‘Othering’ Other People

My friend Jack called me a few weeks ago to share an experience. 

He’d been at a public meeting at the library, seated at a table with three forward-facing chairs. He was sitting in the chair on the left, a woman was in the chair at the other end of the table, and the middle chair was empty. He nodded a friendly greeting to that woman and, shortly thereafter, he said hello to another woman as she sat down in the middle chair. He told me that he’d guessed she was about 85 years old.

After the presentations concluded, there was time for small-group discussions at each table. The woman next to Jack went out to the bathroom, and he started talking with the other woman at the table, who countered, “Let’s wait until your wife gets back from the bathroom.”

On the phone, Jack laughed sheepishly. He admitted to being shocked that the woman could even think he was married to their table mate. He confided that his first thought was, “Do I really look that old?” At the time, he felt embarrassed. When he got home, he discussed it with his wife. He wasn’t proud of his reaction. 

On the phone with me, he was again embarrassed—but not ashamed. He had realized his unconscious ageist bias quickly. I was glad he’d called me, but the story isn’t over. A week or so later, we had lunch together, and we revisited our phone call. We talked about judging other people based on assumptions, the nature of relationships and how one person’s appearance can reflect something about the other person. And during that lunch conversation, Jack realized something. It was an “aha” moment for him.

In our phone conversation, he told me that when he first saw the woman sitting down next to him, he’d thought she was about 85. But as he retold the story at lunch, Jack realized that he had not consciously thought about her age until she’d been referred to as his wife. In other words, his first impression of her age had been totally unconscious. Jack’s ageist assumptions about and judgments of the woman sitting next to him were totally unconscious until their “relationship” was mentioned, until he felt personally insulted. Jack was amazed by this realization.

This is a clear and fascinating example of how deep and common our unconscious biases can be. Because of a variety of reasons, including socialization, cognitive development, cultural influences, fear and stereotyping, we learn at early ages to “other” other people. We do it without thinking and even without realizing it. And the effects of this “othering” differ, given one’s power and privilege and resources.

For many white males in our mainstream culture, ageism can be the first glimpse into the othering phenomenon, a crack in the doorway of awareness. Jack and I both learned from his aha moment.

Three Ages

I think I am three ages; my chronological age, the age that I feel, and the age that I look. 

Of these, chronology is the objective one. It’s just math, right? But what does the number of the Earth’s revolutions around the sun since I was born have to do with anything? The age that I feel and the age that I look are both subjective. Indeed, for the most part, my looks depend upon what somebody else thinks.

We all age differently—there is no template. There’s probably no more heterogeneous group than older people. Yes, changes are inevitable as we age, but not necessarily at the same time, or in a similar order or even of the same type for everybody. When somebody quips, “You look great for 75!” I respond, “This is what 75 looks like!”

I recently saw a guy whom I’d worked with for quite a few years, whom I hadn’t seen since pre-COVID days. I stared at him momentarily. To me, he looked like he was his own father—frail, more sagging, more wrinkles. It made me wonder, how do I look? And underneath that is the ageist, “I hope I don’t look like that.” 

The other day, as I was driving, I had to slow down for a woman shuffling across the street, walking with a cane. As I drove past her slowly, I recognized that we’d been in a neighborhood walking group together about 15 years ago. She had changed significantly. Back when we walked together, she told great jokes, always making me laugh. It made me wonder if she’d still bring a smile to my face. But really, what does her mobility have to do with her sense of humor?

There’s a guy in one of my social networks who seems to be having some difficulties staying focused. When he runs a meeting or joins a get-together, he’s not very well organized. He just doesn’t seem as sharp as he used to be. It made me wonder if he knows he’s changed, and if he ever talks about it with anybody.

How should we treat our family or friends or acquaintances who don’t seem as sharp as they used to be? Most of us learn at an early chronological age to dismiss them as just getting old, an example of unconscious bias. But which age are we dismissing them for—the way they complain about how they are feeling, or the way they show their age, or their mathematical “revolutions-around-the-sun” age?

Perhaps we can learn to treat them with empathy and kindness no matter what their age, rather than to just make them invisible. After all, we’re all in this together.

These are not things we usually talk about. There seems to be a social taboo regarding honest talk about the inevitable changes we all go through as we age—both the difficulties and the opportunities. 

Difficulties like compromised balance, weaker muscles or just not being as sharp as we used to be. Opportunities like the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize itself or get closer to being the person we’d like to be.

No matter which of my three ages other people choose as my calling card, I will have the opportunity to be who I am and to be present with them.

My Own Ageism and Ableism

These days, I see my possible future self everywhere. Most of the time, it’s the possibilities I’m dreading that jump out at me first. At the gym, there are always some people moving very deliberately and with much more effort than I do. At recent religious services, there were more walkers or wheelchairs parked at the ends of aisles than I ever remember. I encounter more older people driving in what appears to be a very cautious manner. And in the local supermarket checkout line, I’m often behind an older person who seems confused and moves more slowly than everybody else around. I used to just get annoyed and feel imposed upon. Now, I get annoyed and I get scared. One day I might be like that. 

I’m not always aware of feeling scared about getting older. Sometimes it’s just an unconscious bias, my own ageism and ableism. And every so often, conscious aging helps me see future possibilities with hope and trust.

Recently, I attended a large birthday dinner for one of my friends. As I expected, I recognized many people I hadn’t seen in a long while, and I enjoyed the quasi-reunion atmosphere. I didn’t remember everybody’s name, so I just admitted that fact and asked for their name. It was a lighthearted and convivial evening.

Then I saw Ellen. Ellen was not a friend, rather an acquaintance whom I’d known mostly through her husband. Ellen was now severely bent over, almost facing the floor and shuffling with a cane. I learned later that she’d had a series of surgeries, but at that moment, from my point of view, all I could see was someone misshapen.

