While sickness, care-giving and other negative scenarios have long been associated with aging, there’s another side to the story.
“There’s a certain amount of freedom getting older. I decided it was a good thing, although I had approached it with a certain amount of trepidation,” says Tucsonan Sandy Heiman, 70, who with longtime friend Myra Dinnerstein, 76, recently launched the website Becomingolder.wordpress.com. Heiman and Dinnerstein moderate the website’s blog, sharing experiences, feelings and resources, and creating a forum that invites others to divulge their aging epiphanies — even anonymously.
“I began talking with my friends. We became more forthright with each other. When I was younger some of the things I was thinking and feeling stayed with me and my husband,” says Heiman, 70, a former teacher and the executive editor of the Arizona Jewish Post from 1979 to 2001, when she retired.
“Myra was someone I could trust, I could be honest with,” she says. “We’re very different people, although we both went to Penn and grew up in Philadelphia.” In their conversations, Heiman and Dinnerstein began to wonder about other people’s experiences of aging.
Concerns about aging can arise at any age, and ideas about aging change, says Dinnerstein, who recalls the 1960s adage, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” She was the first director of the University of Arizona women’s studies program from 1975 to 1989, and later taught in the program, including a course called “Women and Their Bodies.”
When she retired in 2003, Dinnerstein says, “I wanted to recalculate the time I have left. The way I defined myself was by my professor’s role. It was a shock for me when I walked away and didn’t give a damn. It didn’t matter anymore.”
“My life had been structured since I was a child,” says Heiman. “I began asking myself, ‘what do I want to do with my time?’” Retirement “gave me time to explore who I was, what was happening in my life.”
That kind of introspection may be different for men and women, notes Heiman, adding that often “older men cannot retire because they have no idea who they are without a title.” Dinnerstein chimes in that “there are also women who don’t want to give up their titles.”
Different models of aging clearly intrigue the two women. “One model may be being healthy, being fit,” says Dinnerstein. “Someone may become a super athlete, go back to school, or begin meditating. Is it okay to just relax and kick back?”
Throughout life “we’re dealing with the unexpected,” she says. “The unexpected happens more as you get older. I know a very vibrant [older] person who had a stroke. She can’t do what she used to. How does that affect her identity?”
Everyone has losses and declines — of looks, people, attachments and energy. One big change as we age is “a new balance between older people and our children,” says Heiman. “There’s a juxtaposition of power and authority between parents and children. What about children who feel they have a right to tell their parents what to do?” For example, when does a parent stop driving?
Aging may initiate “an essential new stage of marriage that must be discussed,” says Heiman. “The couple can be aging very differently. They can be coping very differently. Are retirees making end-of-life decisions, or are they in denial, which can [ultimately] affect the entire family?”
The whole topic of aging “in a way is very taboo,” says Dinnerstein. “We don’t really talk about our fears and our hopes. Yet it’s a stage of life we all have to go through in our varied ways. To find out how people are going through it is intrinsically interesting to me.”
The Becoming Older blog has included posts about a 70th birthday celebration hike with friends and family to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the joys and fears of a single woman growing older alone, and advice about remaining vigorous “ONLY if you move your body.”
A conversation about senior housing facilities that separate men and women, husbands and wives, leads Dinnerstein and Heiman to another hot topic: sex. There’s a difference in sexual connections as we age, says Heiman. “Our generation didn’t talk about sex. There’s a taboo about it.”
But if anybody wants to write about it, their blog is all ears.