I’m proud to announce my recent promotion from apprentice/intern to professional.
If we’re lucky, someday we’ll become old. But many of us don’t know how to make peace with this fact and, in fact, don’t want to admit that it is a fact. We know we’re aging, we want to keep living in the best ways we can, and yet…
In her remarkable, groundbreaking book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, Ashton Applewhite offers a job description that can help us “integrate the real and the aspirational”:
In 2008 I heard geriatrician Joanne Lynn describe herself as an old person in training, and I’ve been one ever since. I know I’m not young. I don’t see myself as old. I know a lot of people feel the same way. They’re in the grips of a cruel paradox: They aspire to grow old yet dread the prospect. They spend a lot of energy sustaining the illusion that the old are somehow not us. Becoming an Old Person in Training bridges the us/them divide, and loosens the grip of that exhausting illusion.
Becoming an Old Person in Training acknowledges the inevitability of oldness while relegating it to the future, albeit at an ever-smaller remove. It swaps purpose and intent for dread and denial. It connects us empathetically with our future selves.
This year I turned 70, and the time felt right to greet my future self and assume its identity. I’ve taken off the training wheels and now consider myself an Old Person. And the job title suits me.
I’ve not always been comfortable with the aging process. True, for the first three decades of my life I couldn’t wait to be old enough to cross the street by myself, get a driver’s license, go to college, get a job, and get my own apartment. But then, sometime in my 30s, I became aware of the cultural swampland of ageism that mires us and pulls us back from those exciting feelings of anticipation and aspiration. I entered a phase of what I now realize was a decades-long unconscious apprenticeship experiencing the increasingly toxic pitfalls of being considered unattractive, uncool, irrelevant, and finally, burdensome.
The dysfunctional attitudes of our society toward the idea of growing older don’t allow us to see that becoming an old person is not only natural but a requirement, if longevity is our goal. That’s because there seems to be no social value in being old. No job description. No inherent reward.
And therefore, no training.
It’s as if our culture demands that once we reach the position of middle age, it’s a job we should be expected to hold forever until we die. But then, paradoxically and ironically, society inevitably fires us from that position when it deems us to be unproductive and unable to contribute anything new and valuable to the social contract.
And so I slowly had to come to terms with my increasing age. It was in my 50s that I assumed an internship of sorts by beginning to call myself an “older adult.” (Not coincidentally, it’s also when I went back to graduate school to study gerontology, mainly to understand why we get the concept of aging so wrong and what to do about this.)
Our workplace is Life. We sign a contract when we’re born and renew it throughout the stages of our growth. When to consider oneself an old person is a decision that varies with each individual. When anyone makes that decision is entirely up to that person; nevertheless, it’s one that we all have to make if we’re lucky enough to live many decades.
In ways too nebulous to describe, I felt that this year was the right time for me. In Applewhite’s terms, for the past 20 years I’ve been replacing dread and denial with purpose and intent. And now I feel ready to explore what’s next.
I’m officially an Old Person, on the job and excited to embrace a new “future self” by assuming different responsibilities and enjoying the perks (yes, there are perks) of the current position.
If and whenever I’m asked, I’m also ready to train others.