Schmich shares her thoughts on aging
Celebrated columnist touches on impact of her mother's journey during visit last week
Last updated 8/15/2019 at 1:24pm
"It's not about staying young. It's about acknowledging what is truly happening to you."
That was among the insights Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich shared with about 250 audience members during a talk at The Community House May 1, co-sponsored by King-Bruwaert House. Among the topics she covered was what it means to age and how to redefine that latter stage of life, drawing on her own experience watching and walking with her mother in her final years.
Schmich chronicled that period in a series of columns, which had widespread resonance among readers.
"It wasn't just me writing about my mother. It was me writing about an experience that many of us have shared or will share," Schmich told listeners.
The columns were compiled in a book entitled, "Even the Terrible Things Seem Beautiful to Me Now." Those words were spoken by her mother, who Schmich noted had endured many hardships, about a year before her death.
"I thought, 'I'm going to remember that!' " she quipped, eliciting chuckles.
"I am aware in a way that I wasn't, even 10 years ago, of all the diminishing ways that we talk, write and think about aging," she replied, expressing her objection to using "elderly" to describe a person. "Give an age! Don't say, 'An elderly man was killed by a car ...' How old was he?"
She cited the quote by author and activist Ashton Applewhite that "ageism is the last socially sanctioned prejudice." In a follow-up email, Schmich amplified her remarks.
"We need to examine our internalized bias against aging - against our own aging and the aging of others. Are we always trying to 'correct' or hide our age or our aging process?" Schmich posed. "Look at the way we talk. Do we talk dismissively of 'old people,' even if we'd resent being talked about that way?"
Trying to measure one's value by the standards of bygone youth is "madness," she opined.
"That's not to say we shouldn't try to stay healthy and fit - of course we should - but, in general, a 65-year-old body ain't gonna be a 25-year-old body. Get used to it," Schmich stated. "And get used to the fact that getting old, approaching death, inevitably comes with worry and fear," she said.
Although she doesn't journal often, Schmich believes that her columns were cathartic for her by processing her mother's "waning through storytelling." Those caring for or mourning a parent should seek a healthy outlet for their emotions, she counseled, as should those struggling with aging's effects.
"I think finding some form of creative expression can be very helpful in processing the loss of a parent, or your own aging, whether it's writing, drawing, playing an instrument. I did all of those a lot while my mother was dying and after her death. They were a great release and a form of contemplation. Moving is good too. Walk. Do yoga. Breathe. Go be with the trees. Those are the best physical and mental antidotes to anxiety over aging I know," she said.
Aging is a journey no one will avoid, and the best way to approach it is with acceptance and appreciation for each step's joys and lessons.
"I think the key is to find the balance between acknowledging what is - age happens, death comes - and finding the ways - creative expression, caring relationships, moving as much as your body allows - that let our hearts stay open to the world and to ourselves," Schmich submitted. "Age isn't just an attitude. But an open attitude helps."