the Ugly". My family (immediate and extended) works hard to support our aging matriarch and so we are all familiar with the issues of the elderly. Pauline will be 91 in a few months. She is determined to live alone and that can be worrisome for all of us. She would be willing to move in with one of her children but, at this time, the obstacles for that are many. So we do the best we can with the situation as it is.
In this essay, Dr Livingston brings his focus to the fear that may of us have about the aging process. He notes that our date of birth is likely the most important aspect of our identities. As we move past middle age, we are aware of the generation ahead of us and most often do not see a vast number of vibrant and optimistic folks on the road in front of us. Instead, we see lots of examples of aging people who complain of the physical consequences of growing older. They are surprised at their declining vitality and disturbed by the difficulties they encounter in daily life. Livingston proposes that "the old have lost most of what we celebrate in this culture: energy, sexual adventure, a sense of possibilities, and the capacity to change the future."
Livingston suggests that perhaps there is an implied contract that governs our lives but maybe it was never properly explained to us. Here's the fine print in that contract:
"If you are lucky enough to grow old, you will be stereotyped and marginalized by society, even by your own children. You will become slow of thought and movement and have to cope with unexplained pains. You will experience unspeakable losses that, finally, will include the loss of yourself. This is the bargain."
So, go ahead and have your long life but be prepared for a very different existence than the one you experienced as a younger person. Be prepared for marginalization and the feeling that you are being left behind. Be prepared for limited mobility, pain, and heartbreak. I don't quite know what to make of this at the moment. In my current days of relative health and well being, I don't want to imagine a life as limited and dark as my mother's appears to be. But who can say how I might feel at 90 years of age? And what choice do I have anyway?
What do you think? Does the implied contract about sound familiar to you? Is it one you would take as is? Is there room for negotiation there?