Crabby Old Lady and Intimations of Email's Death
Finding Purpose in Old Age

Time Flies When You're Growing Old

It may be the most common lament among old people and if not, it's certainly up there in the top five: that time keeps speeding up with each passing year.

The writer of a book about time perception I've been trying to read nails the sensation:

”You think you saw someone a few months ago only to realize that it was in fact last year. You expect your friend's child [at our age, insert grandchild] to be a toddler only to discovery they've been at school for years now.”

The phenomenon is common enough to call it universal and it is one of the great mysteries of life. There many theories about the cause and no answers, just guesses - plausible and otherwise.

Among the oldest theories has been called Proportional Time. You know this one: When you're five, the notion goes, a year is a much more significant slice of your life, one-fifth of it. When you're 70, it's one-seventy-fifth so no wonder it seems to speed by.

This explanation has been around since at least the late 19th century with no added enlightenment since then, and it loses its apparent cogency when, according to the book's writer, we consider one day of time (instead of year) in relation to the number of years we have lived:

”[A day] should be fleeting and inconsequential, yet if you have nothing to do or an enforced wait at an airport for example, a day at 40 can still feel long and boring...”

I'm not so sure about that assumption since with a day of boredom one is living in the moment whereas with years, past, present and future tense are all involved so the comparison becomes apples and oranges.

You will have noticed by now that I've not mentioned the name of the book or its writer. That's because it is extravagantly overwritten – more than 300 pages of re-digested information (nothing you can't find online for free) that could easily be condensed into a longish magazine story.

In fact, a lot of what the book reports about human perception of time, its relationship to memory and possibilities for changing the speed at which it seems to pass is contained in three previous TGB posts.

In one of those, I explained some of the theories I had discovered in my research of this age old, old age problem. They are:

Complex Time: As we get older, life gets busier and with more things to do, there is less downtime so life speeds by. This is a weak argument as there are plenty of not-so-busy people who perceive time as moving faster than in youth.

Stupid Time: It’s forgetfulness according to this theory. Memory weakens as the years pass and because we can’t remember what we did yesterday, let alone last week or last month, time flies. Perhaps my mind has flown, but the logic of how this affects the speed of time escapes me.

Routine Time: As we age, our time is taken up with increasing numbers of practiced pleasures and predictable tasks that provide little intellectual stimulation. If, instead, we spent our time in new pursuits, this argument suggests, time would slow down.

This one almost works because it blends fairly well with my favorite theory on the phenomenon which is

Tense Time: Time is perceived at different rates of speed depending on whether your mindset is primarily in the past, present or future tense.

Soon after I published that information (in 2004), a man named Eric Antonow, who is currently vice president of product marketing at Facebook, sent in his idea, a compelling theory he called Cache Time which I posted in its entirety.

Here's the short version:

  1. We tend to increasingly refer to cached data because that cache seems increasingly to encompasses our experience.
  2. We tend to access cached data in cases where it is not an exact match with current experience (a false assumption).
  3. The process snowballs as we gain a sort of self-righteous confidence that the world is what it is (the grumpy old man problem), and our ennui makes us lazy. Our mind-set biases us towards dipping into the cache versus dipping into the world.

You can read Antenow's entire thesis here. Interestingly, some recent research uses a similar explanation for why old people can't easily retrieve information they need – a word on the tip of their, for example - due to too much accumulated data to sift through in the cache.

Some of us are fascinated with time and its many varieties of elasticity and some of us are not. For those who are, here is the original TGB story about this, The Speed of Time from 2004.

Here again is Eric Antonow's followup, The Speed of Time: Cache Time.

And here is another story I did about the phenomenon in 2008, Some Theories on Elder Time which is somewhat repetitious of my 2004 story.

Since time is speeding by so quickly anyway, anything that wastes it ticks me off, big time, and that's how I feel about this padded book, Time Warped by Claudia Hammond. It has its moments but not nearly enough of them to warrant 300-plus pages.

But there you have it if you are interested. What interests me are your thoughts and experiences with the speed of time.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Alan Ginocchio: My Aunt Just Had a Vasectomy But She's Doing Fine Now


Two thoughts about how time flies when you are having fun.--

When I was young and was reading a book. I would look up and 2 hours would have gone by and I couldn't believe it. I can't do that now --I get too stiff.

