Monday, 17 January 2011
When Does Old Age Begin?
Last week, on a post titled, A Day in an Elder's Life, reader Flora Davis posted this comment:
“You know, I was shocked to hear that you're 69. I'm 76, and to me 69 seems like a kid. I'm still waiting to feel 'old,' whatever that means.
“Seriously, when would you say old age begins? Are we simply as old as we feel? And what would that mean since it changes from day to day?”
That oft-repeated adage we've heard all our lives - you're only as old as you feel – is nonsensical. Since no one has before been the age they are, that's how that age feels. How could it be otherwise?
Further, is it possible for anyone to feel the same at 75 as they did at 60, 50, 40 or 30? I hope not. That would imply no change, no learning, no new knowledge over all those years. Events, experience, joys, tragedies, successes and failures (taking into account individual degrees of self-awareness) should and do change us, teach us and, sometimes, make us a little wiser. It happens only with the passage of time.
Now and then throughout most people's lives, someone, on being told our age, is bound to say, “Oh, you don't look that old,” and it is invariably taken as a compliment because to look old is the ultimate sin in American culture.
The pressure to look young surrounds us every day of our lives in newspaper and magazine advertisements, television commercials and such shows as Nip/Tuck, comedians' jokes and job-seeking advice. Oprah Winfrey has made the pursuit of youthful appearance a fetish for 20 years.
A lot of the cultural abhorrence of old age is the word “old” itself. Here is a list of synonyms for “old” from one online thesaurus:
aged, along in years, ancient, broken down, debilitated, decrepit, elderly, enfeebled, exhausted, experienced, fossil, geriatric, getting on, gray, gray-haired, grizzled, hoary, impaired, inactive, infirm, mature, matured, not young, olden, oldish, over the hill, past one's prime, seasoned, senile, senior, skilled, superannuated, tired, venerable, versed, veteran, wasted
Although some old people are debilitated, decrepit, enfeebled, impaired, infirm, senile, etc., most are not – at least 80 percent - and these words should not define old age.
When I was planning Time Goes By in 2003, one of the first decisions I made was to never use cutesy euphemisms for “old.” On this blog, if nowhere else, old age would be dealt with directly or, in the parlance of the Sixties, I would tell it like it is. Old is old. Say so and perhaps, in some small way, it would become a less negative description.
Flora asked, when does old age begin? Millie Garfield of My Mom's Blog (who at 85 and like Flora, has been referring to me as a kid for many years), in a comment on the same post, noted the medical definitions, young-old and old-old. In general, physicians and researchers divide old age thusly:
- Young-old: 55 to 74
- Mid-old: 75 to 84
- Old-old: 85 and up
Some in the medical community skip the middle category and classify everyone 75 and up as old-old. This makes sense.
When I attended a week-long seminar in 2009 (The Age Boom Academy where a dozen journalists and I were allowed to study face-to-face with about 35 experts, including two Nobel laureates, from many individual fields of aging presenting their latest findings), the consensus was that old-old begins at 75, the age at which, on average, the diseases of age begin appearing in the population in large numbers.
Seven years ago or so, when I created the parameters for a blog to be included on the Elderbloggers List, I chose age 50 as the low end to qualify. I didn't know as much about aging and generations then as I do now and if I were beginning that list today, I would set the age at 60. There are several reasons – mainly, that the decade between those two ages makes a large difference in one's worldview.
At 50, many people are still raising children or getting them through college. By 60, that is largely finished and most are beginning to consider winding down careers and retiring (if they haven't already been dispatched from the workplace due to age discrimination).
Given the overwhelming cultural inclination to demonize old age, there will always be deniers, people who claim at 60, 70 and even 80 to still be young. How foolish that is just on mathematical grounds. Average life expectancy in developed countries ranges from about 77 to 81, so if you have hit 60, you have entered the realm of the old.
Be proud of it. You have lived, loved and learned. In most cases, you still have a long way to go and much to give back from your years of experience. But it is damned hard to claim knowledge – and respect for it - if you insist on a pretense of youth.
Old age is not an iota less valuable than youth which is, as Dr. Bill Thomas has written, not the gold standard of life, whatever anyone says. On this blog, the old are celebrated not over youth, which has its own virtues, but equally, beside it.
Nevertheless, it is hard in a youth-saturated culture for anyone to remain entirely immune to the omnipresent pressures of anti-aging nostrums and Botox injections. So I want to add a small personal warning to readers.
When I was a kid, there was a catchphrase grownups used to claim they were not getting old: life begins at 40. It was, of course, taken by everyone in reverse – at 40, you were old - not something anyone wanted, then or now, to be.
Like most people, after I became an adult I believed 40 was the divide between young and old and when that birthday was approaching, I spent my 39th year too frequently bemoaning this belief to my friends. (To their credit, they did not abandon me.)
Then, when 2011 was about to arrive a few weeks ago, I remembered that in this new year, I will hit another of those big round birthdays, 70, and was surprised – even after all these years at Time Goes By lobbying for a positive view of age – that I feel a bit of vapors about it, a gulp, an oh-my-god moment or two.
I suspect that one way I will deal with this trepidation, mild as it is compared to 40, is to write about it here. I don't know how yet, but related posts will no doubt appear. Unlike my 40-era friends, at least you have been warned.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary Follett: Things You Do Not Prepare For