What is a summary of the poem "On Aging" by Maya Angelou?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Maya Angelou represents not only the black woman but any woman who desires a better life.  As the first black American woman to speak at an inauguration, Angelou wrote and read a poem for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993.  Angelou today at 84 speaks for the black woman. Her wit and wisdom are inspirational. 

The poem “On Aging,” is aimed at the young person who decides that, due to their advanced age, an older person should be placed on a shelf to observe life. The poet takes exception to this treatment. Another aspect of the poem that is discussed is the desire for dignity that the older person wants from those around him.  He is not a child or senile or decrepit.

Written in 2012, Angelou writes her poem using two quatrains and a rhyming couplet to express her views as an octogenarian. The poem speaks to the humor and indignation that still runs through this activist's veins.

In the first quatrain,

The poet addresses some younger person whose attitude and actions annoy her. Just because sits without talking, does not mean that the poet needs to be put up only to be viewed, not heard. This young person talks too much, while, when the poet is being quiet, she is talking and thinking to herself. The poet's indignation is enhanced when she believes that the person is feeling sorry for her. She does not want this person's empathy.


Obviously as a person ages, there will be more pains and aching, particularly when the older person has to climb stairs. The answer is not in providing the poet a rocking chair. She will keep on struggling until she can no longer make the effort.

The last quatrain

As the care giver watches the elderly poet, she may stumble as she walks. Do not think that she is unable to continue on.

When you see me walking, stumbling, don’t study and get it wrong.

‘Cause tired don’t mean lazy and every goodbye ain’t gone.

Just because when a person ages she tires more easily, does not mean that she is lazy. When an older person says  “goodbye,” it does not mean that this is the last time.

In her final observation, the poet states that she is the same person that she has always been.  She has lost a little hair and maybe added some double chins.  She may have lost some breathing ability and wind. [The poet may have asthma.]


For the older person, this poem beautifully expresses the feelings that one has about aging.  Everyone wants to be independent for as long as one can be. An older person does appreciate the good feelings that he/she receives from a younger person, possibly a relative, friend, or caregiver. 

However, when an older person struggles, the poet asks that you not think on it, and not pity them.  He/she has aged. The elderly do have to learn to live differently with more rest, more quiet time and contemplation. It does not mean that life is over.

stolperia eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The speaker is telling the listeners that they are incorrect if they assume that her life is over and done. Perhaps the activity level has decreased and/or slowed from years past; perhaps the conversation doesn't come as easily as it used to. This does not mean that the speaker needs assistance or company. It may simply reflect that the speaker has different interests than s/he formerly had.

When you see me sitting quietly,

Like a sack left on the shelf,

Don’t think I need your chattering.

I’m listening to myself.

The speaker will accept "understanding" from others but wants no "sympathy" because none is needed. The activities may be slower or more awkward than in younger years, but they are still happening. The speaker wants listeners to understand very clearly that "tired don’t mean lazy." While the speaker's appearance, physical stamina, and other external abilities may have changed, "I’m the same person I was back then", still giving thanks for being alive and that fact that "I can still breathe in."