“Such a shame,” murmurs a friend in her eighties. “Why should I be so nervous?” She always thought she would be more willing to take risks at this point in her life. “What do I have to lose?” she adds wryly. “Yet I find myself so bloody cautious.”
This is a woman who has crossed an ocean, raised children, suffered soul-tearing grief. Her mind is exceptionally fine, polished to a gloss by years of reading good literature and engaging in her British tradition of fiery political debate. She still takes more risks than most, charming Uber drivers as she pops up at all sorts of lectures and occasions. But she is disgusted by her own change in attitude.
I adore her for that. Most people reach her stage and, instead of thinking themselves extra-cautious, declare the rest of us foolhardy. Her words gnaw at me, though: For years, I have made and remade a private vow to not let fear take over, to not let my world shrink from oak to acorn. I watched my mother—athletic, often mischievous, always more social than her daughter—begin choosing to just stay home. Small inconveniences loomed as catastrophic. Danger was everywhere (which it is, of course, but that had never before paralyzed her). She felt less and less able to navigate the world, and that made the future terrifying, and the anxiety spilled over into computer snags, power outages, you name it.
It seemed far too bitter an irony to waste one’s last years worrying about the future. I wanted her to have fun, to go to restaurants, make friends with the lady across the street, hang out at the library and chat. My biggest worry was that she was bored. She loved to knit, so I kept asking her to knit scarves for friends, hoping to give her a sense of purpose and keep her fingers from aching. She knitted them beautifully, but always in the same pattern, the same type of yarn, the same few pastels. I was so bored for her that I ordered some salmon-colored silk yarn, gorgeous and quite pricey. It arrived in a snarl that took us hours to untangle, her patience far exceeding mine. As she wrapped the last few inches she said, “You really like this silk stuff, huh?”
So selfish, my thoughtfulness. So frightened and selfish, because if I had to follow in her footsteps (and one does), I was sure I would lose my mind. Looking back through old emails, I find her forwarding a warning about carjackings and me solemnly promising, “If eggs are thrown at me i will not use the wipers.” Another email warns, “Do keep the laser printer covered when you are not using it.” This, from a woman who once risked arrest for indecent exposure by impatiently pulling off her top while painting, early on an August morning, an exterior door?
She is gone now, the angst dissolved, and I continue to learn more than I ever wanted to know about old age. The fear, the reluctance to venture forth, the poky pace and dug-in stubbornness, the fascination with one’s litany of medical diagnoses. I watched my mother and now my mother-in-law fall into the very patterns they, tomboys both, used to rail against. And I am beginning to see how it happens.
When we are young, we talk with greatest feeling about our dreams for the future. Then our love life. Then our children, our partner, our work. Then our grandkids, our favorite causes, and our dreams for retirement. Each of these ventures requires, at the outset, courage. We are entering unknown territory, and when we announce our route, we are hoping for confirmation, maybe even a little advice or encouragement. It is an adventure to shape a life, raise a child, give oneself back to the world.
Well, the adventure of old age is staying alive just a little bit longer, and the great battle is with one’s own mind and body. Old people are fighting nonstop, even as they sit in sunrooms or knit with seeming contentment. Senses dull, body parts rust, friends die. That chronicle of symptoms is a bulletin from the front.
Watching my mother-in-law, I realize that she is beset by unknowns at every moment. Walking down the hall is like walking on black ice in stilettos. Making decisions is like trying to navigate ground transportation when you have just landed from a twelve-hour flight and do not speak the language. When you have to fight hard just to stay put, engaging with the world requires tremendous tenacity—not to mention a wry sense of humor and a great deal of help.
Habits become rigid not because the soul is calcifying, but because predictability makes them easier to remember. Once the queen of bohemian freedom, I now take my Zyrtec right after I brush my teeth, because if on a whim, I pop the pill before brushing my teeth—or even, if I am feeling daring, after coffee—then I will gnaw on my knuckles an hour later trying to remember if I took the pill at all, and only convulsive sneezes will clue me in. Given a free trip to Monaco and told the queen was waiting to greet me, I would no doubt blurt, “Wait! I have to take my Zyrtec!” This is not who I wanted to be.
One of William James’s insights was that we do not feel an emotion and then suffer its physical consequences. The sensations come first: Our heartbeat quickens, and we then categorize what our body is feeling as “fear.” Which makes me wonder whether, because older people often have weaker hearts and less flexible lungs, they breathe more shallowly and experience more erratic heart rhythms, and this makes them feel even more shaky and vulnerable, thus more anxious. This may be a stretch; changes in biochemistry are a more likely explanation. But could there be an exacerbation? As our bodies lose strength and pliability, they encase us like iron corsets. There are daily losses of nonchalance or ease, eroding so subtly, it would seem trifling even to mark them—and so, we forget to grieve.
Still, many of our limits are freely chosen. I ask Dr. Todd Braver, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University, why on earth we stop taking risks just when we have the experience to make wise choices. He reminds me to think about how we make decisions, the entire framework. What goes on when you weigh costs and benefits? You have to imagine and estimate the likelihood of each possible outcome.
“Avoiding risk seems like an emotional decision—the risks seem scary, and there is a safer option, and you value safety more,” Braver says. “But the other part of decision-making is cognitive. You have to be able to ascertain the pros and cons, predict possible outcomes and their probability, estimate the value of each outcome, and hold multiple options in your mind to compare them. If you decide to stay home, we might assume you’ve overestimated the odds of something bad happening. But it could also be the cognitive part: You have a harder time holding all the options in your mind, or you get distracted.” In which case, the easiest and most familiar option will win.
I nod, thinking of the times my mother-in-law waves a hand, telling me to decide for her. Invariably, I try again, elaborately describing all her choices, missing the point entirely. “Because for us, a decision like that would be an emotional one, we forget about the cognitive piece,” Braver explains. If I avoid something, it is because I am scared or cautious. But how would I choose if I could not even weigh the possible outcomes because they kept flopping off the scale like slippery, wriggling fish?
When my mom came to live with us, I gave her choices relentlessly, suggesting different foods she might like, different flavors… Finally, my husband took me aside: “Babe, you’re the one who craves variety. I think your mom likes eating the same thing every day.”
The other point Braver brings up is motivation. You need it, to try something new. “What if the brain circuitry that transmits that signal is not as well connected anymore? Motivational signals are conveyed by the dopamine system, and the dopamine system degrades with age. (Also with depression, which makes me wonder if this is another possible reason we are more likely to suffer depression when we are older.) Without those motivation signals firing strong, it is easier to drift into a more pleasant past or fret about the future than to take action in the present. Easier to stay in the familiar place and eat the familiar food when the rest of life has become so inordinately difficult.
John Cougar Mellencamp summed it up: “This getting older, it ain’t for cowards.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.