The Voice of Experience: With aging come identity crisis, emotional issues

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I read a lot and I am always looking for new ideas, new thoughts, new ways of viewing the world. Rather than getting more conservative as I have aged, I find I have gotten more radical but in some odd ways. I have always been fascinated by history, and now I have not only world history to draw on but my own 60-some-odd years on this planet. This doesn’t make me feel wiser but it does give me some basis for comparison when someone tells me about something they think is new.

I am a big believer in knowing history but it doesn’t seem that popular these days. I was a bit surprised, for example, to find out my 20-year-old grandson didn’t know about the civil rights movement. He does, however, know a lot more than I do (which is pretty much nothing) about skiing, skateboarding and mountain biking.

There are a lot of ideas floating around these days, most of them clashing and banging against each other. All anyone seems to be able to agree on is that the future looks blurry and dark. But no one seems to agree on how we might get to a brighter future.

My generation has been living through a pivotal time in history, since the end of the Second World War. The western powers came out of that war determined to make the world safe for capitalism and to rebuild their own economies, which they have done, very successfully. But now the old paradigms are slowly being swirled away by new currents of history and new questions, the main one being: How does an economy built on petrochemicals now make a switch to more benign forms of alternative energy so we don’t doom our grandkids to an overheated planet?

Many of us are worried about the future that our grandchildren will have to face even though we have other worries of our own — health and just getting through day by day are the top of mine.

But there is one other worry I have that I didn’t expect — I didn’t expect that getting older would be such an identity crisis, so fraught with difficult emotional issues. My life was once largely defined by striving, overwork, anxiety about money, and constant, ongoing learning. I am still learning and reading but unlike previous periods in my life, I have no specific goals in mind, no papers or essays to write, no book to research.

I am still writing but I don’t have a job to rush off to or a household to manage and for the first time in my life, I have leisure time, which I don’t quite know how to deal with. I do have lots of friends to talk to and many of them are going through similar issues; some are dealing with grief or illness or retirement or selling homes and moving into smaller apartments. All of these are huge emotionally difficult issues and identity changing issues, and somehow not what I expected or thought about when I was younger.

I think often about my mother. I was very close to her and did everything I could to care for her as she aged but now I don’t think I ever really understood what she faced. Her life had been built around her family, the farm and caring for it all. When she could no longer do the work she was used to doing, as one by one her children and grandchildren moved farther away, she sank into depression.

It’s hard to understand the problems of aging when you are a middle-aged son or daughter caught up in a career, with a mortgage, growing children and multiple responsibilities. It’s hard to find time to add a parent’s care to that long list. And after all, there is not much often that kids can do, except listen. But kids are used to be listened to by parents; kids are used to being cared for by us. It is very hard, sometimes impossible, to switch roles.

So I manage to keep my mind and my reading and writing busy with a myriad of projects. I am reading and writing about getting older, about health issues, about chronic pain and how to deal with it. I am watching and reading about the world, about history, as always, to see what is changing. I am in love with and fascinated by the lives of my grandchildren. But pain, disability, lack of stamina and support limits what I can do everyday. This is immensely frustrating and many of my friends talk about the same frustration. Once, we were used to working long days or focusing on creative projects for hours at a stretch. Where is that energy? How could it disappear so quickly?

And yet my life is still rich. I have books, friends, writing, a good place to live and the government sends me a small bit of money every month. What could be better? I miss my body that was once so immensely capable; I miss who I used to be. I am trying hard to move into this new adventure, figuring out who I am now, why I am alive, what I can contribute, what my goals are now and how to achieve them.

Award-winning author Luanne Armstrong is a longtime resident of the Creston Valley. The Voice of Experience is a column co-ordinated by the Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors.