Time is spooky shit. 1984 used to be the future. The changes that the ‘now’ has gone through, the close presence of two or four decades before my birth— because they were in my parents’ time, because so many artifacts of that early 20th century were still hanging around when some of us were young —sometimes I feel like some strange being who has lived for centuries. As a small child, I knew an unfortunate model for ageing, an example I was determined I would be nothing like, a woman born in 1880, a Jewish girl from Romania who was sent across the ocean with a family who had offered to raise her as one of their own—and instead used her as servant or slave. When she grew old enough to leave that situation, where, I imagine, any physical weakness on her part would have been spat on, she went on to marry and to raise a large family in hard times, setting aside any weakness or illness that might have afflicted her and carrying on with whatever needed to be done, from her sense of duty, honor, and what is right. No damn wonder that as an old woman she took a sour glory in infirmity and decay, wore it as a badge of finally‐I‐am‐entitled, of I‐have‐earned‐this.
When I was a child, not at all understanding, I was horrified and disgusted by her willful decrepitude, her theatrical ill‐health, her meanness to her
mentally retarded daughter—who she treated as she had herself been treated as a girl, I suppose. (Years later, my father told me that I remind him of that woman, her courage, he said. What I don’t know…)
I have been fortunate to also have had a very, particularly, unusually good model for ageing. More on that later.
The disrespect that elders meet with nowadays:
Part of the problem may be the adage, respect your elders.
Unfortunately, the phrase invokes an old‐fashioned deference‐respect. Any call for deference may well meet with rebellion.
Speaking for myself, I don’t like deference, I don’t want deference: I want mutual, one‐to‐one, person‐to‐person respect.
Part of the reason for the elder‐disrespect we see may be the 20th century custom of mandatory retirement.
Mandatory retirement: why that? I suppose that the reasons are complex.
After the wars, I suppose, it would have seemed like a good idea to get rid of the old guys, to give their jobs to the returning soldiers, partly out of appreciation for the veterans, and perhaps, gawd knows what those guys we have trained to shoot and kill will do if we don’t get them working. Mandatory retirement, as it became a part of social custom, fostered a disparaging attitude toward older people.
There has been an assumption that inventive creativity is a quality particularly of the young. This is in my experience a misunderstanding, one that has, I think, been enabled by the mastery trap.
As one gets older one is expected to be a master of what one does, not a beginner.. To innovate, one must be of a mind to plunge into new territory, where one does not have mastery.
The human body (which of course includes the brain) imposes its state on us. Physical problems are real, may afflict us at any age, and the probability may increase as we get older. Nevertheless, with luck and determination one may perhaps remain oneself.
The world told me when I was a girl, just damn dance to that damned old tune they sing to girls … you can’t—you aren’t—you shouldn’t—you don’t. I didn’t accept it then. Older people hear a similar tune. I won’t live as if I were unable, or waste whatever life I may yet have, just because of what might at some time be a limitation for somebody.
That fog, sometimes it looms before the darkness.
I have lost several friends to dementias. The process of healthy ageing is, I think, very different.
I say that the much slower process of healthy ageing is different because I have seen this in the person of a great and inspiring lady, in her late 90s as I wrote this. A person of dignity, grace and intelligence, a healthy model for ageing, she remains herself, my mother.
The self, I see from observing healthy ageing, is not a thing; rather, the self is a process. As a brain slowly changes, in the course of healthy ageing, the self may in the process create or find a place for itself.
Again, respect for elders.. I propose this as a reinterpretation of the old ‘respect’ your elders” meme:
Please respect each of us as the individual person we have proved to be. What we have done still counts. To the extenthat we have been competent, we have earned the right to be regarded as competent—and not incompetent— until proven to be otherwise.
From Molten Wood and Feral Ideas chasens.ca/book