Your Body Will Age

But your personhood will not

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

What young and middle-aged people don’t realize about old people is that most of us still think of ourselves the same way we did when we were young. Our minds and perception of self do not age like our bodies. In the absence of disease or dementia, we feel exactly the same inside that we always did. The true self, one’s personhood, does not alter as we age.

My grandmother tried many years ago to explain this to me, but I was a teenager and just really didn’t get it. She said the worst thing about getting old was that she felt exactly the same inside as when she was young. She had been a very energetic woman and still wanted to do everything she had always done. Her desire to dance, run, ride a horse, or stay up all night to read a good book were unchanged. She tried to express her perception that only her outward body had changed, and not her inner core.

I now well understand what she meant and I wish younger people could, too.

Old people who once loved dancing don’t want to watch you dance; they want to dance, too. Only bad hips, knees, or lack of balance prohibit them from doing so. It would be easier, maybe, if the desire to do what we love didn’t continue well past our ability to do it.

Most older people have a pretty good idea what we look like now. Even if we could dance a bit, we still long for the times when we had smooth skin and strong, steady, and supple limbs. We still have the same inner lives we had when our sense of balance was intact and we didn’t worry we would fall and break a hip.

Oh, how some of us want to dance! As a young woman I remember dancing on high heels with no fear of falling, and I danced on high platform shoes in the 80s that made me about four inches taller. I was adept at wearing them but I would probably have broken my ankle even back then if I had fallen off them. At that time in my life, even if I had broken something, I would have healed quickly and completely.

Now the least little fall while wearing my sensible and dowdy flats might hospitalize me and could maybe cripple or kill me. But in my mind, I’m remembering how much fun it was to dance with abandon and I wish I still could. I want to. My inner self tells my body to go ahead, but my body won’t obey.

Younger people think older people don’t want to do the things young people do. Oh yes, we do! In our minds we want to do everything again. Well, the fun parts, anyway.

We wish we’d all danced more while we could, or at least noticed when we were getting close to losing the opportunity, and danced again and again — as long as we could.

The same thing is true about sports we enjoyed and hobbies that involved physical strength and balance.

Young people often see old people sitting by the sea under umbrellas or in hats and coverups (especially in Florida). For a variety of reasons, some of us can no longer carelessly wade in up to our necks. For some it’s because we’re not at all sure we can still swim. Or maybe it’s because we don’t want to shock everyone by displaying what age has done to our bodies. Some can’t breathe well enough to swim, or have already had so many skin cancers removed they don’t dare venture out from under the shade.

Whatever the reason, it’s not that they don’t want to have fun and play in the water. If they ever loved water and can’t go in now, they still wish they could. They want to slide through the water with strong, graceful strokes or dive to explore the depths, or wish they could still surf, even if just once more.

Instead they enjoy watching younger people have fun, but with the bittersweet knowledge today’s young will age, too.

The young never think about aging until they’re well into it. I’ll never forget the first time I bent over and realized the skin on my cheeks felt like it sagged a bit. It was a shock. I was getting ready for work. I bent over to look for a shoe and I felt something different on my face. I reached up and realized I could shake a little pouch of skin sagging off my bones or something. I had to get a mirror and hold it under my face as I bent over. Sure enough, my cheeks were loose. Oh, the horror.

The way one becomes old happens seemingly in a flash — overnight. Seldom do we see it coming not can we prepare for it. It was a similar experience when I saw my turtle neck developing.

It sneaks into one’s life slowly in a way we are not conscious of in the beginning. We barely notice. But small things add up and one day, eventually, we look in a mirror or see a video of ourselves and realize we look old. Or, like I still do sometimes, we look at our arm and think that crepe-like skin cannot be ours.

We see a photo and realize veins are showing in our hands. We bend to pick up a small child and realize it isn’t easy anymore. We look at our clenched fist and see thin shiny skin stretched over our knuckles. We get a shallow scratch or we lightly bump into something and it turns into a horrendous red and purple wound.

I am still the me that I’ve always been. We all are. The old lady with the cane was someone’s busy, active, hardworking mother not so long ago — and she’s still that same person. Only her exterior shell and maybe her state of health is not the same. But she, the essence of who she is to herself, has not changed.

The old man slowly walking into the grocery store was once a great football player, and he feels like the same man inside as he was then — only a little wiser.

Unless one of the diseases of the mind overtakes us on our journey through life, we’re still here — just in different-looking bodies. Sometimes worn out completely and ceasing to function properly or only just beginning to show wear, the person inside as the same as they’ve ever been. Hopefully through our lives we’ve gained wisdom and learned a great deal, but we’re still the same inner person.

So, young people, enjoy your youth and health, and most of all your abilities. You can do anything you please. But know, too, that someday, quite suddenly actually, you’ll bend over and feel the skin on your cheeks sag a little. One day, you’ll have trouble jumping. One day your beautiful young skin will wrinkle.

It won’t be in just one day, of course, but it will feel that way. It feels as if only yesterday you were running just for the joy of running; confident your body would do whatever you demanded of it.

Then one day it won’t. Suddenly you realize you’ve changed, but even more startling, the inner you has not and will not. Yet you must adjust to the reality of this aging body.

Staying exactly the same entity while the body wears out and begins to fail may be the bitterest pill and the cruelest blow. Or, it may be what encourages us to move on to explore whatever awaits on the other side.

Former print journalist, former mayor, retired law enforcement officer. Writing about politics and government along with random personal essays.

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