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The Bull Looks Different

Stepping into the arena of older age requires determination and an admirable capacity for resilience.

 


In my journey toward becoming a pro-aging advocate, I've taken more than a few twists and turns, zigging and zagging, sometimes feeling secure about being younger and at other times wondering about and fearing getting older. Now in my 70s, I view this longstanding choreography with Age as less of a dance and more of an ongoing exercise routine to compensate, adjust, accept, grow, and keep on going.


My continual flexibility has surprised me; 30 or 40 years earlier, I would have never imagined I'd be required to weave and bob like a boxer contending with a formidable challenger. That's because I had no clue about what many older people commit to facing on a daily basis.


A better way to describe this realization is to recall an expression I was introduced to by activist Ashton Applewhite in her seminal book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. She writes:


The philosopher William James dubbed the illusion that we can ever know what another person is experiencing the "psychologist's fallacy." In a talk on end-of-life issues at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Dr. Thomas Finucane put this in a way that really stuck with me. His mantra was a Mexican saying: "The appearance of the bull changes when you enter the ring." The matador's point of view is different from the spectator's.


In this particular context, Applewhite is referring to how people view impending death and their own mortality. But as she later does, I also see the metaphor in broader terms.


When I was 28, my parents retired and moved to Florida to live in an over-55 community. The first time I visited them after they settled in, I met some of their friends in a gathering my folks held to introduce me to them. After the exchange of a few pleasantries and some questions about my career, the conversation turned to a sustained discussion of their various health problems. As I listened, I remember thinking If I ever sound like this when I'm their age, someone please put me out of my misery.


Why spend such a long time comparing notes about symptoms, treatments, and doctors? Didn't they have anything else to talk about?


Decades later, I've come to realize that I was a spectator that day, not a matador. I now understand that they were seeking reality checks and using one another as resources for strategies to keep their own bulls at bay.


These days, my own time in the bullring consists of various subtle moves: taking a moment upon waking to sit at the edge of my bed to steady myself before standing up to get dressed; opening and closing my hands throughout the day to get the stiffness out of my joints; making sure I eat dinner no later than 7 p.m. to avoid mid-sleep heartburn.


I see now that all those laughs I had long ago with my fortysomething friends about our folks' Early Bird (4:30) dinners and 8 p.m. bedtimes were not just ageist but also clueless. We were blind to the many ways our determined elders were being resilient, making those many adjustments to their environments --- and themselves.


That first Florida trip was too short to give me the opportunity to see what else my parents and their friends were up to: volunteering as buddies at a local orphanage, holding blood drives, working on local political campaigns. Health concerns weren't the only topics of their conversations. The bullring wasn't their only arena. Nor today is it mine or my friends'.


Then, as now, many older adults have concluded that life shouldn't be a spectator sport.


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