Conversations with an older self

On the occasion of the the International day for older persons that has just passed, we bring you a light-hearted essay from an old (as in long-standing) friend who currently teaches Psychology at Gargi College. She weaves together her experiences about growing older, and the conversations that happen around the topic of “not looking her age” that seems to come up very often. Perhaps in commenting that she doesn’t (look her age) people are actually marking it for her, making her realise that even though she may not look it, she is getting older.

Age is a strange phenomenon, as someone said (I forget where), the days pass slowly and the years seem to fly by! For those of us who lost our parent/s early, overtaking their age in years is always a threshold that feels unreal; how can we be older than our parent ever was? How do we understand growing older? Is it about how we look to others, or how we feel about ourselves? Perhaps it is all of this and more. Sometimes, growing older seems as if it is external to us. Something that only happens to others. In a culture that shares with some others, the practice of fictive kinship, the first memories of being called “didi” (older sister) aunty and then finally “mataji” (mother-like) the last of which will require an abundant amount of grey hair, comes as a gradually maker of how we look to others.

Growing older can be wonderfully liberating, and it doesn’t have to do with either covering up the traces or showing them with pride, sometimes hiding how old we are and sometimes announcing it openly. The freedom from the expectations of others, from having to do things a particular way, having the time and space to do things the way we would like to. Undeniably, much of this is possible if you have a secure financial status, good health and security.

Living with older people in the family brings out many different stories too, in the case of Pooja’s daughters, although she and her husband are primarily concerned about their health and well-being, their two young daughters enjoy the company of older people without any of these concerns. She says that the children bring out the softer sides of growing old in her parents and mother-in-law. For Indu, her grandson feels that she is just too “modern-looking” for a grandmother. Recently, he requested her not to come to his school because he feels that she doesn’t “look like a grandmother”. In his words  “Dadda तुम मेरे स्कूल मत आना। सब दोस्त बोलते हैं कि बहुत modern है।” (Grandmother, don’t come to my school. My friends all say you look so modern!” Indu wonders how that assessment was made by the bunch of ten year-olds!

Without any further discussion, here is Sangeeta’s essay.

Conversations with an older self

By Sangeeta Bhatia

International Day for Older Persons, October 1 is here, and I tell myself that it is more than high time for me to reflect – on me, and the meaning of my age to me. A birthday for me has somehow never raised the need to speculate about growing older as much having a specific day dedicated to “Older Persons”. I am quite used to hearing comments like:

“You look so young”

“Oh really? I thought you were much younger!”

“But you don’t look your age!”

“Wow! I wish I look as young as you when I reach your age”

Compliments? Or are these a reflection of Ageism?

Of course these remarks are met with a brisk “Thank you” from my end, accompanied by a flippant comment that my body doesn’t feel quite as young as it looks!

I cover my grey hair artificially to match what I was born with, and I do so with uninterrupted regularity. The skin I wear has new(er) folds and deeper gyri, but here I am certain about staying away from nips and tucks. So what do the compliments mean to me? Why I feel good on hearing these? I am quite happy that I can still do many of those things I’ve been doing from my young-er years…. But the compliments also alert me to the fact that I am ‘supposed’ or expected to not look like I do…… In the last decade such compliments have become more frequent and I wonder if they are actually a signal that I am looking older.

So what is the perceived image of a woman on the wrong side of the fifties?! How have these images been created? How will I actually look if people think I actually look my age? How will I feel if I do look my age? Is it that these compliments are actually somewhat fake, intended only to make me feel good about myself? Maybe I do actually look my age. This, on the assumption of the soothsayers that I should feel terrible about being at my age.

Given the four types of ages we are led to believe in – chronological, biological, psychological and social, it’s the first two that are on auto-mode of increasing numbers, and largely a function of linearity, like sand between the fingers, the years seem to pass faster than the days. For the last two, psychological and social, we have a lot more flexibility, a collective onus of defining and constructing ‘social age’, as is ageing that is asserted by an individual through her choices, which is the so called ‘psychological age’.

Research shows immense benefits of nurturing the psychological age. So what is it that I do for my Psychological age? What is it that has been put on a back burner of time: my “shall do it later”… when I am free, when I have more time, when my son settles down, next year for sure, if the commute is short, if a friend joins in……….

Something intangible from these past few years has fueled the desire to fulfill these numerous “if only-s” (age-alert?)

Growing older actively

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Picture credits: Sarfaraz Siddiqui

I dusted off the why-to-do’s, and joined a Spanish language class (is useful to keep my neurons challenged I thought). And, “No”, I told my young classmates when I joined them, a notepad tucked under my arm, “I am not your teacher”! I could feel their youthful gaze on me, exchanging whispers, smiles of encouragement, and some self-conscious greetings. My enrolment was not expected (We’ll have to be careful now, with her amongst us).

What about learning a dance form? I have long yearned to know more about dance, not to become a performer, but to learn to follow the rhythm of synchronised beats, to narrate a story in movement, to lose myself in an alternate world beyond the physical. I went to a dance academy in my neighbourhood. Quite self-consciously, with some trepidation: “Do you take women in their 50s as beginners…? “Yes, ma’am!” I was first in line to register. Indeed a Happy Older Person Day!

My biological age awakened me to some signs of growing older, I am unable to jog any more, my knees sometimes hurt, my ankles are sometimes stiff, yoga has become a priority! I feel a childlike elation in haring pictures of a well-done asana with family and friends. I love that I can hold standing positions without losing my balance.

I have changed how I eat too……I scour sources for recipes about magical foods and interesting recipes. The indulgence in an occasional cholay bhaturay has gone down. My conversations have also changed dramatically. I think we spend most of our time discussing either one or many of the above topics: sharing recipes, trips, aches, management of these….

Traveling? Reading? Gardening? Cooking? For now, these thankfully remain untouched by time…I haven’t yet heard anyone ask “You still read? Wow!” For now.

Beauty and growing old

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Picture credits: Sarfaraz Siddiqui

I believe that ‘Older Persons’ Day’ must include younger people. We need to share stories across age, and have conversations about growing older, maybe we should even include discussions about dying. Why not? What if I asked people to bring pictures of a beautiful face of an older person, what constitutes beauty for them, for us? Is it necessary that a beautiful older person must look as if it has defied its own age? Should not our faces show what we have been through?

Enduring questions

I recently read in a textbook of Human Development: Old age is always five years from the age you are at (Santrock). Is it because we feel that like poverty, old age is something that only happens to other people?  Is denial a panacea for feeling good? In that case does ageism even need a serious looking into? For me, the subjective experience of growing older relates to the social construction of age, how it is collectively defined and how people are evaluated.  Ageism, I believe, emanates from within the confines of this construction.

In a recent class, I should this picture to my developmental psychology students. Unanimously they labelled the person an “old woman” followed quickly by “NO Ma’am, you don’t look like that!” I reiterated that I too am growing old, and that I find the face beautiful, there was a palpable disquiet in the room. They preferred the word “older” to the static “old”!

Regardless of ageing, one needs to reflect on one’s health at every age. We also need more conversations about approaching the reality of death. A celebration of life and living warrants a discussion of Age in relation to overall well being, because at the end of it all I agree that if you look good, you feel good; if you feel good, you look good! And furthermore, dying well is a good end to a life well lived, and only a few of us have that privilege.

I don’t want to wait for the official entry into senior citizen’s cadre to begin celebrations of this special day (October 1st). Here’s to feeling good right now, right here, every day! What does ageing mean to you?

For me, Cheers! To the years gone by and to those still to come!!! To, a life lived well with fulfilment as the reward and umpteen memories to cherish.

Successful ageing, anyone?!!

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