What is “Olding?”

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I have never been quite comfortable with the term “aging,” at least in the context of what I write about and work on all the time -what it is like to get older. Although there is a general acceptance of the fact that we are all “aging” the term itself doesn’t really get to the nitty-gritty changes that happen to us seniors again and again, each additional day, week, or month. I cringe a little when I hear statements like “we are all aging – even kids are aging.” My head says that these kinds of comments shift the discussion away from reality into a theoretical construct of what happens to people like you and me as we continue to add years.

Yes, people start aging the moment they are born, but that is not the point. The true bottom line, at least for me, is that the issue is not about children aging through toddlerhood, preschool, kindergarten and all the way to into adulthood. After living many decades of life, we elders are ultimately and inevitably confronted with the fraught actuality of what it is like to be in a whole new later-life stage. What is happening to us is very different from what happens to those who are so much younger. They are confronted with decisions about jobs, building families, and life-styles. We are confronted with managing our time creatively and wisely based on accumulated knowledge and insight. Each of us can set priorities by reflecting on what is important and what we are capable of achieving. It is very hard to accept the process of getting to be an elder, but by shifting the discussion about aging to a broad age-range of people it becomes an easy way to deny what is happening to us now.

There are lots of statistics showing that the population around the world is getting older. We have a great deal of data on the common conditions that many elders encounter – broken bones, heart disease, or strokes. I could go on, but since the list is pretty long it could result in you not wanting to read any more – too gloomy. Here again, the conditions and numbers along with the charts and graphs set these realities at a distance making it hard to apply the facts to ourselves.

I am the same as everyone else by not wanting to admit that I am getting older. This denial worked for me for a quite a while, until things began to happen which I can no longer ignore. These little things are giving me messages about my own existential process: the slight but nagging nerve pain in my hip; not wanting to drive too much at night; or worry about getting on a ladder to get the serving dish from the top shelf in my kitchen. Each one of these occurrences is a symptom of what I am calling “olding.” Olding certainly has some far-off relationship with the data and graphic displays about aging, but olding is the intimate emotional and physical sensations that I am aware of as I get up each morning, go to sleep at night, or walk around the grocery store. The charts and graphs don’t tell me what to expect. Olding happens within me and only I know what it feels like.

By noticing my olding episodes I can begin to acknowledge and accept them, and then make a plan to deal with them in a rational way. This past week I was visiting relatives who are in my age-cohort and I introduced the concept of olding. They immediately got it and liked the new approach. We talked about our olding moments and what we do to moderate concerns. One said that he recognizes his olding when he is not able to hike as far, as fast, or as high uphill than he used to. His solution is to work a little harder to try to increase his capacity. But he also allows common sense to settle in when he needs to slow down. He knows the consequences of putting too much strain on his body that could result in some permanent damage.

So, olding for me is about careful listening and learning about what is happening within myself, and then resourcefully and sensibly determining how to respond. Certainly the external information about aging is important. It helps me to see where I fit in the larger scheme of life. But paying attention to olding gives me the inside scoop on what is going on in me personally and deeply. Thinking about my life in this way gives me a profound sense of knowing and self-awareness. I can’t really explain it to anyone else and I don’t need to. It is up to me to use this wisdom to keep me moving through my ever- changing, and longer and longer existence.


  1. Mark Hatch

    November 1, 2016

    Marian, Thanks as always for your thoughtful insights. “Olding” is inevitable, that is if we live long enough (though I have to point out that I had to add it to the Google dictionary… methinks you might have invented a word!!! Congrats!!!), and beautiful when embraced. Aging by a different name and with a twist. I am reminded of one line from “Desiderata”… “Surrender gracefully the things of youth…” It is hopeful that through our olding process we gain wisdom. Yesterday I helped a dear friend, who is also a cousin, move all of the furniture out of the first floor of his and his wife’s home in preparation for having the entire first floor’s wood floor sanded and refinished. Out of wisdom we recognized that this was a task best shared, in part due to our physical limitations, and in part for the aspect of joy in sharing a task with a friend. The first part of this equation was born of our practical wisdom… and the second part of the desire for companionship in our lives born of our personal wisdom. One aspect methinks of olding that I consider fearful, is the loss not only of independence, but not the embracing of interdependence which wisdom should by all counts embrace. For instance, that beautiful part of a day helping a friend. A willingness to both see another’s need for assistance and offer it, and the willingness to understand one’s own need for assistance and ask for it. Embracing this concept born of this insightful wisdom answers one of our most base needs in being human, to cooperate and be part of our community, olding or otherwise. I was thus honored when my friend asked for my assistance. Hesitate not to ask or receive, and grace will follow.

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About Marian

Marian Leah Knapp, Ph.D., wants to start a new conversation about “aging with intent.” Much of what is written about elders is from the point of view of physicians, psychiatrists, gerontologists, and adult children. In her roles as author, columnist, speaker and elder activist, Marian is reporting from the front lines.
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