What I realize now, but had no clue about at that moment, was that, to me, Ellen’s physical appearance was disturbing, and it influenced how I judged and treated her. My judgment of her appearance, and my assumptions that flowed from that assessment, affected how I interacted with her. Without realizing it, I didn’t want to be near her or even talk with her. I mistakenly assumed that her conversation would be like the way she appeared to me—misshapen. I averted my eyes. I dismissed her. It was as if an invisible chasm appeared between us, a chasm of my creation.

During the pre-dinner socializing, as I sat on a couch, Ellen approached me from behind and gave me a big “Hello!” For a fraction of a second, I was speechless, and then we had a substantive, animated and comfortable conversation. Thanks to my hearing aids, I could easily understand her. My fears had vanished, the chasm between us had closed. 

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized the character of my interaction with Ellen. Although I’m not proud of how I had at first dismissed her, I am glad that I eventually realized it. Now I at least have an opportunity to change my behavior in the future. 

As we age, there are some changes that are indeed guaranteed. We just can’t predict or control them. Life is change. Inevitably, if it’s not one thing, it will be another. 

Most of us fear and deny our own aging and dying. I may not ever have a stroke or drive slowly or search for the right word (oh, wait, I already do that), but I will change in some ways. That is inevitable. How can I face those changes without fear and denial?

Ageism and ableism inhibit a balanced outlook on our inevitable changes. The changes won’t always be loss. There can also be something unexpected, powerful and meaningful—perhaps even delightful. Although I no longer ride a motorcycle, I just bought a bicycle, and I really enjoy riding it. I started driving an electric car, and it’s really fun. After two previous careers, I think I’m having some positive impact in my community through doing things I never even pictured 10 years ago. And one year ago, I had major heart surgery, from which I am recovering smoothly. Unexpected, yes. Dreadful, no.

I’m trying to have a more balanced attitude about future changes as I age and to not focus on possible losses. And I’m trying to recognize and appreciate the humanity that I share with other older people, no matter how they act or how they appear to me.

The Beauty of Our Own Impermanence

Since my heart surgery last year, I’ve lost weight, I exercise daily and I am energetic and forward-looking. A few weeks ago, working out with a trainer, I did full squats on a balance ball, something I never even knew I could do. I was very pleased with myself that day. 

The very next day, perhaps because I was still pleased with myself, I put a little too much weight on the leg press machine and proceeded to pull my thigh muscle. For about 24 hours, I was in pain—I could barely hobble around, and I could not fall asleep. After a day of Tylenol and icing every four hours, I was mobile and able to keep my limp to a minimum.

The day after that, I went to our farmers’ market, where there is always a circle of local acoustic musicians. I was standing behind the fiddle player, eating a pint of fresh-picked strawberries, listening to the singing and the instruments. But I couldn’t hear the fiddle and I wondered what was wrong with it. As I walked halfway around the circle to face the fiddle player, I realized I’d forgotten to wear my hearing aids. Nothing wrong with the fiddle, just my hearing.

Pulled muscles. Hearing loss. Heart surgery. Perhaps a stroke, or a slip and fall, or wrinkles on my face? Changes are inevitable as we age. So are opportunities if we allow them. We have choices about how to react to our inevitable changes. I try to choose honest acceptance, and I don’t always succeed in that. Other times, I just don’t feel the way I look in the mirror. 

As I’m getting older, I am more aware that appearances are often not as they seem. Do you ever think about how you’ll actually change as you age, or even just how you’ll appear? Can you see who you are becoming as you age? Are you impacted by social pressure to “look” a certain way, or by your own unconscious bias as you dread getting older? I now realize that I’ve gone through most of my life judging others and myself, based on my unconscious biases, including ageism.

The poet David Whyte talks about how the only choice we have as we age is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance. Can we embrace our inevitable disappearance? 

Can we appreciate the beauty of our own impermanence?

As I try to age with intention, I am conscious of not catastrophizing my inevitable changes. I’m trying not to blame myself for getting old. I’m trying to take my changes in stride, no matter what they are. And I’m trying not to take things for granted.

I don’t know what all of my changes are going to be, but they’re going to be things that both scare me and delight me, that both worry me and astonish me. And that’s OK. That’s being alive … or maybe I should just say, that’s life.

I Think Aging with Intention Saved My Life

We have a Berkey water filter in our kitchen, and it seems to be empty whenever I’m thirsty, so I’m used to filling it back up. It takes three full blender pitchers to fill it, and it’s just one of those little things that I take for granted. Like a good night’s sleep, or walking up three flights of stairs or having lunch with my good friend of 40 years.

Five months ago, I had unexpected heart surgery, and after a week in the hospital post-op, I went back home. But since I wasn’t allowed to lift anything heavier than a half-gallon of milk, I couldn’t fill the Berkey water filter. And it wasn’t just doctor’s orders—physically, I couldn’t do just about anything that I hadn’t thought twice about doing before the surgery. I couldn’t even put on my socks by myself. Talk about feeling like getting hit by a truck! That first month after surgery was primitively tough.

The heart surgery was unexpected because I was pretty much asymptomatic. The thing that caught my attention was the four or five times I got short of breath while walking the dog. When I felt it, I stopped walking and waited a few minutes until it went away. But I have a family history of heart failure, and for years I’ve fit the profile of a likely candidate. 

So I said something to my doctor about my shortness of breath. This was very out of character for me. For most of my life, I would notice an ailment—physical or emotional—and just ignore it. If it were 10 years ago, I would have been macho and pushed through the shortness of breath. I have a strong physique and a pigheaded streak. But for some reason, this time I said something. 

