Narratives of Old Age

Are real people fictions? We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others. The so-called facts of our individual worlds are highly coloured and arbitrary, facts that fit whatever fiction we have chosen to believe in. It is necessary to have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day, but what happens when the story becomes a scripture? When we can no longer recognise anything outside our own reality? – from Jeannette Winterson’s Art Objects

Jeannette Winterson correctly points out that it is necessary to “have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day.” We all have narratives that we tell ourselves, for which we provide mental commentary as we move through our days. But what happens when our stories veer from reality? What happens when they become “scripture” for our consciousness, leaving no room for change or adaptation? And what happens when we get old?

What kind of story do we tell ourselves about getting old – if we tell ourselves that story at all? We tell ourselves stories about other people getting old, but we think we are all somehow… exceptions. My mother thinks she is the only person who is not “old” in her memory care facility. “This place is full of old people” she sneers with disdain as she shuffles past her peers down the long corridors. People put off going into retirement villages, elderly housing, assisted living, because those people are so old. And we say it with the same sneer that my demented mother uses. No young people ever complain about going away to college because the people are so young. (Although would you want to move into a dorm again with a gaggle of eighteen-year-olds?)

It is of great note that people of a certain age always claim to feel like they are younger than they are. A favorite conversation topic is divulging with our peers what age we feel like inside – 20? 15? 35? Surely not our real age – not 67 or 75 or 82. We think there is something wrong with our skin, our bones, our hearing because it is not what it used to be and because it does not match our mental image of ourselves. Sometimes I wonder if there is an acceptable story about getting old.

Jeannette Winterson says that we understand each other through “an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.” In our culture, the stories of old age we absorb from others are mostly stories of denial or hostility. “You’re only as old as you feel.” “Do not go gentle into that good night.” But here we sit with our old bodies and our minds that sometimes can’t remember the name of that woman across the street.

Virginia Woolf (who never got very old herself) demands an acknowledgment of the “great wars which the body wages with the mind.”  Woolf concedes that such honesty will not be easy: “To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth.” Woolf also acknowledges that age itself changes our perception of the entire world: “If you are young, the future lies upon the present, like a piece of glass, making it tremble and quiver. If you are old, the past lies upon the present, like a thick glass, making it waver, distorting it.” Is age itself distorting our ability to tell ourselves a real story, a meaningful story?

What would a true and helpful story of old age be? Would a more reasonable narrative of the body’s weaknesses save us from the wasted energy of railing against every demonstration of those very debilities? (I am currently hobbling around in an orthopedic boot protecting a broken foot. It is temporary, but trying my patience and my story about being fit and active – but more on this next time.) If we could get past disdain, would we find some value in old age – a refuge, perhaps, from the competitions and expectations of our youth? Again, I ask all of us (old or young), what is our narrative of old age? And where did it come from? Other people? From our younger selves? Are we brave enough to tell a new story?

And while we are at it, we might also examine the story of the past. Old age is a time (and often has time) for reflection. Does our past match the story we were living at the time? There are still lessons to be learned.

This week’s story is “Playing by Ear,” about the stories we absorb through our auditory functions. Think about it.

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