What “Growing Old Together” Means in the 21st Century

bride and groom walking together

Brian and I are by no means old yet. But at forty-five (him) and thirty-seven (me), with kids ranging from seven to sixteen, I can confidently say that we are Grown-Ups. By now we know what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we know enough to basically ignore the latter and just get on with it. I know, for sure, that the lessons that make us fundamentally better people are almost always very hard, and usually we have to learn them (the hard way) more than once. I know, for sure, that I will survive—and I don’t need to be defiant about it. My husband doesn’t have a single gray hair on his head, and I can give the treadmill a sound kick in the pants if need be. No, we are not old just yet, but we aren’t young either, and we certainly are no longer made of rubber, or memory foam, or some stuff that relentlessly springs back into place. And we aren’t getting any younger.

In fact, my birthday is coming soon, and this year, for the first time ever, I’m not just feeling better/wiser/smarter. I feel some of that, but I also feel older. Something our society values is running through my fingers and I can’t hold onto it without being pathetic, but I also can’t just accept it either without feeling diminished somehow as a woman. And why can’t I just give America’s youth-worshipping, photoshopped, plumped, pumped, and celebrity-styled popular culture a giant middle finger and get on with it? Because culture is deep, man. And two of my aforementioned weaknesses are Vanity and Insecurity and that toxic double helix seems to be wrapped around the silvery strands of my DNA.

“Growing Old Together” has such a beautiful ring to it, and I so want to live out my entire journey with Brian. Somehow that phrase makes me imagine intimate fall afternoons on porch swings, holding hands with a hard-earned sense of easy companionship. My visions of growing old together look a lot like a travel magazine. I have dreams of the cobblestone streets we will meander together, the wonders we will behold, the hobbies we will take up. We promise our (horrified) children that we will still be having (wild!) sex many times a week long after they have moved out, and I can’t help but believe it!

But the romance of “Growing Old Together” is predicated on the gauzy assumption that we will do it with elegance and grace. My wardrobe will suddenly contain more timelessly chic pieces, my hair will be silvery (not the funky, frizzy dishwater gray I hide with buttery blonde highlights), and of course I will keep some semblance of my girlish figure. Brian will be an active, distinguished gentleman with kind eyes and cutting wit—a well-seasoned man of the world. In my worst case scenarios we are at least cute and kitschy as we wear matching outfits with impunity, sit on the stoop, and grouch about “kids these days.”

What I never imagined when thinking about “Growing Old Together” was discomfort, pain, fear… insecurity… ugliness. In my dream of Growing Old Together I am never standing in front of the mirror wondering if my outfit is too sexy or too dowdy for this in-between time. I am never asking my husband to feel a lump on my cervix to see if he thinks it might be cancer.

Nowhere in these visions is the part where we struggle with the constant, eclipsing pain of advanced arthritis of the hips (him) or flaring hemorrhoids (me… sorry). I fear this is not the kind of intimacy and comfort that ends with wild sex several times a week. I worry that our expanding intimacy will not be enough to offset my expanding waistline, spanx notwithstanding. The word grace is a big one… it implies that one has surrendered vanity, and through humility finds enduring beauty. It contains the idea of elegance, simplicity, and generosity. Kicking and screaming, gnashing of teeth, and clinging don’t figure anywhere. The truth is, I’m not feeling graceful. I am feeling embarrassed and helpless and mildly pissed off.

Luckily(?), I’m not alone in this. As I write, my devastatingly handsome forty-five-year-old athlete of a husband is using a cane, getting wheelchair assistance in the airport, and counting down the days until we go to Birmingham, England so that he can have his hip joint dislocated, filed down, and fitted with a titanium cap. I’m pretty sure he’s feeling some of the same things I am right about now—probably more acutely.

This miraculous procedure will return him to a version of himself able to surf and play tennis and climb Mount Kenya with me. I am so grateful that we live in a time when such things are possible, and I am actually looking forward to being with him through this—even if it does involve wrestling his six-foot-six frame into compression stockings for a few days. I know that for me, going through this thing together hasn’t diminished Brian in my eyes—I find his courage and grit inspiring. I admire his endurance. It hurts me to see pain in his eyes, and so I’m grateful for the cane or the wheelchair that relieves that suffering and makes him more able to engage with me. Every time I see him I get a thrill.

Although this surgery will essentially turn back the clock for Brian, this time of limping towards Birmingham has given me a high-definition glimpse into some of the reality of Growing Old Together. It is also giving me an opportunity to learn about what it might mean to do that gracefully. Perhaps the beginning of the path to grace is trusting that our love really is reciprocal and surrendering even more to the truth of our commitment.