I don’t think just having 10 additional birthdays automatically makes anyone wiser. I do think that aging with intention—not just out of habit—offers the possibility of getting closer to being the person we’d like to be. As we age, the things we think are really important can change. As we age, we can slow down, contemplate and reflect. Saying something to my doctor probably saved my life. I can’t pinpoint exactly what made me speak up for myself; I’m sure there was a variety of factors. I said something because I have changed as I’ve aged.

After I said something, my doctor said, “Take a stress test.” After the results of the stress test, my doctor said, “Have an angiogram.” Before I was even off the angiogram table, my doctor said, “Tremendous blockage, you need to have surgery right away.” And a week later, I did.

If I’d still been my former macho-man self, there’s no telling what would have happened. 

After the bypass surgery and the new valve, my heart’s good for another 20 years or so. That doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed another 20 years of life, but I’m still alive for now, and I’m appreciating many of those little things that I used to take for granted. And, at the same time, this afternoon I filled up the Berkey water filter without a second thought, already taking it for granted again.

Never Too Late for a Good Shave

Last week I noticed that I was running really low on shaving cream and I made a mental note to buy some more. That reminded me of when and how I bought the almost-empty tube in the first place.

It was smack dab in the COVID-19 lockdown, during the time when I wasn’t going shopping in public—I wasn’t going anywhere in public. I used to take going shopping for granted. Indeed, I used to take going anywhere in public for granted. As chance would have it, I was about to fill a prescription online and have it delivered to my front porch. I managed to get shaving cream included with that delivery, but most of the familiar shaving creams were out of stock. No Gillette, no Edge, no Barbasol.

I was forced to purchase oatmeal-based, shea butter shaving cream, something I’d never even heard of before. And guess what? It worked really, really well! One of the smoothest, most comfortable and enjoyable shaves I’d ever experienced. 

Back then, I thought about how many thousands of shaves I’d had with the mainstream Gillette stuff, and about how few shaves I might have left with my newly discovered shave cream. I remember thinking about whether I’d even live long enough to finish that new tube of shaving cream. Some may consider this a morbid thought process, but I was just being honest. And now here I am, two months after heart surgery, still going and about to run out of that shaving cream.

Back then, I wished I’d known about this slick shave stuff years before. I regretted what I’d missed out on! Too bad this discovery came so late in my life. But wait, I thought—even if I get just a few years’ or even just a handful outstanding shaves out of this, they each feel so smooth and easy and bring a smile to my face. It’s better to have the experience than never at all.

I realized that the value is both in how long we get to savor an experience and in knowing the possibility of such experience exists. It’s never too late to have a really smooth shave!

Trusting our futures is one of the opportunities that aging affords us. Self-confidence is one of the gifts that we can give to ourselves if we age with intention.

I was grateful that I’d had to order some weird shaving cream online because of the pandemic. I appreciated that, even with its horrific downside, a crisis can provide both danger and opportunity.

Ageism: A Public Health Issue

Smoking cigarettes causes cancer. Secondhand smoke does too. Most people read this and think, “Duh. Everybody knows that.”

It wasn’t that long ago when people smoked cigarettes on airplanes. Do you remember when the people sitting at the table next to you in a restaurant lit up cigarettes at the end of their meal? Our older neighbors remember. It was a long, hard, often emotional fight to ban smoking cigarettes in public places. In the end, it became a public health issue. In the end, science-informed policy won out.

Twenty years ago, what today is understood as accepted fact was a raging, divisive, community controversy. Yes, people can still poison themselves and their own health privately if they so choose, but 15 years ago, my community decided in favor of public health. Secondhand smoke was prohibited in public places. The town where I live acted on the principle that what affects one of us affects all of us.

In her recent book Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live (2022), Becca Levy, PhD, outlines her 20-plus years of scientific research and experiment at Harvard and Yale universities. You may ask, how can my beliefs about aging determine how long and well I live? Here are two of Levy’s evidence-based examples: 

  1. People with pro-aging beliefs live an average of 7.5 years longer than people who fear or deny getting older.
  2. Pro-aging beliefs reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease among people who have the APOE4 gene that predisposes them to Alzheimer’s.

Levy has quantified how ageism—a widespread form of prejudice that is directed at older persons—leads to excess costs of over $63 billion a year for a broad range of health conditions in this country. Her research also found that, in one year, ageism was responsible for 17.04 million cases of the eight most expensive health conditions among those 60 and older.

Levy’s findings make a strong case for reducing the epidemic of ageism, which produces not only a financial cost for society but also a human cost for the well-being of not just older persons but of our whole community.

Here’s an image: a visible but not-too-thick, low-hanging cloud of blue cigarette smoke covering your entire town, seeping everywhere, touching everything and everyone— small babies and children breathing in the smoke. Smoke so ubiquitous it is normalized. People coughing every day but nobody noticing it.

Now think of that cloud of smoke as being unconscious bias or any form of othering. Think of that smoke as being ageism—touching everything and everyone. Systemic and internalized ageism, covering the entire town, seeping everywhere. Normalized. 

We don’t see ads for cigarettes anymore in our local newspapers, but we do see ads claiming wrinkles are bad, claiming gray hair is bad, claiming old is bad and young is good. 

One of the first steps in banning smoking cigarettes in public places was to understand the science behind this public health issue. Becca Levy has contributed a large, early step in understanding the science behind the public health issue of ageism. Pro-aging beliefs are good for all of us, no matter how long we’ve been alive.

Can’t See the Stars During the Daytime

I just finished reading a really good book, entitled Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live (2022), by Becca Levy, PhD. I recommend it. It is about Levy’s groundbreaking research at the Yale School of Medicine. 

Before starting the book, I was already somewhat familiar with her world-class research. It was the second part of the book that pleasantly surprised me. In it, Levy addresses creativity and the senses, ageism and an age liberation movement. She offers stories that introduce us to people who are aging with intention. She describes practical, concrete ways to engender pro-aging attitudes and age-just communities.

