Aging Gracefully


aging with dignity

Aging with Dignity?

Why do I think that aging with dignity is an oxymoron?  Because – with more than a smattering of nostalgia –  I am watching my optimism about aging with dignity slowly but surely drift into oblivion.

But wait!


…   to the 1950s, to my high school days in Johannesburg, South Africa,  when my fellow students and I were assigned a creative writing task. We were to write an opinion piece using the title ‘Old Ladies’.

Aging With Dignity

My thoughts flowed easily as I put pen to paper, expounding the declining importance of older women in our society. I concluded my essay proudly and  with the unwavering conviction reserved for the unconscious mind – stating that I had no wish to live past the age of  (wait for it!)  49, beyond which I would simply be a burden on society!

It’s a good thing my sentiments slipped past the ‘powers that be’  or I wouldn’t be here to tell the story!  Oh! how I’m eating my words now!

I suppose I should be ashamed of my teenage ignorance,  but I am far more concerned about the “A” grade that I received for this essay!  I have a  great deal  to say about that!

Firstly,  I should have been hauled into the Guidance Counselor’s office to begin a process of social awareness training.

Secondlysomebody should have explored where on earth I got the idea that 50 was old!!  Although I did not grow up with grandparents (all  died during my pre-school years), I had aunts and uncles who were probably in their 50’s and up.

49??  What was I thinking??  Hell, when I was 49 (almost 20 years ago) I was just reaching my peak!!

And thirdly,  where were my parents in all of this?  According to my calculations, they must have been in their early 40’s at that time.   Did my teachers not bring this disturbing essay to their attention?   I guess not!

Fast Forward

It is now 2013 – more than five decades later – and wouldn’t you know it? The shoe is on the other foot! Talk about poetic justice!!   Now an aging woman myself,  I find myself on the periphery of a society whose perception of its aging population is not significantly different than my earlier impressions.  Aging with dignity?  Huh!

To put my current meanderings into a context, I am writing this on July 22nd, 2013, exactly ten years to the day, after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. My response at the time was coloured by having witnessed my mother ’s experience with the same condition.  For reasons I will never understand (now that I know more about this condition) she was only diagnosed at age 80 – four years before her death, despite having had evidence of advancing disease for at least ten years prior. Knowing little about Parkinson’s when I was diagnosed, I was convinced that ten years down the road I would either be severely disabled, cognitively impaired –  or dead.

I am neither severely disabled nor cognitively impaired – yet.  And –  thanks to the blind eye of the aforementioned powers that be – I am not dead. In fact I am among a very small minority of people with Parkinson’s who respond remarkably well to the standard medications.  Whereas I do struggle with certain deficits and limitations,   I am still in much better shape than my counterparts, even those with more recent diagnoses.

Unfortunately I have several other medical conditions , which exacerbate my struggle to be aging with dignity in an ageist society.

Aging With Dignity

When I hand my list of medications and conditions to new medical or paramedical professionals, I can see their eyes  almost pop out of their heads as they peruse  the long list and wonder silently how come I’m still alive.

As as for my Pharmacist  –  I’m probably financing her next vacation.

So Why is Aging With Dignity Important?

Aging with dignity is important because it is connected to our feelings of self-worth, and when we do not feel ourselves to be worthy,  our enjoyment of life decreases exponentially.  Those who have good self-esteem to  begin with may find it easier to cope with loss of dignity, but it is not a walk in the park  for any of us.


Aging with Dignity


The Silver Lining

This age and stage also brings with it many benefits, and perhaps the most rewarding and fulfilling one (for those of us fortunate enough to have this)  is the involvement we have with our grandchildren.  And beyond that, during our senior years we have the time to do everything we’ve always wanted to do – or we can choose to do nothing. We can decide who and what we like –  or don’t like, and we are free to make life choices whether those around us approve  – or disapprove … just some small illustrations of the advantages of aging  – dignity or no dignity.  And if we are lucky (and I am!),  our children may actually value our opinions and advice.

Aging with Dignity

Nevertheless, it is a challenge for me to sustain  a sense of self-respect and dignity in the face of declining health and independence.  Our law-makers mean well when they dictate standards of dignity and respect in care for those in our aging population.  But the written rule cannot override our society’s glorification of youthfulness, energy, vigour, speed, independence and physical attractiveness.

The Third Act

Always on the prowl for inspirational material,  I came across an excellent talk given by an excellent speaker:  Jane Fonda.   In the video (see below) she describes what she calls ‘the third act’ – a developmental life stage which she believes challenges the view of age as pathological. “We are still living with the old paradigm of age as an arch” she states.  “You are born, you peak at midlife and decline into decrepitude”.  The third act challenges that metaphor, and Ms. Fonda offers an alternative one:  a staircase.  She describes how we move up the staircase during our senior years,  towards the attainment of wisdom, authenticity and wholeness.

Although I cannot deny my ongoing dance around the issue of aging with dignity, I also cannot deny that Jane Fonda’s words resonate strongly with me – and inspire me.

I believe that I am wiser now – and counting … I am authentic (at least I try to be) …  and I guess the ‘wholeness’ bit is still a work in progress.

So –  on this anniversary date,  I look back on the past decade with both gratitude and sadness.  Gratitude for being among the select few whose bodies are responding well to the Parkinson’s medications.  And sadness  for the incremental losses I encounter as time marches on.

 Age should not have its face lifted, but it should rather teach the world to admire wrinkles as the etchings of experience and the firm line of character. Ralph Berry

(see  and  About Adele Gould

Video from Ted Talks:  Jane Fonda on The Third Act 








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