Coming of age

As the years pass our sense of beauty, wonder and belonging deepens.

Time is relative, the adage goes. 

My husband Ralph is a school principal. He recently celebrated a significant birthday, and the younger students invariably wanted to guess his age. “Twelve?” one student guessed. Another, more confident student proclaimed, “Fifty-twelve!” A third, “Ninety-three.” To twist another adage: Age is in the eye of the beholder.

Louise Aronson, author of the book Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life, opens with a story about a professor, Guy Micco, at the University of California and his work with med students. Without much introduction, he asks students to first define old and then define elder. He recounts seeing the distinction between the two descriptions, as students referred to old with less than positive terms and the term elder with more respectful language. 

Relating to age

This idea of becoming better with age is subject to semantics, bias and perspective. Full disclosure, I turned 49 in December. I remember my parents being 49; I thought they were old, dealing with serious matters and with mature confidence. Now that I am 49, I’m keenly aware of how vulnerable they both must have felt at those times. And I don’t think I’m old, yet.

How we define age

When people meet my daughters Rachel and Janneke who use wheelchairs for mobility and are visibly disabled, I’m often asked, “How old are they?” When I share their ages, 16 & 13, I am met with surprise. It’s as if both girls sitting in their chairs, with all their obvious limitations aren’t giving enough “typical” cues to determine age. 

Admittedly, for me as the parent, I also have to adjust my expectations associated with age. Choosing Rachel and Janneke’s clothes each morning and determining their audiobooks or movies for watching are all part of their daily care plan. There are times when I miss the typical-child protests of “not that shirt” and “I can do it myself!” I hold some sadness when I see the girls next to their cousins who are younger in years but seemingly older in ability and interest. Yet when I redirect my thoughts to the things that bring Rachel and Janneke joy, I am reminded that we, as humans, are so much more than age, ability and appearance.

The gift of ageing

As the years pass, for some of us, our sense of beauty, wonder and belonging deepens. I’ve loved learning from elders who have shared the softening and widening of their heart alongside the wrinkles and silver hairs. I’ve even grown to appreciate the hard experiences in my own life that have shaped me into a more vulnerable but also willing person. And therein such seasoning and marinating lies the gift of growing old.

Everyone should be born into this world happy

and loving everything.

But in truth it rarely works that way.

For myself, I have spent my life clamouring toward it.

Halleluiah, anyway I’m not where I started!

“Halleluiah” by Mary Oliver.


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