Because of COVID, my 50th college reunion was delayed a year. As I read Breaking the Age Code, the top of page 120 jumped out at me:

When sixty-year-old Henry Longfellow was asked to speak at his fiftieth class reunion at Bowdoin College, he read a poem he’d written for the occasion. 

It is too late! Ah, nothing is too late 

Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate….

Chaucer, at Woodstock with the nightingales, 

At sixty wrote the Canterbury Tales; 

Goethe at Weimar, toiling to the last, 

Completed Faust when eighty years were past…. 

What then? Shall we sit idly down and say 

The night hath come; it is no longer day….

Something remains for us to do or dare; 

Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear…

For age is opportunity no less 

Than youth itself, though in another dress, 

And as the evening twilight fades away 

The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

Even though this poem was written 150 years ago, it feels contemporary in its claims and concerns. Longfellow gently but firmly disputes the thought that old age is a time when opportunities are lost. Rather, he contends they can become recognizable for the first time, in a new form.

I used to believe in coincidence—I haven’t for several years.

Seventy-three-year-old Marc Blesoff went to his 50th class reunion at Bowdoin College in June 2022. He was not asked to speak there. He wrote a poem, not for the occasion.

I have loved myself

for a long, long time.

I yearned to treat myself with 

tenderness.

My aching heart,

for me never realizing

that I loved me,

that I was there all those years,

maybe all those lifetimes,

and I just wasn’t aware

as I watched myself and waited.

Eckhart Tolle says that self-observation is an essential part of a change in consciousness. Conscious aging allows the opportunity to get closer to being the person we’d like to be. We can reframe aging. We can all grow into something as we age—including something recognizable for the first time, in a new form.

Old Is Beautiful

Last month, Joni Mitchell performed a 13-song set at the Newport Folk Festival. It was her first time back to Newport in 53 years. It was her first, full-length, live set in over 20 years. It was her first public performance in nine years. 

Watching and listening to her made me cry. I remembered the first time I went to the Newport Folk Festival, as a senior in high school, to see…who else? Joni Mitchell. All at once, I felt again the passion of her wondrous voice, of her amazing lyrics, of the excitement she generated on stage. Then I remembered some other great concerts that I went to. Parts of my whole life kind of flashed before me.

Reflection and life review are part of conscious aging. What we used to take for granted often takes on new meaning if we pause long enough to glance back over our shoulders. For me, music is one of those threads in my life.

As I watched the videos and listened, it was a poignant moment for me. I could feel the pride and the confidence in the future that Joni had exemplified and communicated 50 years ago. And I could sense some of our generational arrogance of 50 years ago. I now realize that pride and confidence in the future are not just for young people. Passion is possible at any age. These days, I am passionate about aging with intention. I am energized and motivated by feeling, deep inside, that life is more wonderful, not just less horrible. 

Sitting at my laptop, watching Joni Mitchell perform her song, “The Circle Game,” I felt a circle closing. “We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round in the circle game.” Part of aging is becoming aware of circles closing. This summer, for example, I watched my granddaughter play softball on the very team I helped start so that her mother would have a place to play and excel, like the boys did. 

The circles that we feel closing may be different, but we all have them. 

I watched Joni Mitchell moving in rhythm, laughing, shimmying her shoulders and belting out the last line of “Big Yellow Taxi.” I saw the surprise, admiration and tears in her backup singers’ eyes as Joni led them with creative interpretation. She performed, sitting in a regal chair. Her soprano voice is now an alto. Joni Mitchell—a shining example of how life is change.

After her debilitating brain aneurysm in 2015, Joni had to relearn how to get out of a chair, how to play the guitar—she had to teach herself how to sing again. There she was, a living example of how strength, determination and resilience are integral parts of being old, and a role model for us at all ages. A far cry from what our ageist culture teaches.

Percolating Conversations

One of the ongoing workshops that I facilitate is an all-men’s group. For the last several years, once a month, eight of us get together. Camaraderie, angst, disagreement and humor circulate around the general topic of aging. It is a safe space. 

A few months ago, one of the men asked the group for advice regarding a complicated situation. Although he and his spouse don’t need it yet, and they love where they live, they’d decided to investigate assisted housing in the area. 

This led to a thoughtful, animated and wide-ranging discussion about a topic many people shy away from. Feeling ashamed or fearful about inevitable change is one of the hallmarks of internalized ageism.

It’s not only our attitudes that entered this housing discussion. In five years, over half of the 15 million middle-income older people in the United States will lack the financial resources to pay for senior living at today’s average market rates. Our group quickly agreed on the importance of actually picturing living situations that could work for decades to come and how our transitions to them might unfold. One comment was that if we live long enough, there will come a time when it won’t make sense or it won’t be possible to live where or how we live now. One guy admitted he already couldn’t afford where he was living. As we shared and listened, the impermanence of our relationships and of our lives became less theoretical and more poignant.

We all agreed that waiting to talk about it until the “crisis” hits is too late. One guy said our discussion was facing it squarely, and it was important for him to hear that he isn’t the only one thinking about the particulars of what life might be like in 10 or 15 years. At which point another guy chimed in that he was already at that 10-or-15-years-later!

Conversations like these are percolating all across the country, as they should be. All it takes is for one person to reach out and ask a question, whether to family or friends or, nowadays, in a group on the internet. I host a weekly Zoom session, “Aging in the Age of Pandemic,” for an organization named Courageus (www.Courageus.org). Stop by any Wednesday afternoon—I’ll see you there.

Even if you don’t stop by, talk with yourself about where you’ll be living in 10 or 15 years. Mull it over, and then bring it up with someone else. Just articulating various possibilities can be helpful and assist in living with intention.

Aging behind Bars

The United States has the largest prison population in the world. What’s that got to do with aging? you may ask. Well, people 50 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the US prison population, increasing 25 percent from 2009 to 2013. 

