What Scares Me About Growing Old.
Having wandered around the field of gerontology for almost a half century, I’ve continually found myself banging into other people’s attitudes as to whether they think aging is a good or bad thing. Is it something to be embraced or conquered? Should we be “pro-aging” or “anti-aging?”
It occurs to me that there are four different flavors of aging—and that much of the confusion comes from conflating them. Here’s my attempt at clarification and also how I currently feel about my own aging process.
Aging #1) Chronological aging is the most obvious form of aging and the one that remains indifferent to our whims, desires, and discoveries. It’s dependent only on the passing of time. Inexorably, we become a day older each day. We are not alone: the same is true for trees, frogs, and even the sun.
Aging #2) Psychological aging is the normal developmental process of growing up while migrating through the various experiences and transitions of our lives. Hence, the baby becomes a child, who then becomes a teenager, who then becomes a young adult, and on and on until he or she eventually becomes an elder. Some people also view maturity as a time when the deepest aspects of one’s spiritual self ripen and blossom.
Aging #3) Aging and society. In pre-industrial America, people were seen as acquiring greater perspective and authority as they grew older. However, “modernization” has pushed the importance of elders down significantly. Not wanting to be “over-the-hill” or irrelevant, people don’t want to be thought of as “old” no matter what their actual age.
Aging #4) Physical aging. We usually view this process like a climb up Mount Everest. First, there’s the ascent: with each step the view is grander as one moves closer and closer to the peak. Then, on the descent, with each step, the experience diminishes, and one is farther and farther from the peak and closer and closer to the end. We now know that the rate of aging can also be slowed down a bit through things like regular exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight, proper nutrition, sufficient rest, and relaxation and stimulating social engagement.
Aging and me?
I like the prospect of circling the sun many, many times. I definitely aspire to psychological and spiritual maturity. I’m troubled by the modern era’s “young is good and old is bad” social ethos and am trying my best to change this narrative with my books, research, speeches and consulting. And physical aging? Now that I’m not quite as young as I used to be, going forward I’d like to physically age as slowly as possible!
However, in truth, I’m frightened of something happening to my wife Maddy—or to my children or to my close friends. And, I’m frightened of something happening to me. I’m scared of suffering. I’m also frightened of being a burden on my family. And, I guess I’m also scared of being scared.
There’s also now that lurking fear about whether I’ll be ready to embrace the final chapter when the final chapter comes. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to deal with my passing consciously and authentically, and not just pretend that “I’m fearless about aging,” because I’m not.
Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D. is a gerontologist, psychologist, educator, lecturer, consultant, entrepreneur and expert on aging-related issues; has appeared in numerous films and TV interviews; and is the author of sixteen books. He will be co-leading The Making of a Modern Elder with Chip Conley and the MEA team at the Esalen Institute October 30-November 1.