On growing older

Traveling among different cultures requires flexibility and adaptiveness. Are these qualities that become more difficult as we grow older?

I like to think that I’m not easily frightened. I’ve pushed myself to seek out a life of adventure and unpredictability, despite it not always appearing to be the best or easiest of choices. Considering how shy I was when I was a kid, I’m still impressed that I’ve chosen to stand in front of a room of strangers in foreign lands for a living. People toss around phrases like “don’t let it hold you back” and “don’t be swayed”, which make me imagine life as a moving sidewalk. Life passes by at a steady pace and I am responsible for choosing how I move along with it. I can choose to walk along, or to push things out of the way as I run forward, or if I get stuck behind something I must figure out how to problem-solve my way out of it. I suppose it’s an apt metaphor for life if you consider it as something where you should move forward constantly. Although, I’m not entirely convinced that life always moves ahead in a straight line, maybe we’ve just been conditioned by timelines.

Either way, I generally feel confident that I’m making my way through life on an even keel, but there still remain some things that nag at me and (dare I say?) even frighten me. One of the biggies is the fear of getting old.

Actually, to be completely honest, it terrifies me.

Will you still need me?

I should clarify that I’m not worried about growing old in the looks department. Despite advertising’s best efforts to make me fear wrinkles and grey hair, miraculously I’m not really bothered by those things. My fear of aging is solely rooted in the effects it has on cognitive function. Primarily, I’m scared to grow old and live in a world I don’t recognize, understand, and can’t navigate. While it might be a waste of time to worry about such things, when I see examples of it in others I get really scared and it sticks with me for a while. I’ll give you an example. One day while wandering around the fruit and veg section of the grocery store last year, an elderly man asked me what he was looking at. He was very old (I’d have guessed ninety years old), a bit disheveled, and very confused. I’m not even sure how he made it to the supermarket. I told him what he was holding and he put the tray of vegetables in his cart and wandered off to the next section.

Practicing tai chi in Macau
Keeping young: practicing tai chi in Macau. Photo by Nancy Cater.

I worried about that old timer for the rest of the evening. How would he get home? And once he got there, was anyone around to help him out? Is this something that will happen to me when I get old? I had visions of wandering around a supermarket alone, bewildered and slightly afraid, and not recognizing anything. I wonder if this is something I can avoid, or do I have little say in the matter? I feel quite ready to handle most of life’s challenges on most days, but that may be something I’m taking for granted and should pay closer attention to. I suppose I also take for granted that someone is going to be around to help me out when I’m old and withered. In the back of my mind, I assume I’ll have my partner with me to navigate the world forever. But will he? I wonder if it’s still the case that women statistically outlive men. Pardon me while I go enclose my partner in bubble wrap.

Some days are like Christopher Columbus

Earlier on I mentioned living a life in foreign countries and feeling generally able to handle those particular sets of struggles. Well, a while back I was having a meal in a restaurant. Being that this is in Dubai, there was as much signage in English on the front window as there was in Arabic. The front of the restaurant was largely glass, as were the doors at the entrance. As I was eating, I saw a gentlemen in his sixties approach the restaurant. I don’t know where it all went wrong, but he walked straight into the glass door without slowing down. The wait-staff flew to the front of the restaurant to help him up off the pavement and into the building. I could hear him asking one of the waiters if this place was a restaurant, what kind of food they served and so on. They struggled through the conversation as the customer grew more flustered and confused, despite the waiter’s fairly good description of the place in English aided by a menu.

I don’t know if the man stayed to eat or how he made out in the end because I left, but that whole incident stuck in my mind like a splinter for some time. I thought about how many places around the world I’ve been (and hopefully will go) where it required a lot of mental flexing to work out what I was ordering in a restaurant or how much I was paying for something in a market. I don’t ever want that to change. I value whatever it is that I’ve learned along the way that makes these exchanges possible and, usually, not too difficult. Seeing that man struggle through the challenge of getting a meal makes me fear that as time passes, these kinds of exchanges will become harder and harder for me. It worries me further because I work in a field that requires me to live in countries where English is not the main language. Does this mean that as I age, and subsequently get more deeply stuck in my career, I’m going to find it harder to manage the everyday life that comes along with it?

My body can go, I’m really not bothered by that, but not my mind. I want to be that great auntie who wears scarves and too much lipstick, who can recite the words of her favourite poems, and fills a room with bellowing laughter at the end of a slightly saucy joke. Actually, I had great aunties just like that. And come to think of it, my vivid memories of them far outshine the frightening shadows of aging that I see. Until the end, they never seemed old to me.

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