Recently I read a brief story about California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a recent target of loud complaints about “cognitive decline” due to her advanced age of 88. Feinstein equally loudly and vehemently disputes the claims, arguing that she is doing just fine. Alongside the article I pondered the decidedly unflattering photo, her incensed expression seemed to say “says who?!” Granted it is certainly hard to measure mental competence from the inside. (In AA they say “You can’t fix your broken tool with your broken tool,” and I suppose the same can be said, at least to some extent, of self-assessment.)
Admittedly, I am not neutral about DiFi, as she is affectionately called by many. It was she in 1978 who, after blithely walking into his office, shockingly found the brutally murdered body of her friend and California’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk. Her courage, grace and heart in handling that trauma earned her my eternal positive regard. I suppose I forgive her (and even her billionaire husband,) rather a lot. But the article reminded me of the ever-present reality of age.
I remember my grandmother lamenting for years that “the golden age is not so golden.” She was born in 1887 and I was born in 1955. So, when I was born, she was 68, barely a year older than I am now. My entire life, she had white hair, she always seemed ancient to me. Her husband, my grandfather, had died before I was born, meaning she lived alone as a partnerless widow for virtually all of her middle to later years. Also, for me unimaginable. But I never thought much about age.
I remember my grandmother lamenting for years that “the golden age is not so golden.” She was born in 1887 and I was born in 1955.
An endurance athlete, and known in high school as “the fastest girl uphill,” probably also pretty deficient in proprioception (body awareness), I had denial, even hubris, about the indomitability of the body. I could drink my quart of bourbon, get up in the morning and run 20 miles. I could ride the bike a hundred mountainous miles, only eating one banana all day. I never took care of my skin, preferring a “golden,” unprotected tan. My neglect was such that no one ever really knew where I was anyway, and it was only a matter of time before the feeling “I don’t matter” morphed into a rather wild freedom. My abandonment turned to abandon.
In UCSF geriatrician Louise Aronson’s 2019 book, Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, she makes the interesting point that we have traditionally made the distinction between two different life stages: childhood and adulthood. She proposes the additional stage of “Elderhood.” What is that? Well, let’s just say “I know it when I see it.” It is when the grandiosity of youth is challenged.
Elderhood is when it is suddenly no longer true that I am “never tired;” I may find myself straining to hear, and irritating other’s by saying, “what? what’s that?” so often that I am driven to get the hearing test that informs me I have “severe hearing loss,” and must insult my vanity with hearing aids; when the glare as I drive home is blinding; when my former “steel trap” is embarrassed by memory blips; when I opt to miss the Bruce Hornsby concert that I have been waiting for, because “I just don’t feel like going out.” Once impatient with others’ “organ recital,” I silently admit to my own aches and pains.
On the first post-COVID plane trip we took, I was struck by how helpful people were. Were they offering to carry my bag, because they were kind, or because I looked so weak and infirm that I needed a hand? Who is this person? No one warned me. My grandmother was “ancient” when she complained about the “golden age,”, and then, I was barely a kid. And tragically, many who spend years and decades working hard to emerge from a traumatic childhood, meet with grief when they find themselves already in elderhood, by the time they arrive in the present time.
Another important point that Aronson makes, is about the prejudice, the dishonor, and ostracization – certainly in western cultures – directed at the aged. Another epoch of neglect; invisible, sidelined, forgotten. Seniority with its wisdom and experience is devalued at best, if not warehoused and trashed. How much money and time are spent each year in attempts to erase or hide it? Admittedly I too look in the mirror, gag and try to figure out how to make it go away. Hair, teeth, skin, muscle tone, I’m not 19 anymore. Although I do enjoy the freedom from unwanted sexual attention; and menopause is indeed a blessing, the advantages of age are rarely acknowledged. I recall but one exception: a book I read many years ago: Elkhonon Goldberg’s The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older, published in 2005. In it, he describes that the aging brain acquires a “new” and heightened capacity for pattern recognition. It actually is quite noticeable to me in my work with couples, where recurring interactive cycles now more quickly come into focus.
Aronson describes her own experience as an accomplished M.D. in a relatively progressive medical setting, as one of discrimination, devaluation, and agism which appear to be ubiquitous in the professional medical world, and the tech world too. Part of her intent in proposing the new designation is to create not only a category but a valued and respected category for a growing minority that is rapidly approaching majority.
My neglect was such that no one ever really knew where I was anyway, and it was only a matter of time before the feeling “I don’t matter” morphed into a rather wild freedom. My abandonment, turned to abandon.
I remember a frequent commercial when I was a teenager, where the glamorous young model with gorgeous hair blowing on a slow-motion gentle breeze, is saying “as long as there is Lady Clairol I will never be gray!” I was definitely down with that. The advertising slogan was “does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” Both of our parents were salt and peppery by their early 50’s, and Mom was anything but vain. Sure enough as I crossed into my 50th year I started to spot a sprinkle or two. Oy vey. I did not spring for the Lady Clairol right away, but I certainly thought about it.
