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aging

Lately I’ve been thinking about age and what we make of it, and now we operate with it, through it, despite it. Specifically, I’ve been noticing how people make assumptions of others based on the number of years behind their belt. According to gerontologist Robert Neil Butler, who coined the term in the 1960’s, ageism is “a combination of three connected elements: prejudicial attitudes towards older people, discriminatory practices against older people, and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly people.” Since then the concept has grown into stereotyping and prejudicial attitudes towards any group based on age.

Several months ago my beloved grandfather passed away, and I want to add “at a ripe old age of 91,” but that would just illustrate my point. After a serious case of the shingles, he declined rapidly and died within two months of the onset of the disease. The medical staff attending him, though very considerate and sympathetic, gently (and then not-so-gently) advocated for us to let him go. He had lived a full life and nobody could have asked for more from a man who spent the first 70 years in Russia, fought and survived a world war, and lived on to have children, grand children and great-grand children of his own. My mother was at odds with this idea of letting her father pass quietly, without a fight. She asserted that surely if he was able, he would have wanted to continue living, if he could speak coherently, he would have told us Yes! Keep trying with me! Don’t give up!

For the doctors caring for him, grandpa’s age played the crucial role. The assumption was that he had lived enough. It was a “ripe old age” that most men are not lucky enough to attain. And since he’d reached it, somehow that meant that he should be OK with not living any longer. This line of reasoning started to look odd if you applied it going backwards in time. So if it’s appropriate not to fight for the life of a 91 year old, what about a 90 year old? An 85 year old? An 80 year old? Why do we, healthy, youngish people get to decide when an elderly person has “lived enough?” But the opposite reaction, that of assuming grandpa wanted to continue living at all cost, was perhaps also misdirected. Mama might have been superimposing her preferences on him. A person in their mid-50’s would want to live, so naturally a person in their early 90’s should feel the same…

Ageism is equally maddening and confusing when applied to children. When I took my 10-year old daughter to a gourd weaving class designated for adults, the well-meaning teacher, herself in her 70’s, chuckled and with an exasperated sort of resignation exclaimed, “Well, this’ll be a hoot!” Lo and behold, two hours into the class my daughter proved to be the most attentive, dexterous and successful gourd weaver in the group. The teacher judged her unfairly, which was all the more surprising because at her age, she should have been familiar with the sting of age discrimination.

Children really have it tough. They are always maturing, and adult caregivers and educators never seem to keep up. Talking down to a child as if they were three when they’re ten is akin to talking down to an elderly person as if, by default, they were senile. Both are completely unacceptable, but it seems that the former happens even more often than the latter, and definitely with no consequences for the offending adult. Not only are children treated with less respect than they deserve, they also have fewer rights. They cannot go out and purchase what they want – they do not have buying power. They’re always forced to ask their parents for any of their needs, and forced to justify it. Also, they cannot get places. While we-the-adults can just hop in the car and go wherever we please, children have to plan well in advance, coordinate their drivers, beg, explain, negotiate.

You would think ageism affects only the very young and the very old. Not true. As a 30 something, I come into contact with it regularly as a result of where I work (mostly with older people) and where I serve (mostly with significantly older people). Even when I am with my husband’s friends (who are also 20-30 years older than I am), I feel like I am a little girl at an adults’ gathering. I can be delightful, I can be a fun addition to the ensemble, a welcomed decoration on what would have been quite a dreary table otherwise, but surely when the adults start talking serious, I cannot have any input. At this point it is no longer clear whether the “elders” are emitting a sense of being older, or I have already internalized a sense of being “younger” and therefore frivolous and irrelevant.

And, of course, there is age discrimination on the job: older professionals struggle with finding a new job because younger ones are less likely to have strokes and heart attacks and be a liability, and also because they can be paid less and are assumed to be more adept at grasping new technologies and being “team players.”

Truth is, you can’t get away from it. We as a society cannot ban ageism because, at its root, it is a way for us to classify people, to make general assumptions without which we cannot operate (unless we are ready to get to know each individual personally, fully, before we make any judgement about him or her). But still, it helps to be aware of the snap judgments you make about people, and to hold them in check. It’s what you’d want others to do for you, isn’t it?

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They started looking at cemeteries five years ago, when Grandma had her first run-in with cancer. Other folks in their elderly community had begun doing their research and staking out a plot for their eternal sleep, so Grandma and Grandpa felt they also need to make arrangements for a hassle-free afterlife.

