[EDITORIAL NOTE: I am out of town for several days this week. In my absence, are stories from five elders and/or bloggers who have contributed to what I am calling The Oldest Old Project. They had to be at least 80 to participate and I asked how their lives had changed in the 20 or more years since they were 60. Today, Mort Reichek, who blogs at Octogenarian]
Many years ago, The New Yorker magazine published a cartoon showing a man reading a page in a newspaper headlined “Obituaries.” Beneath the main headline were sub-heads reading “Same age as mine,” “Older than me,” and “Younger than me.” The man had a studious expression on his face as he obviously compared himself to the three categories in which the deceased fitted.
During my 60s and 70s, I also carefully read The New York Times obits, making the same comparisons between myself and the deceased. I was saddened about those my age and younger - senior citizens the gerontologists regard as the "young old." I was comforted, however, to learn about those who had survived to more advanced years and had become "old old."
Now that I am about to turn 84 in November, I read the obits and feel fortunate that I have lived long enough to have qualified for "old old" status. And I recognize that my views and behavior are becoming markedly different from the "young old."
I'm not proud of it, but I’ve become less tolerant. I scorn much of the contemporary art scene - music, the theater, films - finding the works so inferior to what I enjoyed as a younger man.
I’ve become more indecisive about the most trivial matters. I often cannot make up my mind about what shirt to wear after I awaken each day. I struggle as I decide what to do first. Should I go shopping or stay home and read or take a walk? What's more important, to see a doctor about some new ache and pain or to take my car for maintenance at the service station?
These are, for me, mind-boggling decisions that have to be made. But at least I'm spared from solving the national fiscal crisis.
I’ve lost my confidence in the medical profession, although I’ve had successful surgery to replace my aortic heart valve and my right hip. But I’m reluctant to call a doctor for every ache and pain. I’m dubious about the doctors’ ability to help someone my age and fear that I’ll be ordered to have an uncomfortable examination and procedure that really won't help me.
I now seem to regard physical comfort as the most important element in my life, a fact that really distresses me. I’ve always had an active social life, eager to go to concerts, the theater, art shows and the like. Since having open-heart surgery about six years ago, however, I become more of a home-body because I frequently feel fatigued even though I've not engaged in any strenuous activity.
I have become less enthusiastic about going out and driving long distances, particularly at night, much to the distress of my wife. But I have not become a social recluse. I still enjoy socializing with neighbors and friends (as long as they don't live too far away).
As an old old man, I am most disturbed that I find myself questioning whether I really had the talent to do what I did as a journalist for 40 years. I study the hundreds of clippings of articles that I wrote decades ago and cannot believe that I actually produced the stuff. Was I faking it, I ask myself. I feel relieved that I am no longer called upon to handle the tough, professional demands that I once faced.
I observe what some journalists are now being called to do - covering the war, for example, in Iraq and Afghanistan under fire - and I wonder whether I would have been able to handle such assignments.
The issue is particularly relevant to me because I covered the Pentagon as a reporter in the 1950s and early 1960s during the non-shooting cold war years, and there was no call for me to become a war correspondent. (My wartime experiences were as an 18-21 year old soldier in India during World War II.)
For 23 years, I have lived in a community restricted to residents who are at least 55; younger spouses, however, are allowed. I was 61 and still working when I moved in. (I retired nearly three years later.) For years I played tennis, traveled with my wife, and took advantage of all the leisure activities available for the residents.
I am now too weary to do much of that. I enviously look upon the younger residents as they enjoy so many of those activities in which I no longer participate. And that's where the distinction between the just "old" people and the "old old" becomes dramatically evident.
I see a social schism developing between the two groups of elderly neighbors. The community has a clubhouse in which dances are held and professional entertainers perform. The cultural tastes differ markedly between the two generations living in what has been advertised as “an active adult” community. There’s a generational gap between the active “young old” and the far less active “old old.”
I am saddened as I see a steady stream of friends and acquaintances pass away. I am gratified, however, that I am still around to enjoy the company of my wife and children and that I still have a passionate interest in what’s going on in the world around me.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Tom Speaks explains how he finally learned the name of Daniel.]