Five years ago, I facilitated a Conscious Aging workshop program at a maximum-security, federal, men’s prison. In the past, as a criminal defense attorney, I had been in and out of jails and prisons for over 30 years to visit clients and former clients, most of whom had been young. Now, I sensed a circle closing as I went back inside to work with men my own age or older.

The group was comprised of men from 50 through 83. The 13 of us met for two hours each week in a sparse, cinder-block gym, sitting in a circle on plain plastic chairs, behind locked doors, surrounded outside by barbed wire. We focused on a different topic each week, including self-compassion, forgiveness, life review, letting go, transformative practices and “death makes life possible.”

Just like unincarcerated workshop participants, these men were hungry to talk about their personal experiences, their fears and even some joys about aging. They spoke from the heart. They were thoughtful. Like many older men in my workshops on the “outside,” these men knew they didn’t really have time to waste. Through the eight weeks, I noticed the sprouts of a safe, sacred space emerging behind the bars and barbed wire.

Early on, several men spoke of the similarity between being a “con” and being an older person. Both prisoners and older people become second-class citizens. Both groups become invisible. Both groups tend to get warehoused. Both groups lose relationships and have diminished visitation. Both groups tend to be lumped into stereotyped categories. These were insightful observations about systemic prejudice and inequity.

One week, I wanted the group to see a TED Talk, so we had to meet in a different room with a CD player/video screen. In this room, we sat on upholstered chairs around a large, wooden table. During our discussion, I noticed three of the guys exchanging smiles and chuckling. I asked what was going on. They sheepishly glanced at one another, and one volunteered that he hadn’t touched a real wooden table in over 10 years. Another said it had been seven years since he’d last sat on an upholstered chair.

In its February 2016 report titled, The Impact of an Aging Inmate Population on the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General states that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does not provide programming opportunities that specifically address the needs of aging inmates. The BOP relies upon its standard programs, which focus on education and job skills. Several prisoners asked me the rhetorical question, “What is a 70-year-old inmate who walks with a cane going to do with a GED class or a job training program?” Beyond that, neither physical infrastructure nor staffing of federal prisons meets the needs of inmates over 50. 

It is no surprise that the ageism that runs so deep in our culture raises its ugly head amongst the rapidly growing aging, prison population. My experience facilitating Conscious Aging workshops in federal prison pierced my armor, touched my heart and put a very human face on the men aging behind bars. 

We Can Teach This Old Dog New Tricks

Over the past several months, I’ve had some tight, lower-back pain that has limited my mobility. Even after consulting my doctor and stretching, I just couldn’t shake it, so I decided to try something new for me. I’ve started to get a massage every few weeks. My friend Rick is a massage therapist. Before this, I’ve gotten maybe one or two massages in my whole life. After six weeks, I’ve noticed improvements in my back pain and tightness.

Last week, as I began a massage lying facedown, Rick rubbed from behind my right knee down the back of my right calf. About halfway, he hit a spot that made me flinch. My knee-jerk reaction (no pun intended) was to tighten up, clench my fists, hold my breath and grit my teeth.

Lying on the massage table, anticipating my next flinch, I had a thought: Why not try to breathe through it rather than tense up? The next time Rick rubbed down the back of my calf, I didn’t hold my breath, I didn’t make a fist and I didn’t clench my teeth. I did the opposite. I opened my hands, relaxed my jaw and pushed my breath right out through my lips. I still tightened up just a bit as Rick’s hands passed over that spot, but I didn’t cling to my tightening.

As I lay there, thinking about breathing through things, I realized a parallel between my massage and aging in my last third. In my life, there will always be spots that make me want to clench and grip tight and cling. There is, and will be, loss and grief as well as joy. Rather than knee jerk out of habit, I can open my hands and breathe through the tight spots, the difficulties, and try to experience them in a different way.

Conscious aging affords us the opportunity to live with intention, not just as a knee-jerk reaction. We have the choice of how to respond.

Then, as I lay on the table, another parallel between my massage and my aging popped into my head. (What a productive hour!) It’s not just how we breathe through our experiences, it’s also what experiences we are open to. Life can get better as we age, even with inevitable losses and hardships. If we expect our lives to go downhill as we age, we will be beholden to routine and boredom. Let’s age with the courage necessary to consider new things all the way through to the end. Our aging selves can learn new attitudes, and we can teach this old dog new tricks.

Being with My Aging

It is a poignant time of year and a poignant time of life.

Aging can give us the opportunity to be aware of what we may have previously taken for granted. For me, the recent holiday season highlighted relationships and helped make me more aware of the possibility of connection. 

In December, I found myself sitting at the fireplace with my daughter in the glow of the flame and the nearby tree ornaments. The light was soft and shimmery around the edges. In that quiet time, I was reflecting on my recent holiday road trip with my wife and daughter. Driving over six days and through five cities, we visited family and friends, siblings and niblings (I just learned the word “niblings,” a gender-neutral reference to nieces and nephews) and contemporaries. We took meticulous COVID precautions with each new grouping, each step of the way.

Within each group, I felt and appreciated the years I’ve known them, the changes we’ve been through and the dependability, if not the consistency, of our relationship. I was seeing several of them for the first time in years, and physical changes were immediately apparent. Various non-physical changes became evident as well. I soaked up the changes and was just being with our aging, not judging. Observing friends and family, as well as myself, as we are aging makes me smile, often an appreciative, sparkling smile, sometimes a knowing, poignant smile, but a smile, nonetheless. I experience aging as an expected and important part of life. Not always able to completely embrace it, I can at least get past the fear and denial.

During the road trip, I noticed I was usually the oldest person in the room numerically. As I am aging, I haven’t thought of myself very differently, no matter what number of years I’ve been alive. Indeed, our collective idea of what “old” means seems to keep shifting as we keep aging. I was brought up to “respect my elders,” to respect the people in the room who appeared to be the oldest. If my role in the room is indeed changing, I really haven’t done anything to deserve it, except to just keep breathing.

