How scary is old age?


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In which I contemplate the relative scariness of a first pregnancy and old age.


Preparing for old age is the scariest thing I have ever done in my life.

Scarier than gliding. Scarier than windsurfing in a gale. Scarier than reading poems to an audience of 2000. Scarier than reading poems to the Empress of Japan. Scarier than dancing on stage for the first time at the age of 66.

Scarier than preparing to have a baby far away from my family, pre-email, pre-Skype.

Old age is sort of like pregnancy

When I was pregnant far from home and family, I feared the unknown. Feared it very much. I found my own solution when I borrowed an illustrated textbook for nurses on obstetrics and mulled over every page. That’s when I discovered that I’m a Stoic, a worst-scenario kind of gal. I would study each case history, complete with sometimes terrifying photographs and ask myself, could I bear this? Or this? Or this? The climax: visualising the midwife crushing my baby’s head before it was born, because it was my life or nobody’s. Could I bear even this?

When I closed the book, I felt calm and confident. My jitters were banished by knowledge.

In some ways, I’m in a similar situation now, ignorant about what old age may entail, afraid of the unknown. So now I’m reading everything in sight and sucking up information about growing old and dying. And, as with pregnancy, I’m talking about this.

And there the similarity ends.

Being old is not like being pregnant

Because nobody says to me, “Oh how lovely, so you are getting old! And is this your first old age? When is it due? So you are going to write about old age and dying—I’m so happy for you! Congratulations! And you are going to carry on and on about it for an entire year? You plan to blog about it, write a book about it? And then you’ll die! Wonderful. I can’t wait.”

On the contrary, this is what they say.

“Why?” “Try homeopathy, then you mightn’t feel so old.” “You’re only as young as you feel.” “I don’t want to live that long. I couldn’t bear it. I’d rather be run over by a bus.”

Or there’s a deadly silence. Or a quick change of subject.

Underneath, I hear the message, “I don’t want to think about that.” And I sympathise. Of course I don’t want to think about it either. But hey, I’m a writer, and that’s what writers do when we get a bee in our bonnet.

So why is this project so scary?

Because I will (most probably) get old, and old age is not for sissies. And then I’ll die.

I have changed my attitude to dying from when I was a kid. At seven years old I horrified my mother by saying, “I can’t wait to die! It’ll be so exciting to see what happens!” I saw death as a fascinating mystery.

Now, at this moment, I am perfectly willing to wait. I’m absolutely in no hurry. I believe the process is pretty awful for most, and when the time comes I won’t necessarily find it fascinating. While curiosity is intrinsic to every writer’s character, I expect to be well beyond curiosity at the point of death.

But who knows?

Photo of my mother Celia Twyneham. She doesn’t look scared…

28 thoughts on “How scary is old age?

  1. As I have had to deal with empty nest and becoming a Grand, I also think about the next step in the progression. In Erickson’s psychosocial development, this stage is the generative stage, “… the concern of guiding the next generation,” of leaving something that will outlast us.

    As a nurse, I have had the privilege of witnessing some pretty amazing deaths, and some pretty frustrating ones. I think the difference is not just what the dying person believes, but how supportive the family is.

    Old age is scary because it is as you say, the fear of the unknown. Ultimately every person has to make that hard journey alone. Wow! Did that sound morbid. I am also a pragmatist, a realist. Not something I look forward to, for sure. Writing definitely helps us get a handle on our feelings, to process them, and to finally quit obsessing about them. Your writings will probably help someone else.

    1. A supportive family is a blessing, that’s for sure, especially when we start to lose control over our fate. You’re right about the role of writing, too. I might quote you!

  2. I’m getting closer all the time and just making health and financial plans is daunting. Aging and dying are topics not too many want to discuss, I find. Thanks for putting it out there!

    1. Thank you — this was all for my own sake, so it’s good if it is useful (and not too scary) for others.

      1. It is tough to face, but inevitable. So I’d agree with you that I’d like to have as good a life as possible right up till the end. Otherwise, what’s the point, right? But, of course, many people don’t get to make that choice due to health issues or whatever…

      2. Exactly. Today I have had a strong reminder that old age is a privilege. Dying young is the tough one.

  3. Lively Life says:

    At 27, i very much enjoy reading from za elderz:)

    1. And I totally enjoy the company of younger people like you.

  4. Abigail Schweber says:

    It is lovely to grow old, as long as your mind still functions and there are people who care about you. So much better than the alternative.

    I find my perspective on getting old has changed completely since having a few far-too-near death experiences. It’s become something I actively hope for. I want to see my children grow up. I want to meet the people who will be parts of their lives. I want to see how our species overcomes it’s latest challenges, from the rise of religious fundamentalism to climate change. I want to see what amazing new technologies and art we’ll come up with and what new things we’ll learn.

    Growing old is the opportunity to watch history unfold.

    1. I think you have listed your two essentials for a happy or at worst an OK old age. According to Atul Gawande we should ask ourselves that question and make our needs clear. (Of course he says much more, much wiser, and much more eloquently than that!) And your particular mind is hungry and curious, fascinated by the new and fully involved. Lookin’ good.

  5. bobritzema says:

    Are you familiar with momento mori? It was the practice, recommended particularly in the middle ages, of thinking regularly about your eventual death. The idea was that awareness of your mortality would help you adopt the proper attitude towards life in the present. Maybe you’re starting your own practice of momento mori.