And clearly, I need to add a timelessly chic piece to my wardrobe, stat.

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  • At 54 (me) and 59 (the hubster), we’re right there with ya! Or rather–we’re several years ahead of ya! Thanks for an insightful piece for some of us “older” couples.

    Jeremy had the same operation four years ago and we went through many of the same emotions. Nothing says sexy like an elevated toilet seat in our (shared) bathroom. It’s true–you wonder if your fantasy self and your reality self are ever going to mesh.

    But I’m here to tell you that if you them to (badly enough), they will. Four years after the compression stockings, the walker and the post-surgery sciatica, we’re living the good life in Mexico and the period of disability and convalescence is just a blip on our marital review mirror.

    Besides, as much as you love those kids, being an empty nester (albeit ones with…ahem..somewhat thickened waistlines) allows for many more opportunities for daytime sex! (Just sayin’…)

    • Thank you so much for the reassurance that this will someday be a blip in our rearview mirror. I love the idea of meshing your reality self and fantasy self. That sounds like a useful way to think about grace as well.

    • Kashia

      My husband and I are not old, we’re still in our 20’s and yet… we just learned a lot about what getting old might be like.

      My husband had an ATV roll while he was out in the woods, and it broke 9 bones. Over the past few months we have been through him laying in a hospital bed needing help just to sit up, to a wheel chair and then a walker and finally a cane. There has been LOTS of physical thearapy, and me helping him in and out of bed, in and out of the bath, and a raised toilet seat and conversations about the regularity of bowel movements.

      Our intimacy has increased in ways we hadn’t even though about. Not in a sexy way, but in a very real way that has to do with trust and respect and realizing that you can’t take things for granted.

      Our one year anniversary was spend sitting in bed, with him high on pain killers, unable to move without pain and help.

      As he continues to heal, and we walk down the street hand in hand, him with a limp and a cane… I know with more certainty than I did on our wedding day that this is the man I want for life.

      • kayla

        I would like to exactly this a dozen times.

        My finace was in a motorcycle accident two weeks before I proposed. It took at least a month for him to be able to stand without shaking, and I decided he was the man I wanted to marry while I cleaned a puddle of his pee off our floor in the middle of the night. I would rather scrub his bodily fluids off of every surface in our house than live without him.

        I can only hope that means we’re prepared to get old together, gracefully or not.

      • Sounds like you have a head start on grace. Love to you both.

  • SarahToo

    I think one thing that worries me about “growing old together” is the idea that if we stick together long enough, one of us will die first. I’m scared of being the one left behind. My Grandma and Grandpa were inseperable for over 50 years, and when my Grandma died, my Grandpa never recovered, but continued to live (growing more frail, lost, and emotionally distant) for more than a year after her death. I wonder sometimes how “the one left behind” can learn to be emotionally resilient in the face of such tremendous loss.

    • Iz

      I think about this too. My maternal grandmother was a widow for almost 20 years before she died last year, and my maternal grandmother is still alive over 30 years after husband passed away. Until I met my fiance, I had no idea what they must have gone through…

    • Another Meg

      I so get that. I worry about it too, but maybe not so much…My grandma passed away when I was two and my grandpa was seventy-one. He lived a very full life with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren until he passed away last year, about two months before turning ninety-five. I know it must have been hard for him in some very real ways, but as a child I never saw that. I’ve always heard stories of their great love, and I think that might have helped him continue on. He had such good memories to hold on to.

      So, I guess there’s hope that there’s life in widowhood. Although I’ve informed my fiance he is not allowed to go until he’s ninety-five, and it has to be “in a blaze of glory.” We’ll see.

      • My husband and I have agreed to a joint skydiving “accident” when we’re 103…

      • MDBethann

        I’ve told my DH we’re going to be married for at least 60 years, which puts us both at 93 :-)

    • KB

      I’ve totally had this thought as well – it sounds romantic in the abstract, like the best evidence that they were a perfect fit was that they couldn’t live without each other. But when I really think about it, I think, “Gah, that’s scary!!!”

      • Lucy

        I have reason to worry about being left behind – my husband is 16 years older than me so there is a very real likelihood he will go first.

        This was a major concern I had in our relationship at the very beginning, but it turns out i would rather have him in my life now, and for as long as I can before I go it alone.

        Knowing that it is almost certain (should nothing terrible happen) that he will die before me certainly moulds my life in many small ways. I am independent with a career that will support my (and a family should i need to) and I maintain friendships outside of marriage. This wont make the grief less, but I can only tell myself that future me will survive and come out the other end ok.

