The Tension of Aging - by Susan Devan Harness


I feel old.

That’s what I told a friend of mine, who is 17 years my senior!  He gave me a wry smile.

The thing is, I knew it was going happen.  I’m all of 59, but aging has been on my mind a lot, especially when I think about my mom’s aging process.    

At some point in her seventies Mom became more frail, less mobile, but I didn’t assign a value to that.  She still walked to the library once a week, she still participated in deep and thoughtful conversations, and she still enjoyed seeing my sons, her grandsons, although conversation with them was more difficult; they were teenagers.  But I never considered her “old.”

Not like the elderly couple I saw one day as I drove to her apartment—the ones who shuffled across Mulberry Street where it intersects with Remington Street.  Their backs were bent and their gazes studying the pavement in front of them.  I could sense their worry that the drizzle of rain had made the road slippery.  It was clear from their pace, from their careful, tight gait, that their joints prevented them from walking faster. She held onto his elbow with such ferocity, probably knowing a fall would change her life forever.  

I glanced at the walk signal and watched while the little red hand, which had been white when they began this journey, flashed insistently, turning solid when they reached the half way point.  I studied the drivers of the cars, protected behind their windshields, and felt their tension of wanting the light to turn green and hoping the elderly couple would not impede their own journeys to whatever important places they had to go: meetings, coffee shops, classes, shopping.  

Then, like a rubber band snapping back into place, the tension released.  No sooner had the couple’s feet touched the sidewalk on the far side than engines revved and cars began to speed by, and I thought, “This is going to be me someday.  Some stranger, perhaps even my children, will be frustrated with the amount of time I take out of their afternoon.”

I realized then that the construction of our world makes it difficult to be old.  Our roads are too wide, the lights too short.  The cars are too fast, our free time too limited.  And although our days are long, our lives are too short to get everything accomplished that we set out to do when we were young. And we sit at lights and tap our steering wheels and think about what’s going to happen next and how exciting/stressful/expensive/difficult that will be, with very little thought about what’s happening right now.

So as I think about the elderly couple who carefully made their way down an uneven sidewalk, I pondered whether they were thinking that it would be nice to be able to cross a street and not be aware that they were somehow interrupting someone’s day.


Photo by Rick Harness   

Photo by Rick Harness


Susan Devan Harness, author of Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption, and Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption: Outcomes of the Indian Adoption Project (1958-1967) is a member of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes.  As a cultural anthropologist, a writer, and an aging person, she is interested in people and their histories.