The first cemetery they visited had a pleasant feel: well-groomed slopes, the shade of elegant aspen and sycamore, and a very nice, upscale office. After a tour of the grounds, Mama and her parents, my grandparents, entered the office to discuss rates. The sales personnel was professional and quite assertive, and Mama couldn’t help thinking that they work on commission. After the price was set for one site, the sales woman eyed Mama and said nonchalantly, “We’re actually having a sale this week: buy one, get the second half off…” At first Mama didn’t understand, but then it hit her – she was being offered to capitalize on the upcoming passing of her parents and buy a site for herself.

“Well, I’m not planning to….you know….go anytime soon.” She retorted in indignation. “Prices are going up,” responded the sales woman coolly, “and we all have to go sometime. Might as well take advantage of the sale and buy now.” Mom shuddered at the flawless logic. At 85, the grandparents ended up not making a purchase at that time, because the cemetery did not allow upright standing tombstones, and Grandpa was determined to have one. And since arrangements were not made, they decided to live on.

Recently, though, they started looking again. The real-estate market in San Diego was on the upswing, and the time to buy was now. But finding a good match proved more complicated than they anticipated.  First there was the matter of the tombstone. It had to be upright, the way Grandpa remembered them placed in the Jewish portion of cemeteries in Russia. Since there was a Jewish cemetery in San Diego, this seemed the best place to investigate. When she called to inquire, the conversation between Mama and the funeral home worker went something like this:

“Hello, I am wondering if you have a lot available, and if so, what are the costs?”

“Good morning! Yes we do. We charge separate fees for body processing, a grave site, and the burial. The processing fee is $15,000, burial is $8,000 and the site itself another $7,000”.

Shocked by the significant “processing fee”, Mama asked in the gentlest way possible, “What exactly do you do with a dead body before burying it that costs fifteen thousand dollars?”  The speaker on the other side politely explained that it’s a traditional Jewish burial, which includes ceremonial cleaning and preparing the deceased according to all Jewish customs. “Imagine that,” Mom later marveled to me, “They still bury the way they did in Jesus’ time. The traditions haven’t changed at all….”

Would they buy someone who was Jewish by descent but not practicing? Sure. Would they bury a gentile wife next to him? Yes, it’s possible. Would they bury an urn, because she, unlike Grandpa, had no intention of taking her body along into the afterlife? Well, that will pose a problem. According to the Jewish faith, cremation is not acceptable. They hung up, Mom more educated and back at square one.

The urn was the second logistical issue to address. If cemeteries buried bodies, they typically did not accept urns. If they provided a special building for the urns, there would be no place to put Grandpa next to Grandma, because he was set on his tombstone. Burying an urn inside a coffin seemed odd, and the more Mama thought about it, the more it seemed a better idea just to bury grandpa and take grandma along, maybe placing her in the family garden and then, if they moved, to take her with them. But eventually that option was thrown out as well, because it just wouldn’t be right to separate the grandparents after they’d spent over 50 years together.

There was also the problem of finding a good location. The place had to look peaceful, serene. Who wants to spend eternity by the side of a road? Or cramped up against someone else? One cemetery looked promising until it became apparent that the grass cutters actually rode their mowers right over the graves to cut the grass. Grandpa was unsettled by this: “When I go, I want to be in peace. I don’t want some sooty, stinky grass cutting machine mowing over me.” When Mama and Grandma pled with him to be reasonable, he retorted wryly, “Over my dead body!” And that was that.

Plots in the shade of trees cost more, as did more elaborate tomb stones. When they finally settled on a location which was able to elegantly combine the requirements of both grandparents, the heated tombstone negotiations began. The stone would not be built until the cost was paid in full. This time it was Grandma’s turn to speak up, “How is it that we’re paying $15,000 for something that we won’t even get to see?! I want to see it. I want to know how it will look…” And so, after many rounds of back-and-forth, they agreed that they would put a third down, and it would go towards building the stone, which they’ll get to see in three months.

Musing on their recent adventures, Mama mentioned that maybe it would make sense just to buy a plot there for all of us. That way we could be together, finally all in one place. I felt an urge to mention to her that actually, I wanted to be buried in a biodegradable tree bark coffin in order to be reintegrated into the earth as soon as possible, while Grisha fully intended to have me scatter his ashes over the Grand Canyon. By the time the kids were ready to go, they’d probably be able to upload their identities to the cloud, while our grandchildren would most likely live forever. Also I was tempted to say that if all went well, our souls would be in a much better place than even the lovely cemetery they found on a sloping green hill in sunny San Diego.