Today I can putz all day and suddenly it is evening ---usually surfing the net.

It is almost like I go into a different dimension.

Vision, hearing, then memory diminish as we age - in that order.

Now as we begin to know more about dementia and Alzheimer's we see the end game.

The memory we used in our early years was literarily consumed with learning new, important, life or death theories and practicing new tasks - some understood - others simply took a much longer time to learn. Even longer if not understood. Example, a parent taking their child's hand and placing on/near a hot stove and saying, "hot". Once the task is experienced - the task becomes easier to remember; as well as the concepts attached.

As we grew into our middle years, it seems, the tasks we learn grew easier and more understood.

My theory: Only those skills and knowledge that took longer to master are remembered. Simple learning takes a 'pass' in our memory and is easily forgotten; that is, the remembrance of the difficulties involved in easy learning do not exist.

For us the fundamental tasks, as well as most tasks, have already been mastered - there is little to remember.

Now, in a fewer words, "time flies when you are having fun!".

(I have a train to catch . . .)

What gets me is how much time changes our physical looks. With some older people I only see once or twice a year I have been shocked to realize that I had a hard time recognizing them...they've changed so much. And how many of us have walked by a mirror a time or two and wondered who that person is looking at us? Laugh, but it really has happened to me and I'm not getting senile.

Jean, that mirror thing is so true.

Who is that woman?

Time is precious these days.

Hours fly by when I am digging in dirt, teaching, hanging out with family.

But come sit beside me on bus 211 from downtown Montreal, during a crazy hard rainstorm and wall to wall traffic.


Stop, start, stop, start.

Get me out of this sauna.

I look to the back of the bus.

A French guy is singing a Billy Joel song to his girlfriend.

"It's five o'clock on a Saturday.. The regular crowd shuffles in..."

"Making love to his tunic and gym."

His girlfriend smiles.

It's a long song.

The guy sings all the way to the Lionel Groulx metro station.

We disembark.

Now I can't get the song out of my head.

"Son can you sing me a memory?"!

The glass doors of the metro swing open.

We all shuffle in.

Time passages.

when I was around 40 years old I asked my children (18, 15, 13) if they felt time was speeding by or was it just me growing old. The 3 of them said time was rushing and they couldn't understand why it felt like the days, weeks and months were shrinking. We all were very busy, with our jobs and/or studies and our sports and I thought that was the reason: we were trying to do too much during each day, so we felt like we were always short of time - or, time was speeding and we couldn't comply.I was wrong, apparentely, because I'm 68 na time is faster than ever.

They make sense to me -- complex, stupid, routine, tense -- and I'm sure they all contribute to the perception that time is flying by too fast. But I gotta think that virtual time -- the black hole that sucks up hours and hours -- is the biggest culprit of all.

I have a theory of why everybody seems to have less time nowadays, regardless of age: there is a finite amount of time, and it has to be divided by the number of people on earth.

OK, tongue in cheek. And that is really about the scarcity of time rather than the speed of it. A better reason why those who are still working have less time is that everything we need costs more and everything we do pays less. My income is 8 times the dollar amount it was in my 20s, but my rent alone is 15 times the amount. Then, I worked one job and had leisure time left over. Now, I work the equivalent of 2 1/2 jobs and have almost no leisure time.

But that's a separate issue. I'll leave the irrelevance in this comment and start another one that's "on topic"

The theory of "catched data" makes sense, although I prefer to call it "time segments". This is especially true for those of us who live in a structured environment like an ALF. We live our lives in segments. There is the "meal-time" segment, the "activities" segment and, even a "haircut" segment. Routine is the true killer of time.

OK, yes, time has speeded up. The earth seems to be spinning like the numbers on a slot machine: Christmas goes by, and whoops, there it goes again! Or, as my 96-year-old dad puts it, "The weekly magazines come every 3 days."

Not only that, though, but as soon as something has happened it seems to shoot far away, into the distant past. It's Christmas again already, yet last Christmas seems an eon ago. Time not only goes faster but further. So that while the future is getting used up at a blistering rate, the past is stretching out to infinity. It's like a Doppler shift.

Time is, of course, in the mind, or, if you're so minded, in the brain. So what could be going on the mind (short of dementia) that is causing this warping of time? Some guesses:

- Habit makes a lot of stuff automatic. We're not present for a lot of the present; we're lost in thought, or in memory. Thus a lot goes by unnoticed, partly because it is so familiar; partly because we live more within than without.

