The Stages of Aging
Growing old catches up with you gradually and in stages. The first taste is the beginning of a process that moves along in a series of plateaus. First, you notice a few gray hairs or you can't walk or run as far as usual. You get slightly worried, but the full force of aging probably doesn't fall flat on you. You start looking for other signs. In conversations you are sensitive to the theme of aging. You listen closely. You begin to wonder, maybe for the first time, about the age of your friends. You start counting the years between
spouses. You can tell when aging becomes an issue for you when you start having thoughts like these that you can't shake off.
As we all know intuitively, and as many studies have shown, what constitutes old age changes from culture to culture and time to time. Today many are saying that sixty is the new fifty, and today many consider seventy-four to be the real beginning of old age, which some call old-old age. But, as I have been saying in different ways, determining age is much more complicated than that. Each person gets a special subjective feeling of aging as he or she approaches it. Even then, the feeling of being younger or older shifts from one period in one's life to another and from one circumstance to another.
During the time I spent writing this book, I led a discussion with a group of psychiatrists during which my host referred to me, with the intention of giving me some honor, I'm sure, as one of the elders in my field. I wasn't expecting the word "elder". This was the first time anyone used it to refer to me, and I felt shock. It
was my first taste of old-old age. I reacted by making an anxious-sounding humorous remark that only made matters worse.
I thought I had dealt quite well with getting older, and yet this uncomfortable moment, sparked by a single positive, uncontroversial word indicates that I have more work to do. I wonder if it will ever end: Will I always have a new experience of entering yet another stage of growing old? My friend Dr. Joel Elkes—I'll say more about him later—told me that he couldn't wait for his one hundredth birthday to pass so that he could get on with his life and not focus on age so much. When my father celebrated his one hundredth birthday, he seemed to really enjoy his party, but I could see that immediately afterward he was happy to go back to his ordinary life. Aging is a fact of life. You might want to honor it and reflect on it, but you don't need to be obsessed with it.
Phases in Aging
Although there are countless ways we could determine stages in the aging process, for my purposes I see the following five phases as basic:
1. Feeling immortal
2. First taste of aging
3. Settling into maturity
4. Shifting toward old age
5. Letting things take their course
For about a quarter of a century you don't think much about age and don't imagine the end. The first taste is something of a shock, as literal youth is left behind. The next phase is a gradual process that takes years, as you create structures for your life and become somebody else. Fourth, you slowly realize how many ways you are no longer young and have to adjust to many changes. Lastly, you can put on old age like a tailored coat. Then you identify yourself as an elder. The final phase is quasi-mystical: You forget about age, deal with your physical problems matter-of-factly, and let yourself be free of judgment and other limitations. You may develop a more mystical approach to life and aging and worry less about what other people think.
A colleague of mine is in his mid-forties. Recently he told me how he noticed a sign of getting older: He has to hold printed words away from his body at an arm's length to read them. He told the story as if some minor tragedy had taken place. In fact, it was a first-taste experience, one that jars you out of youthfulness into a
larger sense of time and some awareness of the arc of your life. This momentous change in your life, your awareness of aging, may be nothing more than adjusting your prescription or buying a pair of reading glasses. At a deep level, these moments, however trivial they may appear, are true rites of passage.
For the Greeks, Hermes is our companion on life's journey, and he helps us grow up mainly through surprise. Mythologically, the feeling of shock you get each time you become aware of getting older could be a gift from Hermes, a step into your destiny, and that sensation of shock can help you age with some awareness and control.
You need at least a small shock so that you can feel the impact and not let it drift by. A shock is a small wakening, and it's true that without these shocks we might remain unconscious and let the years pass by without reflection and without a constructive response.
In those apparently insignificant turning points when you really feel age taking over, it's tempting to indulge in the sad reality of aging; however, this might be the best time to appreciate the youthfulness you have. The first taste is a pricking of the psyche into awareness that life is afoot, that something is going on. You have reached a telling moment, an early awareness of aging. Now you can begin to think of your life as taking a longer and greater arc and imagine that some significant changes are just getting under way.