my Ten Terrors of aging — what are yours?

I started this project with a hunch and some theories, and also with what I hoped was an open mind. I wanted my research to inform my thinking, not the other way around. A year later, with a 37 interviews and a lot of reading under my belt, I’m still navigating an immense territory. One thing did become clear: the book had to be more personal than originally envisioned. My voice, as I face my own fears about aging, needed to be a central part of the narrative.


The structure of the book was slower to reveal itself, but the same realization finally helped me crack it.  I’d spent many extremely unhappy weeks scattering notes and interviews across the metaphorical floor, scrutinizing them for themes and patterns, and sweeping them glumly into a heap at the end of the day.  Then I encountered a list I’d compiled of my deepest, dark-of-night fears: the Ten Terrors of Aging. So bleak and close to the bone, at the time the list felt like an exercise in black humor, almost a goof. This time around, with a little help from a friend, eureka! Along with an introduction and conclusion, the book will consist of ten chapters that describe how work in late life can dispel, mitigate, or inform these fears.   


What are my ten terrors?
• I’ll be poor
• I’ll be alone
• I’m a prisoner of my past
• I’ll lose my marbles
• I’ll be depressed
• I’ll be invisible
• I’ll be useless
• I’ll be immobilized
• I’ll be powerless
• I’m going to die


Obviously no stack of W-2s can stave off the grim reaper. Older workers must cope with reduced energy and opportunity. They have to cede authority to the next generation, as Burson-Marsteller Chairman Emeritus Harold Burson describes at the end of his profile, and acknowledge physical limitations, like choreographer Gemze de Lappe. But, as I’ll describe chapter by chapter, work is a tonic or downright cure for many of the terrors.  It’s not the only antidote by any means, but it’s one that I hope will work for me.  What about you?  What are your Ten Terrors?  (No points for Magma, Oculous, Gekkor, Serpentina, Itassis, Sculpin, Megahorn, Black Lance, Hekatoid, and Matoomba.)

5 thoughts on “my Ten Terrors of aging — what are yours?

  1. wow, the pattern emerges! The 10 Terrors is a fantastic approach. Suddenly, I NEED to read further. In addition to this blog, I was wondering if you’re using any software/technology to help organize/guide/synthesize all the raw material you’ve collected? I’m talking this week with a couple friends about DevonThink and Scrivener and was naturally thinking of you and Bob…

  2. Here’s some more fears:
    I’ll be unattractive. (but maybe “invisible” is worse)
    I’ll be a burden. (beyond “useless”)

    Funny how many of these fears are the ones I have about having kids!

  3. Amazing to consider where you stand in your life, Ashton — thanks for sharing — and to compare that to strikingly similar conversations with my own parents… who in turn have watched (with some healthy dose of terror, comedy, and patience) their parents growing old. I think my older relatives that have maintained active lives and never really stopped for retirement are the better for it… incredibly enough. Speaking of lists, where does a “bucket list” belong in your book? Or is it more about the focus on work and not play?

  4. Hi, Ashton, I also appreciate your thoughts on aging. When do we start to think about aging? Not much in your thirties … in your forties? I’m not sure. However, in my case, I’m already thinking about aging because of Mort, who has already past three-quarters of a century – do the math 🙂
    He seems to be less afraid than I am; he complains that he is falling apart, but keeps going.
    I used to be afraid of being alone, and more than anything of dying along… I think the only way we have to deal with that future is by making the best with what we have now; “creating in the moment the good memories we will have in the future.”

    On Saturday I went to a party, which actually supposed to be a funeral … the diseased was about 50 and one of his wishes was to have a celebration party more than a mourning party. I think it worked well. He didn’t have enough time to age, though he had to go through many of the physical aggravations involved in aging, all squeezed in a period of three years. More than one-hundred people showed up. He didn’t have a fancy life; just a hard working father, fan of rock of the 70s, and cats.

    I’ll share your fear of being prisoners of our pasts … but think that right now, you are creating past! We can’t “edit” our pasts, but we can add some good stuff to it! And sometimes, with the wisdom that aging brings (and some decades of therapy – jejeje), we can even change the interpretation of our past!!!

    Fear to die: I share this fear; I think that, maybe it’s not that much the fear of dying but the scary awareness of a future in which I won’t be part of, a future in which, for example, a non-believer (a.k.a. atheist) becomes the president of the US; or the Israel-Palestine thing gets resolved; or the sea-level rises 5 feet ….

    This winter I had a student that worked in nursery home; she is a real advocate for the elder; she thinks that we are not doing enough to prepare the next generation of older people; specially given that we are improving or prolonging our “useful” time. She brought to the museum 5 of the ladies she works with; I had the chance to tour them throughout the museum: it was a great experience.