Along with being more tuned in to relationships this holiday season, I found my road trip highlighted stiffness in my body, my difficulty bending over—indeed, my mortality. During a driving break, sitting in the back seat for hours, browsing my cell phone, I came across a picture that I took on January 3, 2020. That was about one month pre-COVID, back when I worked out daily at the local fitness center, back when I traveled around the country a bit. As I snapped that picture, I had no idea how things were about to change.

Every day, we have no idea how things are about to change. We make assumptions based upon the appearance of things and how they used to be. This past holiday season, I wasn’t “acting my age,” I was being with my aging. I glimpsed that my aging is both wholeness and brokenness, both opportunity and loss. It is a poignant and unfolding rebalancing. Those of us in our third third of life have an opportunity to recalibrate, both as individuals and as responsible members of society, and, in so being, to step toward becoming much-needed role models.

Life Stories

Five years ago, I scoffed when I heard older people comment about starting to read their local obituary columns. I smirked to myself as I wondered if they had anything better to do with their time. Recently, I was startled to realize that I’ve been looking at obituaries on a regular basis. Sometimes I just scan them and often I read the entire entry. Reading obituaries kind of snuck up on me, but there’s no denying I now do it. 

I can think of a few reasons for this, not necessarily in order of importance. One reason is what I call keeping score. Or maybe it’s just keeping track—keeping track of friends, colleagues and contemporaries. The small-town character of where I live makes it probable that, these days, if I don’t actually know one of the people listed in this week’s obituary, I probably know of them.

Another reason is that my attitude toward death has shifted. Conscious aging has opened me to different points of view and different awareness. I’ve started thinking about and talking about death, including my own. I respect death as a teacher who is helping me live more fully. As I read the obituaries, I review my own life as well. Sometimes the recently deceased person reminds me of someone I’ve already known. Sometimes they even remind me of myself in some way. Reading obituaries has offered me a glimpse into embracing what, up to this point, I have feared and denied.

Obituaries can assist us with the gift of feeling empathy. Obituaries can be a thread linking generations. It’s not just older people who die. This past week, I read obituaries of two people who died battling addiction. Ahmad was 22, David was 29. The disease of addiction is a continuing, national epidemic, ravaging our younger people in particular. If we can pause to read about real people who recently died, whatever their age, we might actually think of them as people who could have been a friend, or as unique individuals. Then, it might be just a bit more difficult to write them off as just a statistic.

Obituaries are basically out of sight, out of mind, except for the few times someone we love or know is the topic. They’re written like that too. This is consistent with how we consider death in our culture. What if obituaries were written more like a story? What if we wrote our own obituaries? What if we updated our own obituaries every 10 years? Picture your family and friends gathered together in one room, at your memorial, all thinking about you. Is there something you’d like to say to them? This just might help us review our own lives or even plan for our futures—short-term and long-term. It might also help generate discussions today amongst our families and friends about difficult topics. This could help us live more connected lives.

I used to avoid reading obituaries, probably like most people. Now I can see opportunity as well as loss behind the list of names and ages as I slowly turn the newspaper pages.

So What If I’m Old

Every so often, I have a flash of insight about my own internalized ageism. When it happens, I am both disappointed and pleased.

To set the stage: I am driving to a doctor’s appointment at a major downtown medical center. (In case you’re wondering what the appointment is for, be patient—that just might be a topic for a future blog.)

I’ve not been to this doctor before. I am rushing not to be late and am just a tad anxious about finding the correct office. Valet or self-park? A crowded parking garage, and now waiting for a terribly slow driver to back out of a parking space. (And no, the slow driver is NOT an older person!)

Following my scribbled notes, I eventually arrive at the correct office and receive terrific care. I retrace my steps to the parking garage, walk to the level where I parked, but my car is not where I’d left it. I quickly recognize that I’m not on the correct parking level, and I can picture clearly what that level looks like.

Not certain of the best route to my car, I walk up the ramp hesitatingly, about five or six steps, just to get my bearings and rethink the correct location. I smile to myself as I confidently turn and walk slowly to retrieve my vehicle. That’s when I notice her.

A woman, standing in the middle of the pedestrian walkway on the parking garage ramp, watching me. I think to myself, “What’s wrong with her, she might get run over.” Then she approaches and asks if I need any help.

What? Me? Need help? I smile and say no, and then say a curt thank you. That’s when I start seething inside. I am NOT the disoriented old guy who needs some pity help! How (bleep) condescending of her.

I judge her ageism—that she assumes because of my appearance that I probably need some help. I am personally offended. Bruised ego. A bit outraged. 

That’s when I catch myself with just a flicker of humility. Perhaps she just thinks I might need help, no matter what my age, and inquired. What’s so wrong with that?

And besides, so what if I’d been a bit disoriented?!  My being ashamed of being disoriented is internalized ageism. So what if I have a skin-flap under my chin. So what if I’m slower in line. So what if I’m old. 

That’s when I am both disappointed and pleased. Disappointed in myself that I have once again reacted out of the deep habit of old is bad, young is good. And pleased with myself that I have caught it and caught it so quickly this time. 

 

In the Land of Postadulthood

Last month, I returned to the place where I grew up, to the lake where swimming had been banned earlier this summer. The cyanotoxins had cleared, so every morning I went for a swim and a kayak ride. This year, I saw and appreciated things on that lake that I hadn’t really seen before.

I guess the first thing I appreciated is that I am still swimming there. And believe me, I don’t for a minute take that one for granted. It is not uncommon that, as we age, our inevitable changes will include physical difficulties, so some level of staying active is both wise and joyful.  

