Gero-Punk Contemplation: Inviting our future older selves for a visit

Would you like to invite your future older self for a visit? Here are some questions to contemplate:

When you attempt to visualize your older self, who and what do you see?

  • How much older are you than you are now?
  • How far into deep old age are you able to travel in your imagination?
  • When you try to imagine your future older self, how do you feel? What sensations do experience in your body? (and where are the sensations located?)
  • When you imagine your future older self, where are you? What are your surroundings? Where do you live?
  • What are your hopes for your future older self (and what are your fears)?
  • How will you live fully in your older body, in whatever state your older body happens to be?
  • What are some ways in which you can experience enjoyment, freedom, and passion…in your aging body?
  • Who are your co-creatures in later life?       With whom do you spend time and enjoy life?
  • What is the quality of mind — the form of consciousness — that you bring to your aging experience? To being an old person?
  • What do you see as your purpose in your later years?
  • What new things is your future older self learning and experiencing?
  • What does your future older self consider to be a “good day”?
  • What changes in your thinking and acting do you need to make in your current life in order to have the embodied old age you envisage?
  • What does your future older self want to tell your present self?
  • If you invited your future older self over for a cup of tea or a glass of wine, what would you like to ask him or her?

This is what my future older self tells me every time she comes for a visit: Embrace your aging journey, wherever it may take you!

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Gero-Punk Invitation: Our Future Older Selves

cartoon jenny

At least twenty years ago, I began to cultivate an intentional relationship with my future older self.

I invited my future older self to visit me whenever I felt like it.

The first time I met future me was during a process of guided visualization and contemplation, and I was stunned by the solidity and clarity with which my future older self materialized in my mind’s eye. I recognized my embodied old self — there was no mistaking me!

Though I recognized myself, I must admit to being quite surprised by and curious about certain elements of my imagined later life, and especially tickled to discover that my future older self quite likes herself and her life as an old woman.

Over the years, as my future older self has continued to make appearances in my dreaming (both at night and during the day, while asleep and awake, invited and not), I’ve made it a practice to attend to what changes and what abides in the time-travel story I’m living.

Perhaps you’d like to catch a glimpse of my future older self? Here’s but one version of my future older self:

I am preparing to go out and about – perhaps to dine with friends, or to go to a meeting, or maybe I am given a book reading or presentation. Standing as close as I can get to the large oval mirror in the front hallway of my beach house, I’m carefully applying deep red lipstick and checking my eyeliner. My hair is bobbed and shiny silver; I run a brush through it to smooth the top layer and wonder to myself if I should wear one of my many cool hats. After I make certain my make-up is just right, I slip my thick glasses back on and step away from the mirror so I can take in as much of my image as I can. I’m wearing a black skirt and boots, dark purple sweater set, and a chunky silver necklace. I look sharp! Now at the beginning of my 9th decade, I’m a couple of inches shorter than I was in my middle years; as have other women in my family, I’ve grown smaller and shorter as I’ve grown older. Though I have some arthritis in my knees, hips and shoulders, my back is straight; I’ve always had pretty good posture and because I’ve continued to exercise throughout my life course – walking, yoga, and occasional kayaking have replaced running, cycling, and rock climbing in the past couple of decades – I can still get around pretty well on my own two feet. My vision has continued to grow worse over the years, though, so to someone observing me as I amble along I may seem a bit tentative, even clumsy sometimes. But I’ve been running into doors, tripping over sidewalk cracks, and holding the railings when I walk up and down stairs since I was in my early 40s, so what’s new? My hearing has also been growing worse, and now I must wear hearing aids if I want to be able to participate as fully as I can in conversations, or to enjoy a presentation, movie or concert. I am excited by my many projects – research, writing, and community organizing, as well as cooking and gardening. I don’t have many resources, just barely enough to make my daily life work out okay and still be able to save some resources for the time when I might need in-home caregiving or perhaps must give up living independently in order to live in a communal setting. I also have a little bit of money put aside so that I can visit my daughter and her family, or invite them to join me on a family trip every couple of years. I continue to be excited by the discoveries I’m making about the human journey, specifically about later life, old age, and being an old woman. Despite decades of working in the field of gerontology, thinking and writing about adult development and aging, hanging out with old people, and contemplating my own aging, I am totally stunned and surprised by what it is like, now that I’ve arrived in this land of old age. It turns out that what a couple of old persons told me when I was a younger gerontologist is true: you can’t really know what it is like to be old until you are old, and despite the “feast of losses” most of us experience as we travel into the later reaches of the life course, there are experiences I’ve had as an old woman, things I’ve thought, feelings I’ve felt, ways I’ve become more me that would have been impossible had I not made it this far in my life journey.

