I'm driving along half-listening to CBC Radio, minding my own business. Suddenly the announcer punches me in the gut, figuratively speaking. Is it a show about real estate, something to do with moving to a smaller house? I wasn't really paying attention, until he delivered the TKO: "I should get old now, because I'm a terrible pack rat and I can't get rid of anything." The idea being that divesting is something we empty-nesters have to do. You stupid idiot. How could you be so cruel as to remind me (with such rapier aim) about being on the threshold of that great chasm, The Golden Years?
Then I realize with a start that the announcer is neither stupid nor cruel, but merely uninformed. He doesn't know! Safe on his lofty thirtysomething perch, he has no clue about old age, or about what it feels to be staring at it. Ignorance is bliss, and his bliss, which I so recently shared, is thanks to a widespread social agreement not to talk about old age. Yuck! Aside from the occasional very rose-colored Hollywood take on the subject (think On Golden Pond; think Harold and Maude) in which aged infirmity is tidy and painless, we don't get much imagery of what awaits us all.
I've figured out why older people keep their secret. It's not hard to figure out that in a culture as age-phobic as ours, there's no percentage in acting your age once you're past 50. Or looking it. There's nobody quite so invisible in a room as a middle-aged woman -- which is why we buff and tone and dye and paint and wax till we're red-lining our Visa cards: Why are we, the fiftysomethings, taking over the gyms of Toronto? Fear of the 50-plus spare tire, aka the menopot.
Our men are driven to the gym by similar fears, which bottom-line as a doomed struggle for control. We boomers were the first generation not to have suffered a national cataclysm. Our parents were formed by privation and terror, first the Depression and then the Second World War; our grandparents lost a generation in the First World War. Nobody but us, the flower children of the first world, has had it so good. We grew up coddled by prosperity, seduced by liberalism's great Canadian vision of the welfare state. We were trained by our circumstances to expect a lot from life, and to buy into the illusion that we would always have control over our lives.
Which we almost did when we were younger. But infirmity stalks us now. It beckons. Nobody is ever ready to relinquish control over their body, and we (the generation that knew for sure that we would change the world) are less ready than most. But there are no rose-colored glasses with a strong-enough prescription to obscure the truth that in the next decade some of us will sicken and some will die.
We are currently watching our parents do just that, and learning certain lessons: There's no good time to lose someone you love. And aging with dignity seems to require people to hide their experience from younger people. Our elders don't want us to know how hard aging is because they already fear our contempt, and they cannot afford to look so vulnerable: To be seen as whiners would make them even more socially fragile and marginalized.
So they soldier on bravely. This cover-up is akin to the veil that shrouds having babies. If women knew the truth about labour, and couples were truly warned about the sleepless nights associated with reproducing the species, my guess is that the planet would be a lot less crowded. The truths about aging are hidden with even more vigour because they are much nastier than a year or two of broken sleeps.
Am I scared of illness and infirmity? Do I see my mom dazed and alone in her wheelchair and picture myself thus imprisoned? You bet.
The announcer-who-is-no-longer-a-villain is on a senior citizens' home-decorating roll. Now he's lauding the virtues of a new "comfort height" toilet. A decade ago I knew that would never concern me. What a comforting dream that was. But these days I get stiff in the back and don't bend so well if I neglect my stretching regimen. I go out with friends and hear about their ailments. One has a stiff shoulder and a finger that won't move. Another is getting shooting pains and stiffness in her jaw. I have chronic pain in my left rib cage and yes, I self-diagnosed a tumour and had the tests. No, it was not. Got off easy -- this time.
Now the CBC announcer is waxing prescriptive. He says one oughtn't to use the word "seniors." He, too, wants in on the great deception. To him and to everyone else who's in on the game of "let's pretend," I say: Stop! Let's figure out a way to know and cherish this next part of life. Let it out of the closet and start talking about what it really is. We can laugh about it, we can share stories and find some comfort there; around the campfire, as it were. Because we need to.
And because the only thing worse than old age is not having one.
Joanne Kates writes On The Menu for The Globe and Mail.