But I didn’t want to initiate another logistical nightmare. Instead, I agreed, “Yes, it will be lovely to be together. I’m in.”

To follow up on my first letter, I decided to write a second one to my older self.

Dear Anya-of-the-future,

Just wanted to drop you a line, let you know that I am thinking of you.

It’s hard figuring out priorities, predicting outcomes. I wish you would write me once in a while too, share your insight. But no, you sit there enjoying retirement while I garble my way through life blindly. I am not bitter though, I understand you have other things on your mind, like aching limbs, forgotten spectacles, grandkids. Still, it’d be nice to receive a word of encouragement.

As for me, I am thinking of you, trying to save up for your medicare, make some investments, raise children that will take care of you in your old age and share their own children with you. Funny how I get all the work, and you get all the play. I wrote Anya-of-the-past recently too, and it seems I am paying for her play as well.

I don’t have much to tell you that you don’t already know….(although you might have forgotten it). Mostly I just have questions: is it scary being close to death? You probably have come up with some zen philosophical view on it that makes it tolerable. I, being still far off, am scared stiff. What really happens to your body as you age? How do you feel inside? How do we end up handling menopause? Do you go crazy? Just tell me, I’d rather know.

What do we end up doing with the rest of our life? Is there something I should change right now? Do you want me to write a will and pick out a plot to be buried in? I actually like those biodegradable tree bark caskets – what do you think? Or will you take care of that yourself? I am pretty open to suggestions, like I said – you can drop me a line from time to time. Just keep in mind that I am trying to live here as well, to make all the work that Anya-of-the-past put into me worth her while, and to make all the aching, broken bones and white hairs that you have worth it for you too. Bet you have lots of good memories. No need to thank me – it way my pleasure.

Hang in there, the end is in sight.

– Anya

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She replied too:

Dear Anya-of-the-present,

I do thank you for your ever-so-tactful approach to my senility. Your sensitivity is to be lauded.

I haven’t written in the past because I thought you should figure life out on your own, and for the most part I still hold to that. However, there are a few minor things I can’t resist to mention.

First, about life: 90% of what you’re doing won’t matter thirty years from now. You suspect that already, don’t you? You have an inkling, a gut feeling, but stubbornly you prod ahead. I tell you: listen to that gut feeling, and stop everything else.

Secondly, about my health: I have not lost my senses, I still have our memories, but I should warn you – many of the ones that come later are difficult ones. Still I cherish them. My body, our body (you may as well get used to thinking about it as such) is not what it used to be. And I have you and that younger self of yours to thank. Now I carry in me all the scars of your adventuring, your carelessness, your conviction that you will live forever. You should have spent less time worrying about death and more time doing stretches before climbing trees. Yoga is your friend. Donuts are not.

And finally, since we’re on it, death: I don’t think about it much nowadays. I’ll tell you one thing: I have to get dentures soon, and tomorrow I am going to the dentist to get my last real teeth pulled. Our last teeth. Now that is terrifying. I am scared stiff. You really should have flossed more, woman.

Okay, go live your life now. Oh, and spend more time on the beach.

I love you,

Anya-of-the-future

Lately I’ve been thinking of the relationship between my various selves: who I am now, what I owe to my younger self, what I should do for my older self. So I decided to write them both a letter. Here is the first one:

Dear Anya-of-the-past,

First of all, don’t worry. I’m not going to spend this whole letter scolding you. Okay, maybe just a little. But I want to say the good things first.

I really appreciate that you paid attention in school. This might sound trite, but it actually made a huge difference. The things you learned there proved the most useful in my life – like fractions, and elementary statistics, and geometry. It was great that you paid attention in your honors history and literature classes, because the man that you, I mean I, am with now, just happens to be a philosopher, and you – I wouldn’t be able to even feign understanding if we didn’t know some basic concepts or names.

Also, thank you for sticking with orchestra all through high-school, and for piano. You don’t know how much joy I am still reaping from the experience and knowledge gained there. And in case you’re wondering, neither you nor I will ever really regret not going to parties or getting drunk or wasting away our teenagehood. But for that I guess you or I should thank our parents and friends – that lifestyle was never even a temptation.

Now about you-know-what. Those student loans of yours – ouch. I understand you were not very well informed. And I understand your situation perfectly. I’ve been there…. I know. But you should have thought of me. YOU took them out, and I am left paying them, only now they are much larger, and now I have children to support. And unlike you, I am actually thinking about Anya-Future: she’s gonna be old and feeble, and won’t be able to support herself, so I have to put some money away for her too. If you had gone to community college your first two years, you would have saved me, and us all, a lot of grief. But alas, you were consumed by your present self, which is typical.