I also noticed trees with unique shapes and bark, as well as the loud gaggle of geese that flew by at water level every evening at about 8 p.m.. The otter that let me kayak within three feet of her is most memorable. 

Even as we appreciate the beauty of this physical existence, things are not always as they appear. Why else would we continue to use the term “sunrise”? Everyone knows that the sun doesn’t rise, but that it is the earth rotating. Similarly, our apparently solid world is fundamentally composed of vibrations and energy, the stuff of subatomic particles. 

The outward appearance of aging can be a misleading hindrance. The declinist view of our aging is that it’s all downhill, that we’re making the best of a bad situation. The truth is that there are always possibilities open to us in our third third of life. We don’t always see them. In the land of postadulthood, life can keep getting better.

One reason we may not see the possibilities is because we often take things for granted. The amazing, raw, uncommonplace beauties of our physical existence become commonplace due to repetition. Also, we don’t see the possibilities because, as we age, our inevitable changes and diminishments usurp our attention. 

Yes, our physical changes as we get older can be painful and difficult. They can be more than minor irritants. Wishful thinking causes us to deny or minimize the inevitable. Need I say that most of us do this in regards to death? Especially our own death.

Many of us succumb to the commercial consumer pressures that equate “successful aging” with becoming gray-haired teenagers, judging ourselves using society’s standards of youth. This reinforces our societal mantra that old is bad, young is good. Oh, and besides, how can one succeed or fail at aging? It’s going to happen no matter what we do.

Aging is more than what we see in the mirror. It is a choice made in the heart and mind, not in the body. The question is, how are we going to respond to it, not what are we going to do about it.

Me and We

A few weeks ago, my granddaughter and I took a summertime walk to the local market. On the way home, the afternoon sun was at our backs. In front of me, I saw the shadow of an eight-year-old girl and her grandfather, holding hands as they walked. 

I was momentarily surprised that it was me, and then I smiled appreciatively. What a beautiful sight—my own shadow as an older person. What a wonderful image, and it was me!

Seeing that flash of shadow reminded me of my present age as well as when I was an eight-year-old. I remembered spending time every summer at a lake near where I grew up. Our family still makes recurring pilgrimages to that lake.

Anytime I wanted, I’d run full steam down the hill, arms outstretched like wings, and just plunge into the water. Ducks, frogs, minnows, turtles and sunfish would make room for me. I loved the exhilaration of swimming underwater with my eyes open, surveying the lake bottom, and then bursting through the surface for a gulp of air and to feel the warmth of the sun.

My granddaughter and I have been looking forward to jumping into that lake when we make our post-vaccination pilgrimage this summer—perhaps jumping in as we are holding hands! That would be another wonderful shadow to see.

That changed with an email detailing how swimming has been banned in the lake because of cyanobacteria. What? No swimming? This lake is 15 miles around!

Cyanobacteria phytoplankton form the base of the food web of some freshwater ponds and streams. The presence of cyanobacteria is natural and important, but too much cyanobacterial growth (called blooms) leads to the release of dangerous amounts of cyanotoxins, which can poison wildlife, humans and pets. Over the past decade, there have been late-fall blooms of cyanobacteria in the lake, but never as early as mid-June and never enough to force people and pets out of the water. 

Global warming, fertilizer runoff and septic tank seepage have combined to create blooms and to change the world I knew. That world would have changed no matter what. Life is change. But this is harmful, human-made change, which is not inevitable.

As we age, we have a continuing responsibility to be good stewards, good role models, and to work alongside younger people to right the wrongs. One aspect of aging with intention is to share and listen while forging intergenerational relationships.

Not everyone grows up near a lake, but all of us older people will have our own cyanobacteria in one form or another—systemic harm that hits close to home. It could be ecological security or economic security or health security or job security. It could be the intersection of ageism with ableism or racism or sexism or homophobia.

Toxic cyanobacteria blooms are one thing calling me to activism in my third stage of life. What calls to you to age with intention?

Hours of Angst

I was just this side of asleep. I was lying in bed, early morning, remembering my just-waking thoughts.

I had realized two really good points regarding a thorny concept I’d been pondering for weeks. It was a breakthrough and very clarifying for me. Even at that early hour, I was pleased with myself.

As I lay there with my eyes closed but my thoughts clear, I was thinking, “Maybe I should write this down before I lose it.” But they were such clear and meaningful ideas, how could I possibly forget them? Just as I made the conscious decision to not write them down with the pen and journal that were right next to my bed, a third idea popped into my mind that was a nice complement to the first two.

What couldn’t have been more than a minute later, I rolled out of bed, only to realize that I didn’t remember those ideas of which I’d been so proud.

I sat quietly on the edge of the bed and focused, but they were gone, very gone. I was pissed off at myself for not writing them down. In a matter of seconds, I’d forgotten what had been so clear and memorable. I tried to focus on what I’d forgotten. Then I became concerned. Was there something wrong with me?

My wife rolled over, asked me what was going on, and I explained. She was understanding, comforting and reassuring. The harder I tried to remember them, the more gone those lovely ideas became. I had never forgotten something so completely and so quickly.

Then I got scared. Is this the beginning of the inexorable decline? Am I on the downhill slide? Is this the beginning of the end? And then scared became really scared.

I hadn’t felt this anxious before. The closest I could remember was when I had to force myself to walk into the courtroom to deliver the closing argument in my first murder trial. But even that was not like this scared and lost feeling. I felt, with my toe, the edge overlooking a precipice of degenerative dementia.

I sat with this feeling as I worried. For some reason, I thought of the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl quote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” I tried to calm myself by thinking how it’s harder on the people who love a person with dementia. That didn’t work at all. I was still scared.

I remembered my wife’s advice to let it go and eventually the thoughts would return. But it was difficult to relax. To me, in those moments, dementia was no longer a theoretical concept. I could feel it in my stomach.

