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Gender differences evident in how we deal with aging

I’ve noticed some differences in the way women and men age. Women seem to be more troubled by changes in their appearance, and men by what they can and can’t do physically.

Thanks to advertisements, the portrayal of young women as "the ideal" for relationship bliss, and the lack of older women in the media, we seem to try to prolong our youthful looks with hair and skin products, while men seem to prolong doing things they were able to do easily at younger ages, even though they probably shouldn’t be doing them anymore.

So while I was giving myself a facial last summer, my husband asked if I’d like to join him jumping out of an airplane.

This has got to be andropause, I thought. I’d been hearing a lot about it. The male menopause thing.

"Is this something you’re doing because your brother had to do it for the Reserves?" I asked. "Is that what this is about? A competition thing?" But no, he said it was something he’d always wanted to do.

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The Skydivers Club was going to take people up during Harmony Dobie Days, and it was a chance to try it, so he thought he’d sign up.

"What about your knee?" I asked. He’s had knee surgery once. "What about our biking and hiking, our canoeing and diving and everything else we do? What if you blow out your knee and we can’t do those things anymore?" He said he’d wrap it.

I kept thinking he’d change his mind. The night before the event, he was digging out his Ace bandages and coughing — he was just getting over pneumonia — and I was reading Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey. "You’re just like those men who had to go on the Overland Trail," I threw at him. "They just HAD to go."     

That morning, I didn’t give him a ride to the airport, cheer him on or watch him land. Instead, I shopped for Amish vegetables. Smugly. At least I was doing MY part to protect our health.

When he called and said he’d landed, I decided to pick him up at the airport. He was giddy. His knee was fine, and he said he didn’t need to do it again. Once was enough.

Now, after telling this story with my ideas about andropause, I find out there’s no such thing. According to author and psychologist Michael Metz, who has studied the subject, written books and journal articles about male sexuality, and was in town to conduct a seminar recently, healthy men don’t experience significant drops in hormone levels as they age.

OK, so men don’t have hot flashes. However, as they age, like women, they do experience a psychological adjustment as they reflect on the meaning and purpose of life. Metz describes this as "increased reflectiveness, a mellowing of attitudes, an expansion of intimacy meaning, and spiritual growth and integration," sometimes triggered by life events such as death or serious illness in a family member, children leaving home, or job changes.

There goes my theory about male menopause. But I still couldn’t figure out why someone would want to jump out of an airplane. Then a couple of weeks ago I went scuba diving and saw an octopus up close, with purple luminescent eyes. He looked right at me. It was one of the most exotic things I’ve ever seen. It was like looking into the eyes of a space alien. It gave me chills, and I’ll never forget it. When I came back up into the dive boat, I was giddy.

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Now there are some people in my family who think I shouldn’t be scuba diving, even though I tell them it’s perfectly safe, and I’m not about to give it up.

Oops. There goes my smugness.

It turns out, as we age, some of us are just checking things off our "bucket list," which varies according to our budgets, interests, and abilities. The trick seems to be to figure out how to enjoy life to its fullest while not jeopardizing relationships, health and safety.

So what happens if my husband decides to go skydiving again? I’ve been thinking. I’ve always wanted to ride a hot air balloon. I almost went parasailing with him once, but together we were ten pounds overweight to go tandem, so I took pictures of him going up alone. I tried rock climbing and rappelling down a cliff with him. That was sort of fun. I cried a little going up, but I liked rappelling down. Once was enough. I’d do zip lines again. Maybe I could try skydiving. Just once. Tandem, with someone experienced.

Nancy Hengeveld is a licensed psychologist with a practice in Rochester. Her column appears monthly.

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