Is Growing Old Gracefully a Misnomer?

Patricia Brozinsky, Ph.D.
 


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What does it mean to grow old gracefully? About ten minutes ago I viewed a television commercial, which was not very efficacious because I’ve already forgotten the product’s name, but it did spawn my idea to write this article. In America , so very many English words and a greater number of expressions have either lost their meaning or never had any.

In the commercial a dermatologist and his wife, a psychotherapist, emphasize that they want to grow old gracefully thus explaining the reason they each claim to swallow 25 supplements per day. This confuses me because I don’t believe we can swallow pills to make ourselves graceful, which by definition is lithe, agile, dainty, pretty, delicate, handsome and trim. Thus, the meaning of growing old gracefully continues to elude me.

Unless we die young most of us will eventually look old. And, people who look old– with gray hair and wrinkles, and those that have gnarled arthritic fingers and toes, and people that are bent over from osteoporosis, and those who have gained weight because of age related slow metabolism or water retention are regrettably not considered among the in-group who are growing old gracefully. They are rarely portrayed in the commercials. So, perhaps growing old gracefully really means to “look good, ” and “to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. ”

Let’s never forget the priceless message of the fox from, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s children’s book, “The Little Prince. " The fox said, “What is essential is invisible to the eye. ” Being lithe, agile, dainty, pretty, delicate, handsome and trim are not always qualities available to the elderly among us. Even some young members of our society have never possessed these qualities. So, maybe now is a good time to reconsider what’s important in life, in general. Suddenly my mind is filled with and my body feels embraced by the amorphous images of graciousness; being accepting of conditions; being charitable; being kind; being caring; being compassionate; being loving; and being generous. The former are but a few of the many words listed in my thesarus under “grace. " Then the expression growing old gracefully would metamorphose into growing old with grace. And imagine how nice it would be to even be young with grace.

Growing old gracefully in this third millennium means that you must have few if any wrinkles (you’ve had a face-lift, botox or collagen injections), your hair has color (because you have it dyed regularly – highlights and low-lights) or you look fabulous with gray hair (you’re lucky), you’re thin (probably had liposuction, diet fanatically, and spend all your time at the gym), you have great physical prowess (good for you), your body is well proportioned (you work out and diet excessively or you’ve had implants), and you take upwards of 25 supplements per day (hey, someone has to fund the industry).

And, if you use the expression growing old gracefully you are among those who use the English language incorrectly and you really don’t communicate with anyone because of this growing trend – the phenomenon that our verbal expressions lack meaning and we don’t really say what we mean . Growing old with grace also means knowing your limitations and shifting your activities when your body cries out “enough!” as it begs you to change from the strenuous sport your ego loves it to an activity your aging body can more easily tolerate. And, more importantly, grace would mean that you would finally accept your new limitations. Maybe ‘growing old with tolerance’ would be even more accurate to describe what our society is starving for. This would mean that we would grow old and become broadminded, open-minded, lenient, accepting and patient.

Growing old used to mean giving back. According to Erik Erikson, the German developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who is known for his theory on human social development believes that our lifetime spans eight stages. This article concerns itself with the last two:

State 7: ages 40-65 – Generativity vs. Stagnation where the optimal potential solution is ‘Caring. ’ And, Stage 8: ages 65 to death – Integrity vs. Despair, where the optimal potential solution is ‘Wisdom, ’ which, among other things, is the acceptance of one’s life.

Wisdom, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is defined as the: a) Accumulated philosophic or scientific learning-KNOWLEDGE; b) Ability to discern inner qualities and relationships-INSIGHT; c) Good sense-JUDGMENT.

This author does not believe that any number of supplements swallowed would ever provide the qualities of caring or wisdom.

People use the phrase ‘grow old gracefully’ but they really mean that as the years pass and their birthdays tell the story of their timeline, that they will do whatever it takes to look young and convince others to believe that they are young. In this third millennium age is unfortunately seen as a curse. And, as a result the greater curse is that we do not venerate our elderly. Is there anything graceful about desperately clinging to youth – causing people to swallow 25 pills per day, subjecting their bodies to cosmetic surgery, engaging in obsessive exercising, fanatically dieting, sometimes binging and purging, dressing in clothes designed for adolescents, and even mimicking the verbal expressions, facial and hand gestures of the youth - the very generation born to replace them?

So what does ‘growing old gracefully’ really mean? If you’re able to play vigorous sports by all means continue until your body says “no more!” If you believe in exercising and eating well, by all means do so.

Enter here the ‘great stretch of mind into consciousness. ’ Examine with rigor your reasons for dieting and exercising until you’re a size one for an aging woman and a 32 waist for an aging man; examine why you would subject your body to a myriad of cosmetic surgical procedures; examine why you would purchase all kinds of anti-wrinkle creams; and wear tight low-cut Capri-pants that expose your belly, along with midriff tops that expose your upper “six-pack” abdomen. Are you really growing old gracefully? Or, as the years pass, which they do for everyone (if you’re lucky), and the adding machine calculates it- which it does, is your psyche really denying the meaning behind all this? That no matter how desperately you cling to youth, you will die. We all die.

The return of the housedress or the muumuu is not even a consideration. Maybe your mothers or grandmothers wore them in their 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s. Growing old gracefully does not mean you must wear housedresses. So what does ‘growing old gracefully’ mean to you? And, what do you suppose it means to others who are aging as you are aging?

Does the mirror, mirror on the wall really tell it all? Are you really growing old gracefully when what you see looking back at you is “yourself when you were forty?” Whom have you really deceived – are you really still forty? Or, will you die just as you would otherwise as the person in the coffin merely looking like you were forty? Only now you’ve spent a lot of hard work and much money trying to recapture your youth, which you've defined as ‘grace. ’ To paraphrase the American writer Gertrude Stein’s, “A rose is a rose is a rose. ” I believe that “Our chronological age despite any form of appearance, or sum of money we’ve spent, or any amount of exercise we’ve done, or any amount of self-denial we’ve engaged in, remains our chronological age. ” In other words, “Your age is your age is your age. ” And, no mater what you do, you can’t fool Mother Nature!
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P. Brozinsky 2007 Copyright©, all rights reserved

Patricia Brozinsky, Ph. D. , a keen observer of human behavior has been a psychotherapist for seventeen years with a private practice in East Patchogue , NY. She has taught psychology at the undergraduate level and has co-lead workshops for Suffolk County Department of Mental Health, NY. (631) 730-8225.

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