In the end, my wife was right. Late the next day, after hours of angst, I remembered ever-so-lightly that third complementary thought. An hour or so later, my two breakthrough ideas popped full-blown back into my consciousness.

Intense. Sobering. Educational. Humbling. Next time I’ll write them down.

 

The Old Normal

Marc Blesoff was a criminal defense attorney for 35 years. Six years ago, he began facilitating Conscious Aging workshops. He says that helped him melt the armor he’d built up as a defense lawyer. He’s a founding member of A Tribe Called Aging, which defines itself as a group of “activists and thinkers trying to understand and change our culture’s outlook, policies and fears about aging and dying.” 

Three days ago, I had a face-to-face meeting with another person for the first time in over a year. Two days ago, I had coffee on my front porch with a friend for the first time in over a year. Yesterday, accompanied by my daughter, I went shopping at Costco for the first time in over a year. What a week, and what a year.

It felt like the “old normal.” My meeting lasted for two hours and we could have kept going; I still make my coffee too strong; I spent more than I needed to at Costco. Some things never change.

Before you read any further, let me be clear—I am not advocating stupidity. For those of us who have been so careful for so long, abandoning caution now would be plain stupid. 

My face-to-face meeting was outside, both of us vaccinated, sitting at each end of a park bench, wearing masks. My friend is vaccinated, and we sat more than six feet apart as we sipped coffee on the front porch. My daughter, who’s been in my bubble since December, is vaccinated, and we shopped wearing masks. 

Caution definitely needs to be part of the unfolding new normal. As do the many improvements forced upon us by COVID-19, such as working from home, telehealth and digital meetings.

As we shopped, I couldn’t help but notice how my daughter shouldered much of the load—she was more organized than I was, made great suggestions, lifted the 40-pound bag of dog food and remembered the several items I failed to get. I had this clear sense of just how I was getting older. Out of the blue, I thought how I’d already outlived my father by six years. The last time I saw my father alive flashed before my eyes.

As I drove out of the parking lot, thoughts came quickly, including: it was good to be back shopping in person; how fortunate I am to have had supplies delivered to my door for over a year; and a question, how many more times would I get to shop at Costco before I died? Suddenly, I realized how poignant my relatively mundane shopping trip had become. 

The pandemic experience is allowing me to appreciate things I’d taken for granted. And that reminded me how my aging has helped me to slow down, to take notice and, sometimes, to appreciate seemingly small things.

That’s when the tears started—not sobbing tears, but poignancy tears, the kind you can keep to yourself, but tears, nonetheless. Sitting beside me in the front seat, my daughter didn’t notice. Wondering what these tears were about, I realized that it wasn’t just how many more times might I get to Costco, or my own dad’s death. It was also about my daughter, and how many more times I’ll get to be with her, and how she’ll feel after I die. And then it was about the rest of my family too. It was a serious, realistic and honest awareness of my mortality.

There I was, driving home with the groceries and feeling, actually feeling, the inevitable.

Aging from the Heart

Marc Blesoff was a criminal defense attorney for 35 years. Six years ago, he began facilitating Conscious Aging workshops. He says that helped him melt the armor he’d built up as a defense lawyer. He’s a founding member of A Tribe Called Aging, which defines itself as a group of “activists and thinkers trying to understand and change our culture’s outlook, policies and fears about aging and dying.” 

Aging from the heart doesn’t happen to everyone, but it can. I think it’s happening to me.

I didn’t have any negative reaction after I got my first COVID-19 vaccination. I kept hearing rumblings about possible intense side effects after the second shot, especially if the first went smoothly. Being aware helped with my preparation. I hydrated well, got my second shot and kept my eyes and ears open for even the slightest sign of any reaction.

I was actually trying to listen carefully to my body, not something I’ve had very much experience with throughout most of my life. I slowed down, stayed still, paid attention to small things and focused on what was happening in that moment. It was like letting my body be my friend. This awareness is what aging from the heart offers me.

For the past year, to one degree or another, we’ve all been faced with the tremendous uncertainties of immune systems, lockdowns, social isolation, physical distancing, economic instability and/or dying alone. 

At the same time, I’ve been, and continue to be, educated about long-standing systemic prejudice and inequity. Some of my lifelong assumptions and habits are being sorely challenged, and I’m making friends with some of that discomfort. 

These uncertainties and discomforts have shaken much of my world and have provided me with an opportunity to accept and work for change. Similarly, my body will change and I will die, but I don’t really know how or when. Aging from the heart offers me an opportunity to trust not-knowing those details.

Trust in not-knowing can help me throw open the curtains of life and let in more light.

Science tells us there is much more to our existence than just the physical light we can see.

And as I see more of the glorious, physical light, I might also get to know some invisible infrared or ultraviolet or perhaps get a sense of unseeable dark matter. I might even be able to remember my dreams or to hear the whispers of my own intuition.

Carl Jung said that “Synchronicity is an ever-present reality for those who have eyes to see.” Aging from the heart makes that ever-present reality more visible to me. When I am lost in my head, I may not see the synchronicities and noncerebral information of my environment. 

The same applies to my relationship with myself. By allowing me to see more of who I am and what I am “seeing,” aging from the heart can help me become my own best friend.

“That’s as exciting as watching paint dry!” I remember using that sarcastic expression a lot throughout my life. Now that I’m older, it’s not so sarcastic. It means I’m being more aware of what’s going on around me. 

For example, as I get older, I’ve been spending time appreciating the different speeds at which trees move, from wind in the branches to motions underneath the bark to just watching them grow. I’ve been watching trees grow —that’s kind of like watching paint dry! The noetic character of aging leads me to know that a forest is actually one connected, living organism. Noticing and appreciating what I’ve previously taken for granted is part and parcel of my getting older. I want to explore more of the possibilities  offered as I age from the heart.