Lost and Found: Gifts of the Second Half of Life

Susan Stewart on Dillon BeachSusan Stewart enjoys some savored moments on Dillon Beach.

Professor of Psychology

Depending on what you read, the story on aging can resemble a dreary Victorian novel, or a mind-over-matter self-help tome full of tips on how to avoid the aging process. The older version of the story of old — an artifact of what Kenneth and Mary Gergen call the Dark Ages of Aging - is that the second half of life entails an inevitable, depressing decline into dementia and debilitation.

In recent years, many have challenged this perspective, arguing that it is ageist and culturally-biased and that its research has been skewed by a focus on a small minority of sick elders as opposed to the majority of healthy older people. This group, Walter Bortz, Deepak Chopra and others, has been telling a very different story of growing old, one that in its extreme form states that aging is a self-fulfilling prophecy which can be transformed into a virtual extension of youth through right thinking and right action.

And there are many others who tell a tale somewhere in-between, acknowledging both the challenges and the gifts of growing older. I feel most at home with this latter group, having observed and also experienced aging thus far (at 60) as a Lost and Found of sorts.

Already there have been some losses: my eyes and ears are not as efficient, my skin is showing the effects of baby-oil sunbathing, and I’m not as quick on my feet cognitively or physically. Each loss has brought multiple gains though, and I wouldn’t trade my present life for my youth.

Lost: “Perfect” vision and hearing
Found: Humility, patience, ability to ask for help, humor, careful listening

Declines in both eyesight and hearing are common in later life; accepting these “imperfections” has brought humility. Unable to see small print or needle eyes, I now locate my glasses, move toward the light, and wait for my eyes to adjust. I appreciate this pausing and new-found patience.

Asking for help has become easier. I ask my granddaughters to read a line in a recipe or thread my sewing needle when my glasses are MIA. They seem proud of being able to help Gramma, and I think my sons appreciate chances to take care of me.

As for hearing loss, sometimes what I think a student at the back of the room has said is not at all what was said, which can be very humorous. Most importantly, I have become a better listener. By paying more careful attention to what others are saying, I’ve discovered that sometimes my assumptions – what I think I know –interfere with understanding.

Lost: Youthful appearance
Found: Expanded sense of beauty, self-acceptance

My face is sprinkled with wrinkles and spots of various sorts. It has taken time, but I like my face at 60 better than I did at 30. There is more of me in it now. I like the woman looking back at me.

Our definition of beauty is so narrow. Youthful skin and muscle tone are the standard, and those of us with facial lines or rounder, softer bodies are deemed less-than-beautiful. In cultures where age is revered though, looking old is often a source of pride. I appreciate Maggie Kuhn’s attitude: “I enjoy my wrinkles and regard them as badges of distinction – I’ve worked hard for them!”

Failing to meet the beauty standard forced a choice: to feel bad about myself for what I’m not, or love myself as I am. I have come to know my worth whether the world is holding thumbs up, throwing tomatoes or ignoring me.

Lost: Cognitive speed and sharpness
Found: Thoughtfulness, patience, humor, savored moments, community

Current research suggests that age-related cognitive loss has been over-emphasized; there is much
we can do to maintain our cognitive abilities throughout life. However, in spite of considerable “mental exercise,” I’m a little less agile. I don’t think quite as fast, keeping several things in mind at one time is harder and sometimes I blank on an acquaintance’s name.

Being less speedy, I’ve become more thoughtful and aware. I have come to appreciate that thinking and acting slowly allows me to savor moments, appreciate previously unnoticed beauty and nuances, and enjoy the magical pace of my granddaughters who amble and delight in everything.

Susan Stewart in her gardenStewart pruning in her garden in Dillon Beach

My friends and I periodically regale one another with tales of our cognitive misadventures. We never had this much fun nor felt so close in our younger years when we still believed that some version of perfect was possible if we just tried hard enough. We laugh a lot now and occasionally share our fears. (Some of us have relatives who have developed dementia.)

Lost: Knee agility
Found: Patience, interdependence, compassion, creative compensation, appreciation

Leaping for joy two years ago, I created two meniscus tears. While a knee surgeon was making repairs, he also scraped away a goodly amount of arthritic damage. The healing was much slower than predicted. My training in patience continued, as for weeks, I needed a lot of assistance.

Thus, I discovered interdependence, a virtue not valued in this culture where independence is encouraged, and dependence is frowned upon. For months, friends and family made their way to the remote coastal village where I live. They and my neighbors brought food, did laundry, watered the garden, and two of them even cleaned up after my cat. I learned that receiving with gratitude is also a form of giving, and that in the circle of interdependence we all bestow and receive.

Susan Stewart's granddaughters, Natalie and Madison, help her in the kithcenGranddaughters Natalie (left), 11, and Madison, 7, helping her in the kitchen.

Through this slow healing and minor disability I have developed more empathy for people with physical limitations. I have also become more aware of how I move and am more at home in my body, which feels good though not all the sensations are pleasant.

My knee has also spurred me to be creative as I compensate for what I can no longer do. Certain kinds of dance are off limits, but swimming and I have renewed our relationship. The biggest gift has been a deepened appreciation for the miracles that our bodies are, for how well they balance and heal themselves, and how faithfully they serve us, with all their abilities and limitations.

Granted, at 60, I am a relative beginner at aging. Except for my right knee I feel 40, and my spirit is about ten. But I know many elders who seem to be finding more treasures than losses, and they inspire me. I have seen forgiveness emerge from betrayal, strength arise in the face of serious physical illness, humor and kindness coexist with dementia, and love deepen as partners have grieved each other’s and their children’s tragedies.

Certainly, the longer we live and love, the more likely we are to experience loss. At the same time, hopefully we become better at noticing the beauty around us and at locating the gifts in the Lost and Found of later life.

BIOGRAPHY

Susan Stewart graduated from Sonoma State College in 1970, was later trained as a clinical psychologist and has been an educator for over thirty years. She has taught at a number of Bay Area graduate schools, is a professor in the psychology department at SSU and is currently teaching “The Gifts of Age” for the Osher Life-Long Learning Institute.

Through a series of serendipitous events she became interested in the old woman as a figure in world myth and folktales. To her surprise, these older characters were not primarily wicked witches and ugly hags, but inspiring heroines.

In preparing a paper on these Grandmother or Crone stories for an international conference in Mexico three years ago, Stewart began studying the current research on aging and found similarly encouraging themes, She has been immersed in studying the gifts and challenges of the second half of life for both men and women ever since.

Grandmother Moon

Stewart has made a number of presentations on the gifts of the second half of life, women’s development in midlife and beyond and related topics. To convey the possibilities for aging with grace and zest she weaves together current research on aging, spiritual wisdom from around the world, poetry and memoir, and images like the one above, “Grandmother Moon” by local artist Suzanne deVeuve, (www.suzannedeveuve.com).

Stewart is also writing a book, called Grandmothers’ Blessings (www.grandmothersblessings.com), which includes people’s memories of their grandmothers, along with the stories, images and research she has gathered. In her work, she acknowledges the losses that can occur, but emphasizes the potential gifts of the second half of life and ways to cultivate them. She can be reached at susan.stewart@sonoma.edu.