How can we maintain our identity as we grow old?

Child contemplates two women turned to stone
Is this my future? A child contemplates two women turned to stone.

bootcamp2015-small 2

In which, despite a disheartening deterioration of the ageing body and some ill-judged wardrobe choices, I discover a salutary harmony between the front I present to the world and my subjective experience of a dislocated identity.

“Be who you are”

That’s the eleventh challenge in my boot camp for old age, in which I work on improving my chances in the brain-gain lottery that lies ahead. This particular task is to figure out my changing identity — I’m changing into an old person — and starting to live with it instead of fight it.

Another way of putting this: I would prefer my outside to match my inside, for people to look at me and get an accurate idea of who I am and what I feel like inside. I’ve been searching for an inherent personal coherence, consonance, or harmony.

But this is not straightforward, because right now life is rapidly changing my outside. Grey hair, wrinkles and all that cranky stuff that shrieks “Old lady! Old lady!” — when inside, I’m still a bit confused. Like you (I presume) I have moments of feeling like a 6- or 26- or 36- or 56-year-old, which are all a big mis-match with my chronological age.

OK, I’ve had 12 months to complete the boot camp. Plenty of time, huh? You’d think so. But over the summer I got lazy, wallowing in late mornings and a dormant business and sweet sunshine, socialising and sea-swims.

The fruit of procrastination: a list

  1. Right now I sort of match how I feel: a vigorous 76 and I look like a vigorous … 70, perhaps? Not bad consonance.
  2. I’ve always enjoyed choosing what to wear and I still do, it’s fun. But nowadays I make more mistakes than previously. I never look like an old fuddy duddy (not in my own eyes, anyway) but I do sometimes look slightly ridiculous. I think that’s fine, that’s definitely a pass. Because this combination of sartorial qualities is a good match for how I perceive myself: not young but youthful; vibrant (colours); original to the point of seeming a bit “off” at times. I’m just me.
  3. A few people “get me”, people to whom I never have to explain my jokes or my serious opinions. That’s enough. I only need a few people to see right into my real self.
  4. Just as I’m scrutinising my own external appearance and inner self, I’m also scrutinising others. I’m discovering a new delight in seeing friends and strangers with new eyes. Far from thinking, “Why do you always wear that boring old cardigan/jeans/fleece/sneakers?” I find myself thinking, “Look at you! I see you: you are yourself through and through, and you are like nobody else in the entire world — how wonderful is that!”

We are who we are. Was there any need for this challenge at all? For you, probably not. For me, maybe.


Image by W Heath Robinson in ‘Old Time Stories’ 1921

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14 thoughts on “How can we maintain our identity as we grow old?

  1. On “HighwayPatrol” on TV tonight : Police officer walks up to car he has pulled over to side of road. Driver a woman who looks to be in her sixties. Police officer checks scanner gadget. “This isn’t your first speeding ticket !” Driver in her sixties “Ooops a daisy !” She seems to be aging in her own style.

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  2. You do a nice job of reflecting on the discrepancy between your external and internal identity. As I age, it seems that as my appearance gradually ages, my inner sense of identity bounces around quite a bit. You describe a range in your subjective sense of self, all the way from 6 to 76. That’s pretty much my experience. I think we notice it more when the inner and external sense of self don’t match, but I suspect there are just as many occasions that I feel as well as look my age. It can be disorienting to sometimes still think of myself as a kid, sometimes be a ;young adult, sometimes be middle-aged, and sometimes be the almost-70-year-old that I actually am. Still, I kind of like that elasticity in my identity. It would be boring to be captive to one and only one age!

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  3. Yes, there definitely is a discrepancy between my mind’s age and that of my physical body. Very important to remember that fact, but my body usually reminds me if I forget.

    I think I know who I am, but sometimes feel my identity is under assault by the manner in which I’m treated by those who don’t know me. Clearly my physical appearance reveals I’m old, even if others judge me to be much younger than my years. But because I’m “old” strangers interact with me based on a stereotype, or their beliefs about old people they’ve had in their life. Thus I must assert myself to clearly convey I’m quite different from who they have erroneously assumed to be me.

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    1. I know exactly what you mean. I assert myself partly with dress code, favouring clothes that are bright or funny. And I fight my own inner agism, wanting to see the individuality, not the age, of strangers.

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      1. You’re welcome, Rachel. It’s nice when I run across a thoughtful post that stimulates my own reflections on a topic. You’ve provided that for me quite a number of times.

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