Here is my mysterious “wow” story. I am not telling you this to drum up business, and before I am accused of false advertising, I will emphasize that I am not promising it will happen to you. In fact I really have not read or heard of anyone else having the experience I had/have, and I also know it is unquestionably true. As they say, “it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
In 2009 I was first introduced to Neurofeedback at a conference. I was immediately gripped by it, and I could not wait to get trained and become a practitioner. In those days, the training was much harder to come by. The soonest I could get the first level training was nearly six months away, and in Connecticut. I came home to the Bay Area, to find an incredible poverty of practitioners, even worse than now, and it is still pretty sparse around here for some reason that I don’t understand. I found someone, an experienced if somewhat unconventional “older lady” an hour’s drive from me, in Palo Alto. I diligently attended sessions with her until my long-awaited trip to Hartford. My favorite protocol, which my therapist called “dessert” was the calming, eyes closed, alpha-theta protocol. She always saved it for the end of my session, and I begged for as much as I could get.
When I got trained and had my own equipment, I could practice on myself (as well as anyone else that would entrust me with their brain), and of course, I treated myself with ample helpings of dessert. By now, by the way, I was 55, and plucking gray hairs out of my head more regularly than I would care to admit, trying to tune out the siren call of Lady Clairol.
Distracted by my new passion, it was a while before I noticed. Since I had begun neurofeedback training, my gray hair mysteriously vanished. No I wasn’t losing hair (or marbles?) rather the gray stopped appearing, stopped growing until by attrition, it was all gone, never to return. Now at almost 68, all traces of gray hair have long since vanished, and I forgot completely about Lady Clairol, even as friends and family around my age were evolving their own relationships to their respective hoary heads. Go figure. Yes, I love neurofeedback. And I swear it is true! (“Only her Neurofeedback practitioner knows for sure…”)
Anyone who ever reads the acknowledgments of most any book, is familiar with the author’s often effusive gratitude to the various people who put up with their absence, preoccupation, cranky fatigue or moodiness, and often seeming inability to show consideration. Although I am not a mother, in my mind, writing a book is akin to a protracted gestation and labor, in my case decidedly more than nine months. In spite of myself, my husband, with his own prior and severe neglect history, was victimized again. I promise to do better with this next book!
The Pandemic hit when I had barely begun my most recent book, so I was pretty ungracefully adjusting/transitioning to working from home, and remotely: two things I never dreamed I would do, and had been outspokenly opposed to my whole career until then. An additional casualty of that time, admittedly was my progeny, the cheese. For about five years now, I have been a rather obsessive home cheesemaker, which can be a consuming “hobby.” In my case, it has been (usually) affectionately referred to as a diagnosis, although I insist it is also awesomely regulating and rewarding. So it is with horror and shame that I confess the degree of neglect that my little brood of cheeses suffered. Beside the initial making: mixing ingredients; allowing them to “ripen” and “set,” cooking and pressing, which take most of a day, there is perhaps the even more important process of affinage, meaning daily and weekly care: attending to the cleaning, washing with salt or other cultures, turning, and simple “checking in.” It is not enough to give birth, and turn a creature out into the world, as many the neglect survivor can attest, one has to care for and “raise” the child. Well, I perpetrated an extreme of neglect.
Please don’t misunderstand me! I do not, by any means intend to liken something as immeasurably valuable and vulnerable as a child, to a wheel of cheddar, but rather, the cheese was a teacher to me. When I had hit the send button on the manuscript and was truly able to survey the damage, the crumbliness, the proliferation and contagion of unwanted mold, some delicious, some pretty stinky, I was dismayed to see how my own self-concern and priority had left a little world of living growing beings to fend for themselves. And although age is desirable, for cheese, when not attended to, it might be unwieldy, fail to thrive and even die. I was overwhelmed by the wreckage.
Only a day at a time, could I begin the massive cleanup effort. Each day, I spent 15 minutes on one small corner of the task essentially of healing and trying to make for as gentle an advanced age as possible. The same is true for my own tattered and neglected self. The ways that I failed at self-care along the way: sleep and rest, skincare, teeth, eyes, forgiveness, balance, it is not too late to salvage the remaining years. Perhaps I cannot completely make up for my failures, but I can learn, and hopefully teach, so as to minimize the intergenerational transmission.
By the way, did you know that for $20.00 US per couple, where at least one partner is over 60, the US National Park Service offers a senior pass? Free admission to all the National Parks’ in the country for one year, rather than $10 per person (even pedestrians) per single visit. That checks a few boxes, as far as I am concerned, honoring age, self-care and regulation, and loving the natural world.
Today’s song (I love the Old Lady at the beginning, and the Little Girl at the end!)
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.