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The Fear of Growing Old: Susanna’s Story

Sun, 7 Nov 2010 Source: Pryce, Daniel K.

Susanna is a pretty and petite 45-year-old mother of two boys. Standing at a little over 5 feet, she has a remarkably attractive figure for someone that short and diminutive. Before long, I would discover that Susanna’s daily regimen of running five miles both ways before leaving for work may be her secret to maintaining a taut body, firm biceps and triceps, and a washboard belly, despite the damage that two pregnancies may have done to her abdominal muscles a few years earlier. Lately, though, Susanna has begun to complain about her appearance, as if a voice inside her head is determined to permanently shatter her confidence by reminding her that middle age has taken a toll on her body – and that there was simply nothing she could do about it. Inevitably, though, all the pampering and grooming will no longer work for Susanna – time can never be unwound – which means that, with time, there will be fewer and fewer glances from the opposite sex – until the glances, like all fleeting indulgences, die a natural death.

Susanna’s remarkable and infectious smile may be her other secret to maintaining an attractive face, but as I looked at her closely the other day, I noticed – for the first time – those profoundly loathed, and fairly noticeable, wrinkles ensconced on the skin of her forehead, and between her eyes and cheekbones. And the facial creases were magnified when Susanna squinted, frowned or laughed. (Not surprisingly, some have argued that wrinkles portend superior intelligence, being more common in people with less melanoid characteristics, but that is a discussion for another day!)

I kept to myself what I had observed, for I could seriously strain my friendship with Susanna if I dared to tell her what I had noticed. The preceding is akin to when a woman seeking a man’s opinion about her weight – heavy, moderate or small – ends up with the “wrong” response from him. In the aforementioned situation, a man requires tact to escape with his life, and his answer must always be: “You are quite thin, dear!” Simply put, a man must never, ever tell a woman that she is fat!

The face, it is said, can give away a person’s age, because, as we get older, our facial bones become thinner and the skin loses some of its elasticity, a sort of double whammy for those who are deluded by the one-can-stay-young-forever mantra of businesses that peddle skin products! While some of those products may slow down the noticeable effects of aging, they eventually wear out their efficacy, leaving the superficial individual depressed in the long term. Interestingly, human nature is such that some are wont to believe a lie, rather than accept an incontrovertible fact: aging cannot be reversed – and every individual alive today would have to deal with the consequences of aging if he or she lived long enough.

A few days ago, I got a chance to see some of Susanna’s pictures when she was 18. I must confess that her innocent, smooth face in those portraits was as adorable as any famous model’s. Susanna was, indeed, the epitome of vivaciousness and good looks – but that was 27 years ago! Sadly, aging, like a daemon that feeds on, and drains the blood of, human beings, steals both vitality and appearance and eventually reduces a person to no more than an ordinary spectacle. Susanna is worried she is heading in that direction – but as a friend, I calmed her nerves and reminded her that she was at least 30 years away from becoming that ordinary spectacle! Whether my speech was of comfort to Susanna is debatable, because her response was both reticent and flat.

I still remember vividly when I was 18. I was in Upper Six at the time and no more than a beanpole. Extremely introverted, I usually avoided the opposite sex, more from fear of becoming tongue-tied than anything else. With thick curls of hair and a very low hairline, I was the Ghanaian version of a young Sylvester Stallone. 23 years later, my hairline has receded a bit; my hair is not as dense as it used to be, either. These are the irreversible signs of aging, and learning to accept the curse of nature is the first step to aging gracefully. At 5’8” and 150 pounds, I am a thin man, but I still yearn for those days when I was no more than 130 pounds – the good old days that may never return! For good reason, I am at peace with myself now, for the situation is what it is. Despondently, not even the most demanding and aggressive workouts can alter certain things about our bodies, once we reach 40, a sort of crossing the proverbial Rubicon. We should never quit trying to stay fit, however.

At 45, Susanna is truly very conscious of her figure, maintaining with great effort a waistline of 28 inches. Not bad for someone her age. Sadly, it is a different matter regarding her face – this is a universal problem, not just Susanna’s – where targeted exercises to tone the muscles are basically ineffectual. At least, Susanna has, through great effort, avoided the ubiquitous droops of triceps and the prevalent, pantomimic sways of the twin bulges in the rear that many in her age group can no longer tame. Those bulges sometimes simply revolt, ignoring all the pleas of their “neighbors” to stay in alignment! The preceding is not an indictment; I am simply stating the facts as we know them – as we all know them!

If Susanna and I should live long enough – say, thirty or more years from now – we both may eventually fall into the category of society’s unnoticed and, occasionally, derided. This fear is universal; this fear is Susanna’s; this fear is my fear. In a society where the young are quick to “dump” the old in nursing homes, retirement homes and hospices because of the avalanche of needs of the latter, that advanced stage of life is inescapable – unless we return to the Motherland before we lose ambulation, our senses and our independence. Even as we ramble like self-assured grizzlies or gallop like anxious gazelles through life, we ought to remember that there is a day of “reckoning,” when our pride will become more of a burden than an asset; when our strength would have waned so much, we will be forced to depend on others for the basic functions of life; when the windows to life will be shuttered; when the grinders will cease because of wear.

Now is the time to restore the fences that we have destroyed, make peace with those we have despised, apologize to those we have undermined, pacify those we have wounded, and correct the wrongs that we have done over the years. For there is a day ahead, when our vitality will fail, when we will be at the mercy of another, when our lives will remain no more than a reflection in the mirror, and when our deeds shall be subjective tales told behind our backs. How we are remembered tomorrow depends largely on what we do today. Susanna’s fear is my fear. Susanna’s fear is everyone’s fear. Susanna’s fear is the asphyxiating fear of growing old in a society that every so often despises the aged.

The writer, Daniel K. Pryce, holds a master’s degree in public administration from George Mason University, U.S.A. He is a member of the national honor society for public affairs and administration in the U.S.A. He can be reached at dpryce@cox.net.

Columnist: Pryce, Daniel K.