“Authors, like coins, grow dear as they grow old; It is the rust we value, not the gold.” – Alexander Pope
I come to this place of Elder Power through a cascade of chronic catastrophic illnesses and disabilities, which – like life – are ultimately fatal. Some have encouraged me to write from a clinical perspective. It would seem, however, that the clinical lessons have less significance than the life lessons. It is the life lessons that give us the strength to keep going, that are the true value to be shared, and that make us elders. To me “elder” implies more than “senior” or “senior citizen,” which I see as demographic terms for people who have reached retirement age. A senior is someone who has merely put in time, while elder is about attitude and state of mind. Elder implies one who is accomplished, who has learned a few things along the way.
As a poet, writer, and content editor, it is the life lessons, not the clinical ones, which inspire and inform my work. I have learned, for example, that all humans are in process and therefore imperfect; and that, no matter what our differences are, the most important thing is to remain open to communication and to accept and release our own follies and those of others. I have learned that neither illness nor threat of death preclude joy. I have learned that people who are joyful rarely do harm to themselves or others. I have learned that fear of death has to be directly addressed and then firmly put aside in favor of the business of living. As the saying goes: “It’s not over until it’s over.” Until then, we have responsibilities to others and ourselves. The only real difference between someone who has a life- threatening illness and someone who doesn’t is that the former is no longer in denial.
“If people bring so much courage to this world, “ wrote Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms, “the world has to kill them to break them. The world beaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very brave and the very gentle impartially. If you are none of these it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
I am not good, or brave, or particularly gentle. I do not – and never have – suffered fools kindly. Sometimes I let it all get me down. I descend into fear. I am impatient with process, with taking meds and going for seemingly endless tests and doctors’ appointments. Maybe that’s why I’ve outlived my original medically-predicted expiration date by over eighteen years. My mother used to say, “Only the good die young.” My best quality may be that under my protective shell of intractability, I actually am willing to be broken and reformed. I suppose only time will tell if I have grown “strong at the broken places.”
So, here I stand, twenty-odd years into it, hugging my 70s at the dawn of a bright new day in a body that is now dramatically disabled and quite a bit older. It’s still a good morning and a good body. I recognize I once dealt with a worse handicap than my current disabilities. That handicap is commonly referred to as “youth.” I survived. Maturity on the other hand is a true boon, a gift to savor and enjoy with layers of luxurious nuance I had not anticipated. I do not long for my youth. I love my graying hair. I love my wrinkles and the loose skin on my neck. I love the mild deformity of my feet. These things remind me that I am still here after all. It’s unlikely that I’ll dye my hair, though I have. I will not get chemical injections or cosmetic surgery. I will not use rejuvenating grooming products that have been tested on defenseless animals. I am inspired by civil-rights-era African-Americans who sported Afros, said essentially “this is who we are and what we look like,” and chanted “black is beautiful.” I am graying. I am wrinkled. It’s all lovely and lyrical and makes me smile. It’s about ripeness, not rottenness. It’s honesty: what you see is what you get. Aging is beautiful. With maturity, one finds character refined and perspective broadened, energy expands and compassion flowers. The experience of joy comes more easily.
As survivors, we owe it to those who have gone on to live in gratitude for this gift of a long life. How ungrateful and what an insult it is to them for us to bemoan our maturity and yearn for our youth as we so often do. What an incredible waste of time and energy such yearning is. Many don’t survive childhood in their impoverished and war-torn areas. Some others don’t survive childhood due to congenital or other diseases. My sister died by her own hand when she was twenty-seven. I have a wonderful, talented, smart friend in her mid-thirties who will pass within three months from this writing. Like you, I have relatives and friends who didn’t make it to fifty, much less sixty or seventy. All things considered, aging is a gift not a curse.
“People worldwide are living longer. Today, for the first time in history, most people can expect to live into their sixties and beyond. By 2050, the world’s population aged 60 years and older is expected to total 2 billion, up from 900 million in 2015. Today, 125 million people are aged 80 years or older. By 2050, there will be almost this many (120 million) living in China alone, and 434 million people in this age group worldwide. By 2050, 80% of all older people will live in low- and middle-income countries.” World Health Organization MORE
Some of our power comes from our sheer numbers. According to the World Health Organization, 900 million of us were aged sixty or more in 2015 and as of 2018 125 million of us were aged over eighty. We represent a huge political constituency, a lucrative market, and an enormous fount of energy, experience, and expertise. If that isn’t power in this modern world, what is? What a force for peace we could be.
Some of our power comes from consciousness. We are awake now. We have learned how to live in the moment and how to live joyfully, hugely. That alone is a lesson to share. Some of our power comes from more time and focus. Many of us are retired or semi- retired or on disability, or soon will be. Implicit in that is the time to keep abreast of issues in our communities, countries, and our world. We can take the time and make the effort to get accurate information, to analyze carefully, and to share appropriately; that is, in a well considered, non-inflammatory, non-sensational manner. We can act with grit and grace.
Let the elders among us be the Global Movement of Strength in Broken Places. Let those of us who have this gift of long life seize on it and ply our elder power individually and in concert. Let’s live with joy, do good, and have fun. Most of all let us be generous with our love. Soon enough, when the time is ripe, our bodies will become earth once more. Our spirits will travel on but the river of mortal life will continue to flow. Our children will see us reflected in the eyes of their children. Our grandchildren will strain to hear our voices in rustling leaves and breezes that whisper to them in the night. They will seek us out in moonlight and the warmth of the sun, in the roar of the oceans and the gentle meandering of a lazy brook. They will find us in the hearts of the lives we’ve touched with concern and compassion.
© 2020, Jamie Dedes
Originally published in 2009 in the now defunct California Woman and updated for The BeZine blog series on illness and disability.