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With winter in Ottawa seemingly unending, I have to fight the impulse to slip into gloomy thoughts. I remind myself of my New Year’s resolution to be more positive – a vow formulated in response to several experiences.
Last summer, while limping toward the tennis clubhouse with blood dribbling down my leg and across my palm, I happened to look up at the balcony. A lovely face gazed back at me: another member, whose stare revealed no curiosity about why I was hobbling.
If she had shown interest, I would have explained that I’d tripped leaving the tennis court and pitched forward on all fours onto the gravel walkway, cutting my knees and hands.
But Jackie (not her real name) had suffered a stroke some time between the fall closing of tennis season and the spring reopening, and she was a changed person.
A year earlier, she routinely played tennis several mornings with women she had known for years. Though she was probably in her 70s, she played well.
I was a relative newcomer to the Wednesday group, and when we occasionally played together she was a patient partner, encouraging me, the weaker link. After the stroke, she sometimes came to the club to watch her husband play. She no longer joined us for coffee, nor did I see her talking much with her former friends.
When I saw Jackie the morning of my fall, I realized that my cuts and scrapes were irrelevant when compared with the ravages of time and illness on the body and mind.
Since my retirement five years ago I have become aware of my own steady advance toward life’s closing chapters.
Some mornings when I wake I am wrapped in a shroud of grey thoughts – fears of aging, illness, loneliness, dying. By the time I place my feet on the floor, the motivational speaker within me is urging in a very manic manner: “Count your blessings! Consider the alternative to aging!” Then the voice chides, “Don’t be so egocentric!”
By the time I have sipped some coffee, an internal ceasefire has been declared and I can stand back and objectively consider the pros and cons of aging.
On the plus side, I now have more time to do the things I want. There is time for exercise, tennis, travel, reading, family and friends.
Life is calmer without the insecurities of youth and the pressures connected to careers, raising children and multitasking 24/7.
But I also have more time to worry. I worry about our children who move in and out of home, affected by the vagaries of the job market. This generation, who were counselled to get an education and spent years in university believing it would lead them to fulfilling jobs, is now fighting to get short-term or intern jobs that carry little or no salary and few, if any, benefits.
I worry about what will happen to them. Will they ever be able to afford a family, a house, vacations or retirement? What kind of world have we left them? I wonder how they will live with global warming, violent weather, rising seas, increased pollution and diminishing natural resources.
And what will happen to my generation as we move deeper into the “golden” years and need more assistance? There are so many of us, and already we are feeling the squeeze of an overburdened health system and inadequate or non-existent pensions.
These are the principal worries streaming through my mind. And I never have a shortage of minor concerns nipping at my heels.
While I have not quelled these fears, there are some things that have helped me come to better terms with issues of aging. Recently my husband and I visited Rome, Jerusalem and Athens as well as the significant archeological sites of Ephesus and Pompeii.
Exploring these places, you recognize the magnificent achievements of previous empires. You also realize that great civilizations rise and fall and all people age and die. There is some comfort in knowing that you are part of a larger picture and that little fish and big fish ultimately end up in the same pond.
On that trip my husband and I were younger and more mobile than half the passengers. We recognized how fortunate and lucky we are. But the most encouraging thing was that, even with age and mobility issues, these people were enjoying themselves and open to new experiences. I hope to be like that in 20 years.
I am encouraged by the high achievements of elders such as Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize in literature at 82, and Olga Kotelko, a Canadian track-and-field athlete still active at 95. I am inspired by Desmond Tutu, Jane Goodall, Judi Dench – all oldsters.
When I consider aging from the cup-is-half-empty perspective, I tick off the things that are lost or diminished by age, including fitness, energy, memory and time remaining. But if I also consider the half-full perspective, I am thankful that I still have my family, health, mobility, friends and sufficient resources to manage.
So, on my next grey morning I will try to turn away from sad thoughts and count my blessings. And as I move deeper into old age I shall also try to remember Longfellow’s words that “age is opportunity, no less than youth itself, though in another dress.”
Elaine Peebles lives in Ottawa.
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