Would you like to invite your future older self for a visit?

If you are living in or around the Portland, Oregon area, please join me at the first Gero-punk Salon of 2015, on Thursday, January 8th. We’ll be meeting from 6-8 p.m. in the Flavia Salon on the Marylhurst Campus. We’ll be engaging in contemplation, discussion and serious play around the theme of “envisioning our future older selves.” Feel free to contact me for more information: jsasser@marylhurst.edu

Let’s celebrate – gero-punk style! — the gift of a new year to explore our travels through the life course.

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Gero-Punk Review: Sometimes we have to talk about unpleasant things

A few months ago it was suggested to me that I read the memoir Can’t we talk about something more pleasant? by cartoonist and writer Roz Chast. Because the person who recommended this book, Erica, happens to be my best friend, close colleague and a contributor to this blog, I immediately placed a hold on one of the copies at my public library. Apparently other library patrons had been turned on to this new book by their best friends, as my place in the holds line-up was almost as close to the end of the line as possible. In the meantime, my interest piqued as I learned a bit more about the book from Erica as she read it (and, it turns out, re-read it), as well as from reading a couple of reviews.

I couldn’t be sure until I experienced Chast’s graphic memoir for myself, but it sounded like it might have something to tell me about extreme old age, family caregiving relationships, impermanence and frailty. I was excited by the prospects of discovering a new creative source that I or Erica might use in our teaching as educational gerontologists; we are both committed to using interdisciplinary sources and materials that come from multiples fields and represent diverse lived experiences. As well, I was excited because I really dig graphic novels, journalism, non-fiction and memoirs…you name it, as this hybrid genre (words and images in cartoon format) opens up space for the reader to engage with complex human experience and reality in ways that are powerful and fresh and de-centering, even surprisingly radicalizing. (Have you read Habibi? Have you read Days of destruction, days of revolt? Have you read Palestine? Have you read Persepolis? You have read Maus, right? Then you know what I mean.)

Not so incidentally, it may interest you to know that I’ve had a long-term connection to Roz Chast’s cartoons. Her work has been published in the New Yorker for many years and I’ve been a committed reader of said publication since my early twenties. In the late 1990s my co-author Janet Lee and I asked for and were granted copyright permission to include one of Chast’s cartoons in our text Blood stories: Menarche and the politics of the female body in contemporary U.S. society (published by Routledge in 1996). Yeah, I agree, the title of our book was way overwrought but it was a complex, interdisciplinary and important project (and we were very excited!). We invited women (including and especially older women) to speak about their embodied experiences traveling through the life course, in particular regarding their menstrual and menopausal experiences, in a way that was uncommon at that time. If only I could draw, I’d have turned it into a graphic qualitative research report.

Any way, in case your desire to know is burning, the Chast cartoon we included in our book depicts two women who are rock climbing. One of the women hands her climbing companion a tampon. Her climbing companion responds with something like, “Thanks, but I said pass the crampon.” To get why this is cartoon is funny you either have to 1) be a woman rock climber (which I have been); 2) be a woman who always carries menstrual supplies just in case (which I have been but perhaps won’t be in the near future…I just turned 48); and/or 3) buy a copy of our book, which I am proud of even if the writing and title tend to over-wroughtness (If you can find our book It is out of print but still available through the usual channels.).

For the past few years I have been asking for different kinds of graphic literature — novels, memoirs, journalism and other literary genres in comics form – as gifts for Christmas and my birthday. On my list for this year was Chast’s book, as I was tired of waiting for my name to come up on the library holds que and I had a feeling that it was a book I’d want to keep, not just borrow. I’m happy to report that Santa Claus via my mom granted my wish in this case! So one recent night I did something I haven’t done for longer than I can remember: I stayed up past my bedtime so I could read Can’t we talk about something more pleasant from cover to cover without interruption.