        • I have a substantial age difference as well, and it really does come down to focusing on the years that we WILL have together and knowing that even when one of us (probably me) is left behind we’ll have that time and that love to look back on and cherish. The knowledge that I’ll probably outlive him does make me sad, and scares the heck out of me, but what I have now on a daily basis is way more valuable to me.

          Plus, life’s unpredictable. For all that statistically and logically I’ll outlive him you never know what’s around the corner. Even without an age gap there’s no guarantee that you get “forever” with your beloved.

        • SarahToo

          I guess that having many reasons to live (in addition to a “one great love”) would be a huge factor in being able to cope with the loss of one’s Dearest…I think in the case of my Grandpa, his biggest challenge when Grandma died was that she was his main reason for living, and I don’t think he had the heart (or the interest, or energy) to make new connections with others when she was gone. He was 97, and most of his close friends had died long ago. The loneliness must have been devastating.

          In contrast, the father of a family friend bounced back beautifully after his beloved wife died…he found another “beau” about 4 months later. Apparently his son was slightly scandalized at how quickly his dad found a new girlfriend, but soon warmed up to the idea when he saw how lively and happy his dad was. Besides, when you’re in your late 80s, you don’t necessarily want to take too long in a courtship.

    • This scares me, too, for all sorts of reasons. My grandmother died when I was 3, and my grandfather lived until I was a college senior – and I barely remember him from while she was still alive, but by all accounts, the next 15 years of his life were something of a half life in which he was a shell of his former self. Quite honestly, I think the reason he never quit smoking, after watching it kill her, was because he wanted to join her sooner rather than later. I loved him – he was fun, and funny, and we had a ton in common. But there’s a sense in which he existed, rather than lived, for a solid decade and a half because he missed his wife so much.

      My surviving grandmother, in her 80s, was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. To all appearances, she’s much healthier than my grandfather, who has some long-term health issues, and who has begun to “lose it” a little recently. Grandma hasn’t lost a step, mentally. While I’m terrified of losing her, it also scares me to think of what will happen to my grandfather once she’s gone. I think there’s often 1 half of a couple who keeps things going as they age (my grandmother, in this case; my mother-in-law, in my in-laws’ case – and they’re only in their 60s), and when that’s the case, it can be particularly devastating when that partner goes first.

      My husband is healthy, but he has a family history of chronic health problems that worries me. I feel like I’m constantly battling to keep us eating well, etc., so that the diabetes and heart disease don’t catch up to him, because I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to him – and yet, he could be the healthiest person in the world, and there would still be a 50-50 chance of something happening to him before it happens to me.

    • Alyssa

      My mother in law is going through this right now, at fifty, and I just have to believe that life is still wonderful and fulfilling, at the very least for the sake of my husband. Mourning the loss of a father is enough to go through without fearing for the emotional health of a mother. So yeah, I have to believe that it’s possible to come out of something like that as ok as possible. Thankfully in our case, my mother in law is an incredibly strong person, which inspires me to try to be strong for my family and for myself, which may be the only thing left to rely on.

      Of course, I can talk hopefully about strength all I like, but dear lord am I afraid of this early death being genetic..

    • My dad died a few of years ago, at 60 years old. Based on the age her parents died at, my mother will probably live another 15 to 25 years.

      After my dad died, it was terrible for my mother. Just awful. But life continues, if you let it. She’s taken up exercise, met new friends, tweaked her job, has started to travel, and possibly has a gentleman caller (I don’t ask questions about the status of that relationship). She mourns my dad, and probably always will, but made the choice to accept that life does go on, and that if she has another 15-25 years, she owes it to herself to make sure that life if good, even if it’s a lot more lonely.

    • MDBethann

      Sarah, that sounds exactly like my paternal grandparents. My grandfather was diagnosed with cancer a year after my grandmother’s death, but my dad and I couldn’t help feeling like her absence had something to do with the fact that he never really fought the cancer and just sort of gave up.. At the same time though, we wondered if her sudden passing a year earlier meant that she didn’t have to watch him suffer through his painful bout of cancer in his spine. We’ll never know the answers to those questions, but I do know that they have been together again for the last 9 years, and I can’t imagine them any other way.

      At the same time, my mom’s father died when she was 7, and after 12 years of marriage, my grandmother was a widow for 52 years and lead a very full life with friends and family. She lived on her own until a year ago, when at age 92 she moved into a senior “personal care” facility. I don’t know what her secret was – maybe her 2 young daughters – but she’s probably one of the most resilient, strong, and independent people I know, and the fact that she’s not fully independent now is really hard on her.

