Getting Old Doesn’t Have to Suck
You’re young. You’re worried about your career, about making money, dating, being happy, falling in love, staying in love…
I used to have anxiety attacks about that stuff too. I’m Medicare age, and a few weeks ago I suddenly realized that I’ve never been happier. It’s weird. Aren’t older people the ones who are supposed to have problems? But in my 20s and 30s, I always had major work problems and boyfriend problems and family problems. My bosses were tough and nasty and underpaid me; my Saturday-night date had Sunday brunch plans with another woman; my parents didn’t approve of anything I did. I was almost always disappointed and upset and seeing a psychotherapist.
Not any more.
Work: I’m still designing and writing for a living, but I do it (mostly) on my own terms. Boyfriends: I’ve been married for nearly 30 years, and although my husband and I have our moments, it’s good, really good. I know he’ll be having Sunday brunch (and most other meals) with me. Family: My parents both died at ripe old ages. I have a nice long-distance relationship with one brother; he’s in L.A., I’m in N.Y. My younger brother unfriended me two years ago when I posted a comment critical of Trump. Can’t do much about that. So there are hardly any family problems either. Now I get to spend my time and money on the garden or travel or books or concert tickets rather than therapy sessions.
When you think of getting old, do you see images of people who are decrepit, sick, poor, bored, who don’t even think about sex. In other words, enduring a life that sucks?
I will never forget my mother saying, at age 89, in her quaint Austrian-British accent, “Getting old sucks.”
It did for her. (See my article, “A Template for Aging” https://medium.com/@ellenshapiro/a-template-for-aging-e0ff051ede22). But it doesn’t have to suck for me. Or for you.
I don’t like to throw around advice, but here’s some, just this once. Advice about the three things we humans worry about the most: money, sex, and finding the right person.
If you don’t want the last third of your life to suck, start putting money into Social Security and Medicare accounts. Most younger people I know are freelance artists and musicians, or trying to be the next internet billionaire. But now, they can barely afford subway fare after paying the rent on their shared Brooklyn apartments, and haven’t been putting money into any accounts. They don’t have Social Security and Medicare deducted from paychecks. They live from gig to gig and don’t actually get paychecks. I’m super lucky that way. I’ve had my own design business for years, and for most of them took a salary from which those deductions were taken. And now the government pays for most of my doctor visits and gym membership, and a nice chunk of change appears in my bank account every month. That helps a lot.
Don’t have a regular salaried job and paycheck? You can talk to an accountant about setting up those accounts on your own and putting aside a certain amount of money every month. If you can, as early as you can, start an IRA retirement account at a brokerage firm like Fidelity that lets you trade online. The stock market is doing pretty great. (Watch for my future article on Women and The Stock Market, in which I will rip into wealth managers and, I hope, convince you that it’s easier than you think, and much more rewarding, to do it yourself, even if you have very little money to start with.)
After 55 or 65, it can be the best of your life. No way, you think. Yes way! First of all, no worries about getting pregnant. That’s huge. And gone. No pills, no diaphragms, no IUDs. (One day I’ll write about how I got pregnant at age 29 with an IUD perfectly in place. They’re 99 percent effective, right? Well, that was the only time in my life I was in the one percent.)
If you are with one partner, no worries about HIV, STDs, UTIs. No condoms. Skin to skin, baby. Mixing body fluids galore. And if your body doesn’t live up to society’s standards of perfection any more, it’s fine. Neither of you cares. No waxing required.
Another big benefit: if you’re not working 12-hour days any more and your kids are out of the house, you’ve got more time, more privacy. Aah.
And the idea that past a certain birthday people don’t think about or want sex any more? Bullshit.
I know several women who are single in their 40s and claim they just haven’t been able to find the right guy. In their long-running soap operas there’s something wrong with every man they meet: too short, too bald, doesn’t make enough money, drives the wrong car. The standards are ridiculously high. There are lots of sweet, responsible, marriageable guys who are an inch shorter than you. You spend one-third of your life in bed, as mattress advertisers like to point out, and when you’re there, that particular inch doesn’t matter at all.
Today, finding someone actually might be a lot easier than it was in the 1970s and ’80s. Not just with online dating (which accounts for the way a hefty percentage of the couples on the New York Times wedding pages met), but with all the options now open and acceptable. I’m friends with quite a few lesbian women, many in committed relationships. Over the years I’ve run into men I knew — clients and colleagues, definitely married to women and with children — walking down the street holding hands with another man or standing on the corner of Seventh and Christopher wearing chains, boots, and a hankie tied a certain way. I was never acknowledged; I guess it was too embarrassing to them. No one, at least in big cities, has to lead a double life any more.
And a lot of older people are finding that they’re perfectly happy living on their own, not part of a couple, free to make their own decisions, travel, enjoy life. They’ve finally learned that it’s really okay to be single.
I love my house and my garden, but also look forward to the day when I don’t want to do all that work any more and can create a group living situation with other like-minded people. A commune for old folks, with organic food, guitars, drums and a hot tub (and a live-in health aide, just in case), anyone?
The key to accomplishing all of this is being healthy. Mentally and physically. Getting old won’t suck if you keep doing the big crossword puzzle. If you keep exercising and practicing yoga. If you eat well and take your calcium supplements and flaxseed oil. If you take up something new, like kickboxing or tai chi. I started studying hand drumming ten years ago, and love it. I play in concerts, parades, at retreats. And now I have a grandson. The best thing in the world. He’ll be three years old soon. Hmm, I need to find an aquarium to take him to that has lots of octopuses and jellyfish.
One more thing: Don’t smoke. And don’t drink to excess. The people I know whose lives really do suck — who can barely get around, who have incurable diseases, who are dying, are the ones who always had a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. It may have looked cool then, but they don’t look so cool now in their oxygen masks.
Getting Old Doesn’t Have to Suck
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