On blogs, forums, commercial websites, health-related sites and more, it is amazing how many people debate this question.
Invariably, someone will say he or she (usually she) or a friend looks and acts younger than they are (whatever that means). Or someone drags out that hoary old aphorism, you're only as old as you feel.
Both of these age-denying pronouncements appeared in an essay that recently popped into my inbox via a Google alert together with so many additional ageist and anti-aging cliches that it's too embarrassing to link to the story.
Of course, there was the “still” sentence. You know the one: she's 84 and still - take your pick - cooks her own meals, drives a car, plays tennis. And the all-time favorite of everyone who refuses to acknowledge the passing years – age is only a number.
The 66-year-old writing this essay refuses to accept herself as a senior because, she reports, she and her friends are active, some “still” work, others exercise, read, play with the grandchildren and volunteer.
But the people at the home where the writer volunteers “are seniors for sure,” she says with some certainty, because they are “limited in what they can do." She doesn't say what the limitations are but it's not hard to guess.
What she is trying to do with that statement is separate herself, as too many healthy elders do, from people of the same age who are disabled, infirm, demented or even just a little addled, never considering that there but for the grace of god...
The desperation of people in denial of their own aging doesn't happen just on other websites. When the subject comes up here, there are always “age is only a number” style comments or the careful parsing of the exact moment when old age begins (always a long way in the person's personal future).
This defensiveness is, we know, the result of fear. Fear of aging which, if you take a step back for a longer look, is just a smoke screen for fear of dying. I understand that. As the old saying goes, no one gets out of here alive.
But right now, today, I am alive. And you are alive. And if you're reading this blog, you are probably old, or damned close to it – whether you are ready to accept that or not.
And if not, perhaps think awhile on how much time and effort it takes to pretend you're not old. Surely you must be exhausted from it. Surely you can imagine what a relief it would be to just – well, be.
Me? It took me years of trying to arrive a liking my old age, liking myself as an old woman but I arrived and nowadays I look forward to enjoying that achievement for many more years. (Or not – but that's a story for a different day.)
Right now, I want you to know that it's worth the effort to shed the pretense of youth. Shed the mistaken idea of the woman above who apparently believes being old doesn't happen until you can't work, cook, play tennis, volunteer, exercise or play with grandchildren any longer.
But she is wrong to define old age only as the arrival of infirmity. If we are willing to be honest, old age is the natural progression of life from childhood to adolescence to adulthood and, now, elderhood.
Why waste these years trying to be something else? Do you really believe you can rid yourself of wrinkles, gray hair, a poochy belly, mashed potato thighs, saggy skin and all the other physical manifestations old age with drug store potions and wishing?
You don't need to be a Buddhist to appreciate this from Buddhist writer and teacher Lewis Richmond [from his book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice]:
”As long as we keep comparing ourselves to a younger, better self (who may have been better only in hindsight), we shortchange the possibilities for becoming an older, wiser one.
“The wisdom of Adaptation begins in the willingness to let go of who we used to be and embrace who we are now.”
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dan Gogerty: Lunchroom Milk, Wedgies and Humble Pie