- Connected to that, thinking is faster than doing, and we live more and more in thoughts and memories. Online is an extension of thought. Possibly, doing things with our limbs in space, even though it takes longer, slows time down. (This is a new thought so I haven't worked through its logical problems yet.)

- When the brain has a lot of information in it, it organizes itself differently, more associatively. It actually works faster laterally, I suspect. Anything coming in that's relatively new quickly gets associated and classified and parsed. Being able to process much new information quickly speeds up time. Thus it's the price of experience and competence and even wisdom.

- There may be more later.

I like Annie Gottlieb's "Possibly, doing things with our limbs in space, even though it takes longer, slows time down."

I do think better when I walk or exercise and it seems to me time slows down while I'm at it. One more reason to exercise perhaps.

I'm retired, no children at home, live alone with my husband out in the country.

Unless we have appointments (doctor, dentist, etc.)we don't care what day it is and many times don't know. We have no special programs on TV to watch and so it doesn't matter what day it is.

I AM a clock-watcher due to my medications. The clock moves more slowly when I am sick or in pain and just waiting for the correct time to take my meds. I find that I do have to keep a medication "journal" to note down when I take each drug or I will not remember sometimes when or if I took it.

Aha…. So it’s not just because I’m now retired that time seems to be flying
It’s because I’m 70+!

Up until retirement at 70, the time seemed to go slowly mainly because most of what I did had been outsourced by technology. Now that I’m free to do what I want when I want the days pass by fast …..too fast.

I heard Jane Fonda say that she saw herself in the mirror one day and wondered who’s that?
She no longer wonders, but I do 😊…..

When working the time seemed to go slowly because I was measuring it so precisely. Two weeks until…three more days this week…school starts in ____ weeks…only 1 more day of Christmas break.

I called it 'marking time.' Now, the days are my own to do with as I please. I make my own schedule, set my own calendar. It is so wonderful, but the days just fly by because I'm not constantly checking to see how much more time before…

I absolutely love being retired and able to dictate my time.

Fascinating! I still work full-time and life seems to speed by but and I wanted to take the TIME to tell you how much I appreciate what you do. Your research and outstanding writing is helping many of us navigate getting older in a much better way. Thank you <3

I second Bruce and Annie and am grateful for their clear takes on this subject. Whenever I try to focus on time (i.e. "how long ago was that"), I risk feeling confused or depressed so I try to avoid "expressions of time". I often feel that I've forgotten more than I remember, but I think that while a busy day does apparently go by faster, it lasts longer in your memory ... perhaps it's because it gives you more to ponder.
Thank you, Ronni, and your readers for a very good read this morning.

It's the milestones that bring the realizations about time speeding. I'm having another birthday -- it's been a very full year but suddenly it's gone and that number is bigger than I ever prepared myself to be ... yet I feel twenty years younger (most of the time but not when I look in the mirror.)

The new drivers' license photo doesn't look very different from the one five years ago and yet I look a lot more like my mother! How did that happen? When I think how old I'll be when this license must be renewed I'm astonished ... but I am also consoled a bit because two friends recently turned that exalted age (Okay, I'll admit it, I'm about to be 76 and they have just become 80) and they are doing well and looking good.

But this birthday, like the birthdays that roll around so fast of my great-grandchildren, remind me to be aware of each day. I don't say "make the most of" or "live fully", I simply say be aware. And I think often of Mary Oliver's line of poetry, "Tell me, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?" I've never been "wild", it's life itself that is wild and very precious.

First, I can so relate to seeing myself in a mirror and wondering what happened to "me"!

I'm likely to become a full-time retiree in a few months, so I'll be losing one of the time-structures of my life for the past 56 years--work. I've been volunteering for a no-kill cat shelter for the past 3+ years but may find that I need more structure.

I've always been oriented towards having a purpose or being productive. I think of it in terms of "earning" (in some sense) the space I'm temporarily occupying on Earth. I don't think that will change as long as I'm relatively healthy, but we'll see.. .

(Apologies to Mr. Einstein)
At any given moment, each of us, depending on our age, demographics, health, activity etc. perceives the passage of time differently so that time is only "real" in relation to our momentary situation.

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