Helen Chappell - June 2007

Living in Geezerdom
Helen Chappell

     It’s official – I’m old. Recently I passed a landmark birthday that means the years before me are shorter than the years I’ve left behind.
      Like many other members of the Boomer generation, who were advised never to trust anyone over 30, I’m dragging 30 on a trailer hitch, together with a lot of other years. I’m officially a geezer!
      Now I can hitch my pants up under my armpits and complain about the gummit full time. Soon I’ll be able to get those senior discounts. I’ve had my AARP membership for a decade now, and I’ve taken a lot of satisfaction in my wrinkles and spotted hands. It’s nice to be in the biggest age demographic of Talbot County; there are so many wonderful people here in the world of the finely aged. And, of course, a few not-so-wonderful people, too. But I say, “Proclaim your geezerdom and be proud of it. You’ve earned every single gray hair on your head.”
      Personally, I’m sort of amazed I’ve lived this long. I always thought by now I’d have been shot by an irate reader, at high noon, in front of the courthouse. I always thought when you reached this age, you had one foot in the grave, but now that I’m here, I’m finding I’ve never felt better in my life.
      Of course, I can’t remember where I put things, and simple names and facts often dangle tantalizingly just out of recall. If I know your face, but I can’t cough up your name from my memory banks, be gentle with me. My head is crammed with a lifetime of collecting useless information, and there’s just not room for everything in there anymore.
      My elders told me there’d be aches and pains, and to my great surprise there are. I’m not as strong as I used to be, or as fast, or as quick on the draw. But I’m still in there plugging away, trying to learn something new every day. As Mae West said, “When faced with two evils, always choose the one you’ve never tried before.” And I still look forward to trying new evils.
      I thought by now, I’d be a grownup, but I see I haven’t quite achieved that yet. Sometimes I feel as if I’m cleverly masquerading as a grownup, getting those bills paid every month, keeping appointments, getting the car serviced regularly, making those deadlines and all that good stuff.
      I used to think I wasn’t as grown up as most people because I’m single and childless, and nothing forces people to grow up as fast as marriage and kids. But a lot of people who are married with children tell me they don’t feel like grown-ups either. Even on the days when I feel like the wreck of the Hesperus, and as if I’m 103, I still don’t feel like a responsible adult. And now, I hope I never do.
      I’ve given up clinging to youth. I no longer color my hair, and I don’t fancy getting myself Botoxed and nipped into looking like a haggard 30-year old serial divorcee. But I’m happy some youth still clings to me. Liking kids and being comfortable with Gen X and Gen Y is better than a lift. Even though I tell them I was alive when dinosaurs roamed the earth, my hipster friends still think I’m cool.
      The nature writer Sue Hubbell points out that there are two ways of growing old. The first is to cling to what worked in the past, even if the “Sell By” date was two decades ago. To tightly grip old ways, lifestyles, familiar things after they’ve outlived their usefulness. To become frightened of any change and to adapt a rigid, gripping conservatism that fails to serve one’s present needs and can only lead to bitterness and disappointment.
      The second way to age, Hubbell points out, is to accept change, even welcome it into one’s life. To be open to new things, new places, new people, to continue to learn and enjoy the challenges of a new life.
      I want to live that second way. Whether I will or not, I don’t know. I dread potentially bad changes as much as anyone, and have a healthy fear of the unknown. My biggest fear is becoming a mental or physical vegetable, or being warehoused in some institution that reeks of old urine. For me, that would not be a life worth living.
      I do figure as long as I can entertain myself, I’ll be okay. Give me a stack of good reading and Turner Classic Movie Channel and I’m happy. I’m certainly not afraid of being alone. In fact, I enjoy my solitary life of peace and contemplation of nature, some good friends, family and books.
It’s unfortunate that age is not valued in this culture. Old people know a lot of stuff, and when we’re gone, all that knowledge goes with us. Listen to an old person someday; you might learn something you didn’t know.
      My role model in aging gracefully is my friend Carol. She’s in her early 90s, but she looks as if she’s in her early 70s. She works out regularly, sails, gardens, is active in her community and is a lot of fun to be with. She has an optimistic, can-do attitude, and she’s more physically and intellectually limber than women half her age. She’s never lost her sense of pleasure in nature’s beauty, and she is a vital, creative person. That’s what I want to be like. I’m sure Carol has had her fair share of sorrow and challenges in this life, but she never ever complains or explains.
      I don’t want to be one of those old ladies who revel in their own miseries. I don’t want to give an organ recital to everyone who asks me how I’m feeling today. Dwelling on one’s various doctor visits and making one’s health, or lack of it, the central drama of every supermarket chance run-in is not going to make me popular enough to have lots of visitors in the Shady Acres Rest Home.
      Recent observations have led me to believe that there’s a culture war among us older folks. Boomer retirees want exercise machines in their gated communities. They want the grandkids around. They want to go and do, and try to keep themselves as fit as they can, as long as they can. They volunteer. They couldn’t care less whether the grass is 1½ inches high or 2 inches high.
      Eisenhower-era retirees tend to be the condo commandos. The ones who question any strange visitor in the compound, as if a visitor is a terrorist. They don’t want their fees spent on workout rooms and swimming pools. They want peace and quiet and a nice stiff drink and a chance to talk about their hip replacement surgery. They care, and care deeply, what color those locked gates are painted.
      Inevitably, these two retiree generations clash, and for a casual observer, watching the drama can be amusing.
      Which leads me to my last prayer for older years.
      Please, Lord, don’t let me have to live in a retirement community.
      I’d last about three days before the condo board rose up in self-righteous indignation and tossed me and my junk out on the street.
      If I can live the rest of my life in peace and quiet, I’ll be happy.