Preparing for old age is scary
scarier than getting pregnant
twenty thousand miles from home.
Now my body has to face
the prospect of extreme old age.
What scares me most is the unknown
and so I study hard.
But hey, old age is not like pregnancy
One ends with life, one ends with death
and when I said I’m getting old,
nobody said to me, “How lovely!
Is this your first old age?
When is it due?”
Oh no, they told me:
“You’re not old.
You’ll never be old.
I’ve never met anyone less old than you.
It’s all in the mind.
Age is just a number.
MP3 recording of this poem
Poem, photo and recording by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0: free to share as long as you cite my name as author—please go ahead!
I gave myself one task per month to prepare
for the terrifying job of being old until I die.
I was confused, but I was committed.
Adapt my housing for old age
Get my finances in order
Establish an exercise regime
Audit my eating habits
Commit to hobbies
Make two new friends this year and every year
Banish ye oldie voice
Learn a new skill this year and every year
is a terrible phrase: Align happiness factors
Be who you are
Come to terms with old age and death
That was the plan, you can call it obsessive
call it silly or selfish neurotic excessive
misguided or negative
but hey it was systematic
and a plan gives you power, a sense of control.
You can’t control death and it’s coming regardless
but you can get to grips in advance with small things
so you know
you can still be yourself and the boss of yourself
you’re getting the gist, keeping up with the play
making decisions and having a go—
all precious and familiar things
that slither away as you grow old.
I began a never-ending literature review
I read and I studied
and the news kept coming
and the books piled up
and the waters got muddied
you wouldn’t believe the research out there.
For decades now the ageing horde
has been a coming thing
looming and glooming and secretly booming
and while I’d been dreaming my life away
had worked it out, indeed they knew
what we had to do
(and trust me they were doing it too).
We can all of us, no most of us, no some of us
live longer yes, that happens anyway
but simultaneously collaterally
be healthyish and happyish and cheap to run
and maybe even useful
for nearly all those scary bonus years
or so they said.
We were doomed to live long
we could choose to live strong
it was all up to us no mostly no partly
our choice or so I thought they said.
Science had the answers to my fiddle-faddle fears
so I’d thought I’d do a boot camp for my bonus years
take a year to focus, point my laser mind
at certain smudgy areas
where Rachel could do better.
I was very much alive
I didn’t feel old but the facts were there
I was yes I was going to die sometime
but maybe not suddenly, maybe not soon
so I dedicated twelve months of my life
to being old, to knowing old
to feeling old, accepting old
I would have my year of being old
and then I would be sorted, then I would be fine.
I wasn’t anti-ageing
(which surely means pro-dying)
but my all-time self was out of whack
and needed a test and a tweak and a twiddle
I wasn’t at the end and I wasn’t in the middle
the years ahead were an obstacle course
and I needed to train and to strategise.
An onslaught of earnestness
swept away the vicar’s daughter
not as in save-the-worldism
but as in do-your-bestism
and so I planned my boot camp for the bonus years.
MP3 recording of this poem
Poem, recording and photo by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0. Please share, with my name and a link.
My mother said that seventy years
is plenty of years and after that
you’re a nuisance a mistake
you’re a burden to the state.
So when I hit seventy I noticed the date
but mothers are allowed to be wrong about stuff
some of the time, that’s fair enough
and the seventies turned out to be
a sweet spot, at least so far, at least for me
until I looked around and all I could see
was other old people trotting along like me
and I thought Uh oh, you mean there’s more?
But how much more? To be precise
how many years am I meant to live?
the average woman of my age
will live to 84 but hey
I’m not average (nobody is)
so give me a number, do me the math.
So Google found me a questionnaire
that I trusted to offer a pretty good guess
and I answered 40 questions
and I waited for the verdict
with existential angst and strangled breath.
“Based on your answers you are likely to die
at the ripe old age of 99.”
And I said No, that isn’t me
I could almost imagine being 83
but 99 I’ll never be.
Let’s try another questionnaire
a better one a proper one
let’s do the Mayo Clinic one
I’ll fudge the truth and get the truth
and surely I’ll die in the flush of youth.
Now what does the Mayo Clinic say?
Oh shit I’m heading for 98?
I stormed away from my stand-up desk
and flung myself with all my soul
into the sulk of the century
the ultimate apoplectic huff
short of actual apoplexy
for which you need a dodgy heart
and while I raged, my heart chuffed on and on
like a good old puffer train.
Two days later I settled down and I said to myself,
Well bugger that, it’s just a guess
and I might die the week after next
but it does make a certain sort of sense—
life expectancy on the rise
me with my excellent Girl-Guide habits
my good nutrition and education
me with a home and superannuation
me with phenomenal life-long luck
of lucky time and place and genes
it’s not so freaky to believe
I could survive to 99
whether I like it or not.
If so… if so…
I’ve still got a quarter of my life to go
so I’d better get my ducks in a row.
I thought I’d die in a rocking chair
everything normal for a few more years
then a sudden sit down and a quick let down
and that’d be dying done and dusted.
But now I have to brace myself, face the facts
face my fears and the bonus years
the years and years I never chose
and make them as good as I can.
I knew all about old people
you see them everywhere
but in a million years I never dreamt
one day they would be me.
When we bang on about our trips
and our memoirs and our blogs
and our grandchildren (the best of kind)
and our ills and pills and volunteering
and our hearing aids and hips
pay attention, don’t switch off
this is the first time we’ve ever been old
and we’re wondering how to do it
not just for us but for you.
I state my age out loud and often
not because I’m proud
but to populate the middle ground
between the ones you know:
the marathon-running nonagenarian
and your tragic memory of someone
whose ending was unbearable
as far as you could tell.
I’m a middle child, an average, a sample
squatting on top of a bell curve
and my name is Legion.
You don’t notice us but we’re OK.
Look at us and know
old age has many faces
let’s keep our options open.
MP3 recording of this poem
Poem and recording and photo CC BY 2.0 Rachel McAlpine. Feel free to share, citing my name as the author.
Once upon a time there were six little girls
(all my stories start that way)
and we all lived happily giggling and squabbling
and jumping and wriggling
and running wild and running free
or hiding away in a hedge or a tree.
And our Daddy David was a country vicar
and he always said “Be kind”
and he was kind, he was always kind.
Now from the grave our dear dead Daddy
still reminds us to be kind
and we try, we do our best, we try.
As for mother Celia, every day
she pushed us out the door and whispered
“Go on! Have an adventure! Go!”
and decades dead she still says that
and we obey, it’s easy, it’s OK.
Six old women on the same seesaw
have a primer for life with just two rules
one to be and one to do
and when things start getting out of whack
the sing-song say-so of our parents
can ease us up or down or back.
I need my mother, I need my father
I am my mother, I am my father now.
PS I’m interested to know which lines resonate with you, if any. Maybe you are thinking about your own parents, and the messages that still ring in your ears…
Image and poem and voice by Rachel McAlpine, CC BY 2.0: that means feel free to share them, but always attribute them to me. Thanks!