    1. I am familiar with that mellifluous phrase, and I’m all in favour of the concept. Do you know Muriel Spark’s terrific novel, Memento Mori? So funny, so lightly sketched, and so profound. My boot camp was more of a momento senescere.

  6. Robyn Haynes says:

    It’s not the dying that scares the pants off me. It’s what comes before. Will I lose the few marbles I have? Will I be totally dependent (and a burden) to the people I most care about? Will I forget to wash – ugh! The way I see it is I can’t change the inevitable (in whatever form it takes) so I have to make a fist of the whole experience and do it with as much grace as I can muster. I plan to be an awesome old woman! Oh, wait, I’m already an old woman. Still waiting for the ‘awesome’ part.

    1. Exactly, hence a boot camp for old age — the scary bit! — not for death. Old age is an entire portfolio of unknowns, death pretty much just the one. And I think you have got it sussed, you awesome old woman.

      1. Robyn Haynes says:

        Hahaha! Takes one to know one!

  7. Hello Rachel
    Old age has arrived so quickly and there is no going back. I have so many things I want to go back and say to my 20 year old self…..too late, and now suddenly there just doesn’t seem enough time to get things done in life. Ill health has reared it’s nasty head and buggered everything up, it makes all there is left to enjoy in life a touch harder.
    That old and ever so true quote, ‘Life is too short’ well guess what it turns out it is.
    Nevertheless Rachel I am grateful for the life I have had and my wish now is that my children and grandchildren have healthy, happy and safe peaceful times ahead.
    Your mother looks young and beautiful, and perhaps we all need to take a leaf from her book and accept death is a given, as is old age, so there it is.
    You have given us plenty to ponder Rachel, it is good to have this conversation.
    From one old girl to another
    Biggest hugs and Warmest Regards from
    Annie in Australia 🌞 🌴 🌊

    1. Hello Annie! Thank you for this reminder to appreciate every minute of life, starting yesterday. You’ve certainly had a tough awakening, and I suppose it is one coming to everyone who lives long enough — and yet there is grace in your response. I appreciate this. You have also got me interested in what I would have said to my younger self. I think I’ll explore that some time… I send you virtual hugs right back! Rachel

  8. I’m 77 years old, and never think about old age. Am I an ostrich? Am I just plain silly? What I did do was prepare certain things, as they say “Put your affairs in order.” I’ve done my will, my power of attorney, cleaned out my desks, shelves and closets. So, what’s next? Just to enjoy the rest of my life, and good health, I hope! The older I become, the easier it gets. I think there is a moment when you just decide to stop worrying!

    1. Robyn Haynes says:

      Such great advice

  9. Diane, no way could anyone call you silly! You are living superbly, that’s clear. Moreover you have already done what’s necessary for you. What’s next is exactly what you say — enjoy to the utmost. My boot camp was my year of sorting myself out. Truthfully I’m not quite sorted yet, but too bad, bring on the next 23 years!

  10. chattykerry says:

    As someone struggling through the menopause, I feel your pain…literally. I was really enjoying getting older until my body stopped working properly. Myriad symptoms but the worst is chronic fatigue and off for lab tests tomorrow. Having said that, 50 – 56 were some of my best years. 🙂

  11. Don’t despair. I can’t presume to know your situation, but my seventies are a sweet spot and many of my friends feel the same, after struggling in their fifties. Chronic fatigue I have seen close up: tough times, I feel for you. My challenges are more philosophical or esoteric at this point — but they are still real.

  12. Joared says:

    Old sge just is — no reason to be scared. Jusr put your energies into living — get on with it!

  13. Sure thing!

  14. Elaine Greenwood says:

    I love this blog! I recently retired at 67 after many years in the IT Industry. It is a relief not to have to rush off to work in the traffic. To not have to rush back to the office whilst recovering from ‘flu. But I do resent the attitude of younger people to age. Our young HR Manager actually told me to go and enjoy my Golden Years! I love to travel, and now I find my travel insurance has tripled due to my taking chronic medication for hypertension. And, it will increase more when I turn 70. This sucks!

    1. It’s a complicated dance between the good and the bad, isn’t it? I hope you feel at home here in the company of friends.

  15. Wow! Thanks for this post, Rachel. For awhile, as a kid, I looked at Death as a Great Mystery and actually felt I’d seen my ancestors’ faces in the windows of an old house behind some deciduous trees one winter. This made me feel I was cuckoo later.

    Well, I recently read a book by Wayne Dyer called “Memories of Heaven: Children’s Recollections of the Time Before” where he mentions childrens’ recollections of ancestors they met before they were born. I felt affirmed about those childhood “mirages.”

    Now that I am in my 60’s, I would like to go back to those feelings. I am so grateful that you mentioned Muriel Sparks’ book, Memento Mori. I read it in college but no longer recall how it went. I shall be checking this book out at the library and reading it again.

    One other tidbit: my Mom gave me a fantastic cookbook w/photographs of well renown Parisians from the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. One of them was of Sarah Burnhardt, the famous actress, who used to take naps in her coffin with candles surrounding her. Talk about Memento Mori!

    1. Wow right back, Susan. I imagine those ancestors must have been rather comforting. As for Sarah Bernhardt in her coffin, there are groups now that make their own coffins which they use for other purposes in the meantime. But nap time! I have been turning these memories into poems lately.

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