The other thing I’d like you to think about is this: why do you do the things you do. Now I know what you’re gonna say, so don’t bother. Just think about it. Some of your undertakings will prove long-lasting, others will prove a waste of time. It would be nice if we could tilt the scale in favor of the former.

Overall, though, you’re doing good. Take care of yourself and spend more time at the beach.

– Anya

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Surprisingly, a few days later I got a response in the mail. In a hurried, scribbled chicken-scratch is said:

Dear Anya,

Thanks for dropping me a line – I appreciate the sentiment, although it is kind of weird hearing from you. I’m glad the stuff I learned ends up being useful. Don’t take it personally, but I was doing it more for me, the process of learning was enjoyable.

As for the loans, I had to do what I had to do. You’re reaping the benefits of my education now, and so it’s only fair that you should pay now. I will try to take it easy once in a while, but life is so short, you know? And there is so much for me to accomplish, to try, to experience. I have to run.

Catch ya later,

Anya-of-the-past

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About a month ago we celebrated my son’s 6th birthday. There were other mothers at the party, and I got to talking to one of them about children. She mentioned that she had an older son, and when I inquired about his age, she said he was 18. I instinctively thought, “Wow, she looks so young but her son is almost my age…” Only a few minutes later, looking out at my children playing did I realize: I am almost thirty.

Now, as I sit here eating the remnants of my birthday cake, I wonder about age, and growing up, and growing old.

More and more often I find myself thinking, “…but that was ten years ago”. What have I been doing these past ten years? Where have I been? Most of my friends on Facebook are people I met in my teens, kids from school and church, their parents, and, curiously now – their children. Having them so vividly in my memory, I cannot help but notice the physical changes that time has impressed. From 20 to 30, about 70% of my friends gained weight. From fresh and peach-fuzzed they have become amorphous, slushy. Those who have maintained their physical appearance have turned more crisp, all of their features settling in, emphasized by fine creases. For example, now when someone smiles, the corners of their mouth fall into pre-defined crevices – smile wrinkles that weren’t there before. This is a definite indication of age. Also, while ten years ago the softness below the cheekbones protruded ever so slightly to give faces a smooth, roundish complexion, now the cheekbones are exposed, and the cheeks aren’t as full as they used to be. It’s as if the face has become more rigidized: it bends only along its familiar lines of expression.

Physical inevitabilities set aside, thirty, for me, raises several important questions. Do I have to start wearing make-up now? Should I stop climbing the playground equipment with my kids? Should I stop climbing trees? At which point does looking like a fifteen-year-old stop being advantageous? At which point does “looking youthful and silly” turn into “being old and looking pathetic because you’re in denial about your age”? I also wonder about how long I get to look forward into the future for “grand and magnificent things yet to come”. I wonder about when my metabolism will slow down and I won’t be able to chow down cheesecake and donuts with no penalties to my waistline.

There is also that nagging fear that maybe this is the decade in which natural self-regeneration mechanisms start slowing down (which means I’ll have to actually watch my diet, how much I sleep, how much I exercise). Maybe this is even the decade that the little quirks in my body will stop going away on their own. I will have to go to the doctor and “get things fixed” and then pay attention so that they “don’t get broken” again.

The most poignant part about turning thirty is that now I can look back and realize that this is the way my life is turning out. Some mysterious have been revealed. I will live to see thirty. I will get married. I will be divorced. Some of these realizations are painful: I will have only two biological children. I will not have a nuclear family of my own. I will not be a gymnastic Olympic champion. That ship has sailed. Some other revelations are joyous: I will have two children! I will get to work for NASA, doing important things for the ISS Program. I will reach 30 with three of my grandparents still living and in good health. I will get to fall in love, I will get to be happy.

Time did crazy things with me my first two decades of life, but I can say that I was fully cognizant for the past 10 years. I was an adult this whole time, and hours did not seem to go on forever, while years actually took some time to pass. Looking back I have a good feeling of what “ten years” is, and looking forward, I can say that I have just five or six of these chunks of time left. At best. Just five of these finite, tangible pieces of time on Earth. That imparts some real urgency and yet, less and less I find myself wanting to run around grabbing blindly at every activity, thought or project that comes my way. I have a slight suspicion that a lot of the things I’ve done don’t really matter. But something else matters. Something somewhere just out of reach. Maybe I get to figure that out this decade too.

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