  • Robin

    Best wishes to Brian on his surgery! A speedy and painfree recovery to him!

    I am almost a little wistful about your growing old together, because my person is significantly older than I am. There is no chance of us growing old together – older together, certainly! – because he’s already over the hill and I’m just sort of muddling along up the middle of it.

    I spent a significant part of our engagement thinking through what it will be like to be a young widow. Ultimately, of course, it’s very worth it! But spending the time to think through, specifically, what it is going to be like to tackle aging as an ally rather than as a co-conspirator was both difficult and necessary. Talk about wills and pensions and genetic predispositions and adapting the house = the not-sexy stuff we all should discuss, but I can see it coming so much sooner, and not being able to share the same pains at the same times is both a blessing and a burden.

    Glad that you’re going to go there bravely and compassionately, Manya, and that you’ve already shared some words of wisdom from the beginning creaks! I’ll be holding tightly to all of the stories from APW.

    • I really think you should write a post about this.

    • Emily

      Yes, I would love to see a post about this. I’m in my late 20s and my man is in his late 40s and haven’t found much online regarding relationships like this.

      • Robin

        I am blushing and typing as we speak!

  • Kess

    While I’m still quite on the young spectrum, I just wanted to give some support with respect to your husband’s joint replacement. Everyone I know who has gotten a joint replacement has been absolutely thrilled with it. After the recovery period, nearly everyone I know has wondered why they didn’t do it sooner. (It used to be that the joints didn’t last that long, so that’s why everyone waited so you’d never have to go through another surgery. Technology has gotten better with artificial joints so they last much longer)

    I worked briefly for a company that makes joint replacements as well as the tools to install them. The technology really is amazing and I wish your husband a speedy recovery.

    • Thank you so much. Yeah, we’ve heard the same thing–that everybody wishes they’d done it earlier. I really can’t wait now that it’s so close. I’m ready for us to stop coping with pain and start the journey of rehabilitation.

  • kyley

    Oh, the early morning tears.

    Thank you for sharing this. It is everything behind why I want to marry my partner.

  • Claire

    Every single time I read a post written by Manya, I am delighted by her humor and bowled over by her wisdom and eloquence.

    • meg

      That’s the staff opinion, as well :)

      • Oh, man. It’s such an honor writing for the APW community and my Favorite Ladies (the APW staff…). Thank you guys.

  • While my husband and I are still in our early 30’s we’re beginning to see changes for sure that reflect not just our age, but the changes that can happen when you have kids that I think can have similar effects. My husband has a touch of grey at the temples and it seems we end up with more aches and pains then we should at our age. I can sympathize with your husband’s upcoming joint replacement because knee problems run in my family and both my parents had knee surgeries in their 40s, so I’m trying to take good care of mine. I think you definitely have these visions of what Growing Old Together looks like when you’re younger, but doesn’t come close to the reality… not in my case, anyway. A lot changes, and even having a baby has made me change my outlook and has completely blown my original plans and ideas of what our life would be, out of the water. In good ways, though. It’s not always easy, and I know we’ll have more difficulties as we ungracefully age, but a sense of humor always helps. More than anything I see my parents grow older with their partners and despite serious health issues and anything else that comes their way, they accept the changes to their bodies and situations with a sense of humor, and I appreciate that greatly.

    Great post!

  • ItsyBitsy

    And why can’t I just give America’s youth-worshipping, photoshopped, plumped, pumped, and celebrity-styled popular culture a giant middle finger and get on with it? Because culture is deep, man.

    This. Exactly this.

  • tenya

    Make the nurses show you the trick for compression stockings where you take the plastic bag they come in, open the bottom too (so it is a tube) and put that over the heel and ankle – the stockings glide over the heel and ankle, which is the most ‘wrestling’ part of putting them on.

    And thank you for this lovely post!

    • A Single Sarah (for certain values of single)

      My grandmother keeps a pair of latex gloves on hand for getting her compression stockings on and off. She’s even passed on the tip to her PT.

      • Yeah my grandpa uses a pair of latex dish gloves specifically for this.

  • Justine

    Best wishes to Brian with his surgery and a speedy recovery.

    As a young-un couple I’m 25 and my hopefully-soon-to-be-fiance is turning 26 this weekend, and we’ve been together since we were 15, I appreciate the insight your post about Growing Old Together. I think it’s good for me to read about since my parents (who are older than you and your husband) don’t talk much about this kind of thing to myself or my younger siblings. I appreciate knowing far in advance (at least for me and my boyfriend) that you and your husband are still growing together, and your realization (a perhaps reminder) that Growing Old Together may not be what you pictured it as your younger self.