The unpleasant things to which the title intimates serve as strong themes depicted throughout the memoir in words, cartoon images, photographs, and even a couple of poems (written by Chast’s mom after she was hospitalized). These themes — frailty, illness, dependence, and death — were taboo subjects for Chast’s Jewish immigrant parents who were married for almost 50 years and died in their mid-90s. “It was against my parents’ principles to talk about death,” she tells us, because they’d survived so much: “Between their one-bad-thing-after-another lives and the Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust, in which they’d both lost family – it was amazing they weren’t crazier than they were” (p. 6). As Chast characterizes them, her parents George and Elizabeth were an insular, strange, mutually dependent pair—he was highly neurotic and passive, she fierce and domineering. You get the sense that as their only surviving child, Chast has always felt outside of their relationship, alienated and alien, while also wishing for distance and autonomy. At the same time she strongly identified with and was protective of her father, considering the pair of them to be the victims of Elizabeth’s considerable emotional aggression, which barely diminished until the very end of her life. Let’s just say that they all had incredibly fraught relationships.

At a certain point, and pretty late in the game, Chast realized that an explicit discussion of these potent issues could no longer be avoided or deferred, as much as she, too, would have liked to do so. This realization is precipitated by a visit to see her parents, after having not visited them at their apartment in Brooklyn for eleven years. She is stunned by not only the physical conditions in which her parents are living – the “grime” — but also by their poor health and functioning in their extreme old age; they were both in their early 90s at the time of the visit. George seems to have the signs of worsening dementia and Elizabeth begins to experience a series of falls and serious health crises for which she’s loath to seek medical help. Their decades of strange interdependence play out in odd and even dangerous ways, culminating in Chast having to assume responsibility for their finances, medical decision making and, ultimately, where they are going to live out their final years.

Throughout the memoir, frame-by-frame, we watch as Chast struggles with complex, contradicatory feelings – resentment and aversion, responsibility and worry. Through tears of laughter and sympathy I found myself admiring her honesty about the extent to which she’d do anything to avoid having to be the one to help her “crazy” parents as they transition into and through the very difficult last couple of years of their lives. Chast navigated hospitalizations, medical interventions, assisted living placements, end-of-life planning, and long-term care financing (fortunately her parents had pensions and “scrimpings” they’d saved which she used to pay for their care). Elder care decisions are difficult enough to make in times of crises and on behalf of others, but even more so in the context of unresolved family conflict and intergenerational trauma, as was the case for Chast and her parents.

What makes what Chast is doing in this graphic memoir memoir and not just a tragic retelling of her parents’ declines and deaths in extreme old age is the skillful and provocative way she employs her experiences helping her parents in their final years as an opportunity to do some deep processing of her experiences as their daughter, not only in their later years but throughout their life course travels together. This isn’t actually a story about aging, old age, and later life, nor is it a story about the stress and burden of family caregiving in the context of problematic relationships, though these profoundly human experiences are at the center of Chast’s narrative (and be prepared—there’s no obvious joy or redemption or forgiveness or hidden gifts in this story).

It seems to me what is really going on is that Chast is trying to understand something important about herself, who she’s been (and how being the daughter of her parents has strongly shaped who she’s been) and, perhaps, who she’s still to become, though maybe this interpretation is wishful thinking on my part, as there isn’t much evidence of her self-reflection on behalf of how she might want to approach things like the inevitability of her own future frailty and death. There are a couple of incidental mentions of how she’s approached being a parent in a way that is intentionally different than how George and Elizabeth parented her, but I want to know more. I want to know more about the family she’s created with her husband. I want to ask her questions about the extent to which her work as a cartoonist and writer has helped her get some perspective on what sounds like a pretty intense family heritage to be a part of. I want to ask her if there was anything that surprised her about her time with her parents in their final years, any sweetness to temper their incredibly fraught relationships. I want to ask her if she had thought about the way that some of her depictions of her parents’ extreme aging experiences potentially verge on the stereotypical.

I am left with so many questions and while this might not have been Chast’s intended outcome for her readers, to my way of thinking it is a powerful outcome, a gift. Thank you, Roz Chast, for the gift of being left with so many questions after experiencing your awesome graphic memoir which is, profoundly, a story about being a human in all our beautiful messiness.

Chast, Roz. (2014). Can’t we talk about something more pleasant? A Memoir. New York: Bloomsbury USA.

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