    Anyway, I’m talking too much. Looking forward to read more of your thoughts on aging.

  5. 1.     Be poor,  If you are not poor now you won’t be poor later IF you avail yourself of a good financial planner. Our lawyer and broker work together. Things look dismal now but I am confident they will improve.  But do have a financial plan and most importantly ASSIGN FINANCIAL POWER OF ATTORNEY NOW.

    2.     Be alone.  You have family and friends now and you will have many of them  at the end.  However we came to  this CCRC (Continuing Care Retirement Community) because a), we did not want to be a burden on our children and b) so we would have friends close at hand.  We were impressed that Granny Brinton had an old maid adopt her and visit her in the nursing wing every nite before or after dinner.  The intermediate and full nursing care units are generally attached to the Main Center where dining rooms, meeting rooms, library and mail boxes are so that access to ailing friends is easy.

    3.     Be a prisoner of the Past.  Not sure what that means for my past has been pretty good, wonderful parents, husband and children, friends an opportunities. Perhaps I have not made the most of all opportunities, but on the whole I think I have been fortunate in nudgers and critics( when we saw you and I confessed then hardest task I have is to forgive.  You all chastised me and so I have made a list  and am thinking how to do this forgiving thing.  Some of them undoubtedly  are unaware that I want to forgive them??) So make a list of the positives, eliminate the negatives from your thinking somehow and MOVE ON.  Life is too short to spend any time regretting.

    4.     I’ll lose my marbles.  Alzheimers or senile dementia is a possibility for us all but exercising body and mind is supposed to help prevent this.  It is the saddest way aging can affect one.

    5.     I’ll be depressed. If you are not subject to depression now you should not think of that as an affliction of age.  Actually then powerless and immobilized are all variant s of your concern for age related health problems.

    6.     Immobilized temporarily  Ted was for about 5 months after skiing accident when he was 80. Computers, e mail and motorized wheelchair kept him connected. Permanent immobilization? Continue the Life of the mind, stay connected with friends and internet etc.

    7.     Fear of not being relevant.  Most important ,  STAY ENGAGED with those institutions, organizations, activities in which you are engaged NOW.  Read, listen to good news NPR, You will be surprised if you stay with it and stay up to date you will be respected for all the accumulated wisdom and knowledge you have acquired over the years. You do have to be modest, be able to truly hear what other people say) I mean good listening is a necessary skill at all stages but most important as you age.  You will never know It all so  listening is necessary.

    8.     POWERLESS  Physically and mentally  I would hope that I could stop eating and die.  Unfortunately  there is no right to die recognized in our society.   if your quality of life is zero why stay alive??

    Most important
    Make out medical directive now and discuss with family so you all are on the same page. Ie No feeding tubes,  no intubulation (I think that means keeping your lungs going artificially, what is it you actually want to happen.

    9. Fear of dying    Nobody wants to give up living. However todays medicine has so many ways of prolonging life that the most common problem is being allowed to die.!! My fear is that I will not behave well, rant and scream etc.  I’d really like to be dignified in death. Hard to do with tubes everywhere, for this and that, unpleasant smells. Body deteriorating. Still I am to try be graceful at the end.

    10 Beyond death.  I don’t believe in hell or heaven.  I don’t believe and the angels and all the saints will welcome me into never never land. I do believe in the world of the spirit.  I  am comforted by the Lords Prayer. I LIKE GREEN PASTURES AND STILL WATERS. Surely goodness and mercy have been with me now and will be in death.  I don’t believe in a GOD  I believe in the Ocean of Light that can overcome the ocean of darkness.AND HERE ARE TWO POEMS THAT HELP ME    

    Wendell  Berry’s The Larger Circle

    We clasp the hands of those who go before us,
    And the hands of those who came after us.

    We enter the little circle of each other’s arms
    And the larger circle of lovers
    Whose hands are joined in a dance.

    And the larger circle of all creatures.
    Passing in and out of life,
    Who move also in a dance,

    To a music so subtle and vast that
    No one hears it
    Except in fragments.


    There is a Spirit      by Kenneth Boulding

    Can  I, imprisoned, body bound, touch
    The starry garment of the Oversoul,
    Reach from my tiny part to the great whole.
    And spread my Little to the Infinite Much
    When Truth forever slips from out my clutch,
    And what I take indeed, I do by dole
    In cupfuls from a rimless ocean bowl
    That holds a million million such?

    And Yet, some Thing that moves among the stars.
    And hold the cosmos in a web of law,
    Moves too in me:  a hunger, a quick thaw
    Of soul that liquifies the ancient bars,
    As I, a member of creation, sing
    The burning oneness binding everything.

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