    As I said before, I wish Brian best wishes in his surgery and recovery, and you best wishes for helping him on the way.

  • KB

    I love this post – Manya, you totally hit the nail on the head with that vision. The graceful and handsome vision of picturesque old age. I personally envision it like a Viagra commercial, where the distinguished older couple is motorcycling on a California highway or apple picking or dancing on a porch. I’d totally be down with that.

    What terrifies me isn’t the “ugly” aspect of old age as much as it is the “broken” aspect of old age, where your body starts to betray you in ways that totally shock you when they happen (throwing out your back for the first time, anyone?). But I also like thinking about taking care of my partner and him taking care of me. Hey, at least we’ll have something to talk about when we’re in our rocking chairs on the porch (or more likely our recliners in front of the TV).

  • AnotherCourtney

    I’ve been thinking on this lately, too. A dear friend of mine is in the end stages of cancer, and I’ve watched her 33-year-old husband go from happy-go-lucky to “I have to be home by 8 so I can help my mother-in-law put my wife to bed.”

    It’s a sobering transition, and one that I had hoped I would never see in a peer until I was old and grey. But there is a grace to it. He still puts his arm around her and tells her she’s beautiful. She still makes him laugh. I tell my husband that, if we’re lucky, we’ll go through something similar when we’re 70 or 80 or 90. They’ve set such a good example of what those days could look like, that it doesn’t seem all that scary anymore. The process of getting there is still a bit of a mystery to me, but the end result, while still heartbreakingly tragic, is at least less of a mystery.

  • k

    Manya, The echo of Yeats in “limping towards Birmingham” made me laugh out loud. Best wishes to you and Brian for a successful surgery and a quick and complete recovery!

    • :) I love that you know it was Yeats, and not just Joan! APW rocks…

      • k

        And so apropos since it is a poem about things falling apart. :)

        • EXACTLY! Awesome.

  • Kara

    Best wishes to Brian on his recovery! And may you grow old together gracefully, in spirit, if not in body.

  • KC

    Thank you for writing this! It is odd, the slipping-through-the-fingers of something that we feel we shouldn’t care about, but do; how inevitable that intangible loss is, how inevitable it is that our bodies (and increasingly-forgetful minds) will behave in ways that feel like a betrayal. And yet, grace.

    I have concluded that dealing with situations with grace requires reality. This means that my version of dealing with situations the most gracefully can sometimes involve yelling until I get over it. Living with humility, truth, love, and reality all intermingled sometimes results in a few awkward spaces… but even ballerinas don’t look graceful from *every* camera angle, so I think, at least for today, that’s okay.

  • Taylor B

    “…with a hard-earned sense of easy companionship.” THIS! We can always count on Manya to nail it. No matter what the picture of us looks like, I know we will be holding hands. There are very specific aging obstacles ahead of us but we’re already on the road of tackling obstacles together, and appreciating each other, and faithfully expressing our affection. It is useful to watch my parents successfully navigate their 60’s together (35 years of happy marriage!) but Manya’s piece is a good reminder about what lies only a few years ahead for us. We will age in stages and each stage will have its own adjustment period and we will get there together.

    Thank you Manya! I always (cry and then) feel better after a Manya piece! Best wishes for you and your husband and family through his recovery.

  • I am so with you on the “suddenly older” front — it didn’t feel like I turned 38 this year, it felt like I turned “almost 40.” And there is this sense I should dress more like my late mother did and not like a 26 year old dude, but I’m not sure Graceful is really ever going to apply to me. My wife, on the other hand, has it down especially on the outward presentation front, and it is one of those places where I think we still don’t really understand each other. (It turns out that a couple years of family therapy do not actually fix all your communication issues forever. I am *shocked*, I tell you.)

  • Lori

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. I found much to connect with and be thoughtful about. Your voice is candid and beautifully written. Please speak up often.

  • EM

    Manya – you continue to amaze me with how bravely honest you can be, and how you can make things like joint replacements, grey hair, and hemorrhoids easier to face and tackle for us readers. And I appreciate your comment about giving society the “middle finger” when it comes to our insecurities…we’d be lying if we said we weren’t suffering right alongside you. BUT…recognizing it and being able to joke about at least helps us cope :)

    I am so deeply happy for you and Brian and have no doubt you will “Grow Old Together” with grace, laughter, and pure happiness. Miss you tons, my fellow T-bird and “Black Sheep”!

  • this was so beautiful, so amazing. heartfelt thanks for sharing.

  • If the two, sexy, vibrant looking people in this picture are going through the same feelings as this 40-year old is, I feel much, much better!