Grits and Purls

Spinning yarns about the grit of life

“Orthotic” is an ugly word. It brings to my mind an old woman in tan support stockings and thick black shoes trudging uphill pushing a collapsible metal shopping cart.

I started thinking about the word “orthotic” and the picture it conjures when, in one week, I received a brace for my right knee and two prescriptions: one for custom arch supports and the other for bifocals. Such is the fate of the aging forty-something.

Then I wondered, “Why does my mind draw such a horrid picture of aging?”

Much of what I read about aging is negative. Indeed the changes in our bodies are undeniable: the lenses of our eyes become less flexible and more opaque with the passing years, leading to bifocals and night blindness. There are changes in our hearts and in our brains and changes in our bones that make us a little more susceptible to damage and a little less able to heal quickly.

Pharmaceutical companies play on our fears of age by marketing any number of drugs to counter the side effects of living. Cosmetic companies and drug companies are collaborating to create new lines of pharmaco-cosmetics, hoping to capitalize on our fear of looking old. Plastic surgery is no longer plastic surgery, it’s aesthetic surgery, and nonsurgical medical spas are popping up to help alleviate or reverse the outward signs of aging.

What if, instead of trying to eliminate the side effects of aging with skin peels, we embraced and celebrated aging? Paula Schutt at The Gathering Place in Milton has said that she sees true beauty in the elder face—each line telling its own story of that person’s experience. “Beauty in youth is an accident,” she says, “beauty in age is a work of art”.

The life experiences of the elderly are a huge resource for younger people. They have lived long lives, and they have patience and compassion that youth has not yet developed. They have also experienced loss and lived through it. They know how to grieve and how to let that grief walk alongside them, informing their life and their interactions with others. We can learn a lot from them.

Yet from pulpit and platform politicians bemoan the state of Medicare and Social Security, sounding the drum beat of doom for an aging population. “The baby boomers are coming of age.” They alarm as if aging baby boomers are a natural disaster.

“Aging baby boomers? Great!” I say.

The generation that changed the world with flower power, equality for women and “give a hoot, don’t pollute” now has a chance to change the way we view aging. They have the chance to connect with the younger generations, tell their stories and share their collective wisdom. They have a chance to interact with young leaders and help them avoid the mistakes of the previous generations.

The baby boomers are in the enviable position of being able to produce the biggest societal change of their lives: making old age something that our society anticipates, reveres and respects.

I probably won’t write Ode to My New Orthotics anytime soon, but I can change the picture of aging that “orthotic” conjures:

As she pushes the metal shopping cart, the shuffle of her feet counters the off-beat percussion of the cart wheels clack-clacking over cracks in the sidewalk. A three-against-two rhythm running underneath the melodies etched into her face. Some are deep and slow; one or two blare a rapid staccato, and others are gentle laughter-like airs. All of them are now intertwined, mixing their motifs in harmony and dissonance in her unique opus. She is old, and her music is beautiful.

© 2008,2009 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

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