Developmental stages—a poem

Young woman attends to bedridden old woman. Illustration from St Nicholas serial circa 1873.

Two phases in a woman’s life. But how old is the older woman?

People truck through phases.
Shakespeare, Erikson and Sheehan
all agree on that.

Young people rarely tell us
that they’re struggling
in the dark behind the mask:
we wish they would
but we recall that phase.

Mid-lifers needn’t justify
the writing class, the new career
the Ferrari in the drive:
we know that phase
we check it off.

But after that it’s all a mush
of ramps and mini-steps
young old and somewhat old
old old and frail old
and almost dead.

So just for now we’re baffled.
Until we get the hang of it
we oldish people have to think
aloud about
the final quarter of our lives

because it’s genuinely new
new to us and new to you.
We have to train you
not to call us young

as if we should be flattered
as if that label didn’t make
the grave more stark
the complicated end of life
even more confusing.

Rachel McAlpine 2019

16 thoughts on “Developmental stages—a poem

  1. LA says:


  2. Sadje says:

    That’s life.

  3. anne leueen says:

    when a caregiver in the elders home calls me “young lady” I will know I am truly ancient. It is just insulting.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I hope you help raise their consciousness!

      1. anne leueen says:

        If and when I get there I will do my best.

  4. Though we lump people together into amorphous groups at all stages of life, somehow sadly we seem to lose the sense of their individuality more with the old.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I think that’s true and is even stranger now that the “old” label covers 30 years or more.

  5. JOY journal says:

    Very true! My grandmother, who lived with us, lived to be nearly 102. I asked her once if she had ever felt she had it together. She hadn’t. Yet, she managed to muddle along, sail along or whatever it took. When I feel out of my depths, I always think back to the honesty of her answer.

    Blessings, Rachel!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Fabulous grandmother. Together? Me neither.

  6. This sums up my ambivalent feelings about my advancing years!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It is weird, right? And more rich and poignant than all those cheerful cliches imply.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    It’s “adorable” that gets to me.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It may soothe you to know that this word is used widely about people of all ages now. Unlike “feisty”.

      1. Elizabeth says:

        That does help actually. I had been taking it personally. Or impersonally!

  8. So true. We really are pioneers. I have always detested the use of “young” before an age. I think it sometimes is used to camouflage the fear of the person talking to us as opposed to speaking with us.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Well said. Thanks.

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