Poets, musicians, writers of all types have used the metaphor of changing seasons to explore what it means to grow old. It is a wonderfully apt metaphor; the new growth of Spring, the blossoming of Summer, the bounty of Autumn, and the inevitable decline and death in Winter.
It bears taking a closer look, however, since we can no longer deny that our climate is changing. And, in point of fact, our notion of old age as a single season needs to be revisited, too.
In the metaphor, Spring represents the early stages of life when a person is born and begins to grow, learn, and explore the world. Just as spring is a time of growth and renewal in nature, youth is a time of physical and emotional development. (Artwork by New York artist, Anne W. Ackerson)
From that perspective, naming the stages of youth (Spring) has undergone expansion more than once! In the not-too-distant past, children became young adults when they entered their teens. They became fully independent adults when they reached 18.
These “stages” were determined, in large part, by social expectations and roles. You went to school till you were 18. You moved out of the family home as soon as you graduated. You got a job, got married, and began a family. Nowadays, these roles and stages have expanded, with “adulting” becoming a verb that now represents the years between 18 and upwards of mid to late 20s, with some emergent adults never quite launching!
Summer symbolizes the prime of one’s life, typically corresponding with adulthood. During this season, everything is in full bloom, and life is at its most vibrant. In the context of aging, summer represents the period when individuals are actively pursuing their careers, raising families, and enjoying the peak of their physical and mental abilities. (Artwork by New York artist, Anne W. Ackerson)
Here is where we are seeing the most extreme changes to our climate. The temperatures are too hot. The lack of rainfall results in wildfire and drought. Species (including ourselves) are threatened by these extremes and dangers.
Again, parallels with developmental stages are found. There is worldwide decline in births. There are massive numbers of people dying of starvation. Whole populations are having to migrate to find suitable land for planting, sufficient potable water for drinking and irrigation, and temperate climate to survive.
Autumn (Middle Age)
Autumn is the season of change and transition, as leaves start to change color and fall from trees. In the metaphor of aging, this represents middle age when individuals begin to experience physical and psychological changes. It’s a time when people often reflect on their life choices, and the consequences of those choices, just as the trees shed their leaves in preparation for winter. (Photograph by Anthony Begaya)
Chronologically, middle age used to fall between 50 and 65. The kids are grown and out of the house. You have mastered the skills of your trade and have found a steady rhythm in your work. There may be the mid-life crisis/break-up of marriage, or change of career, but more typically, there is a level of comfort and predictability that wasn’t available when the children were younger and needed all your attention.
Here, too, we are seeing social and cultural changes. Depending on the nature and demands of the work being done, many find they are wanting to continue working (or need to continue working) well past “retirement” age. With the lifespan extending, the period of time where a person is seen as productive rests more on stereotypes and unquestioned chronologic benchmarks of eligibility for government programs than on actual functional capacity. Our “leaves” are remaining longer on the tree.
Of course, with climate change, Autumn has been impacted. With rapid shifts in temperature, some agricultural growing seasons have been shortened, others lengthened, and still others completely eliminated. The gentle slide into the dormancy of winter in many areas of the globe is now abrupt.
Winter (Old Age)
Winter is a season of quiet and introspection, symbolizing the later stages of life and old age. In this phase, we typically withdraw from the everyday activities of work and child rearing. Some of us experience changes in our functional capacities, including physical and cognitive decline. For others, there is a sense of slowing down and letting go. It is a time for introspection, hopefully wisdom, and confronting mortality. (Photograph by the author)
Here is where the greatest transformation of this metaphor is happening. Similar to the expansion of childhood and young adulthood, this season of change for many now begins with reviewing and re-defining purpose. With ten to twenty healthy and vibrant years (barring illness) ahead of us after retirement, we are offered a banquet of opportunities and at the same time, must navigate maze of decisions that have never been present before.
The challenge of this, of course, is to not over-eat at the banquet table and to make sure and leave a trail in order to find your way through the maze. For those of us who have been active in the field of aging over the last few decades, that others are now experiencing the excitement and discovery that this stage of life doesn’t mean you are condemned to a wheelchair and sentenced to a life of isolation and decline brings joy.
Seasonal Change (Transitions)
The transitions between seasons can be seen as major life milestones. These transitions are often marked by personal growth, challenges, and self-discovery. We are in such a period of growth, challenge and self-discovery. Some of that discovery is unpleasant. But it is not surprising. It may be the motivation needed to create a different and lasting legacy of values.
There is no doubt that a tipping point is being reached. More and more of us are re-claiming our say in how we want to age, where we are going to do it, and with what kinds of services. We are looking toward eliminating our own bias, as well as re-defining what aging is in the 21st century.
The world is in great distress. My generation may have both unwittingly and intentionally contributed to the mess we are finding ourselves in, but we also have the capacity to correct our errors. We have the unique perspective of having lived through similar times of turmoil, survived, and for many of us, thrived. For those who did not, we have a duty to make amends and re-commit to seeing that all aging adults have access to those things that will keep us safely housed, fed, cared for, and valued in the communities we choose to live in.