Politics: Short Takes and Questions
This Week in Elder News - 25 April 2009

What It's Like to Get Old

category_bug_journal2.gif Recently, a 20-something, young man asked me what it's like to get old. When I made that phrase the subtitle of this blog five years ago, I didn't mean that I had an answer but that over time, writing about a variety of things related to aging, perhaps a picture would emerge.

And that seems to be happening at Time Goes By, particularly with the varied thoughts and opinions from readers in the comments and occasional guest blogs. Not that there can be only one answer. We each get old in our own way and the longer we live, the more the answers change.

Young people probably would find this hard to believe, but there are as many aspects to life in age as there are at any other time, although some are different: new challenges, adjustments to new circumstances, diminishing sex drive, knowing death is closer rather than farther away, health or lack of it, the changing focus of one's days after retirement, reduced income and more.

Many old people say they don't feel as old as they are. This makes me nuts. Since no one has ever before been as old as they are now, then whatever they feel is how it is to be that old. And anyone who says at 65 that they feel the same as they did at 40 is – well, lying.

But here is what I think they are trying to get at: even with new challenges, a big surprise about being old is that it's not so different from every other age. Because there is such an enormous emphasis in our culture on youth and so little attention paid to old age, there is the expectation that age is an entirely different country - that, perhaps, asleep one night, we cross a great divide and wake up old.

It doesn't happen like that. There is no divide. We move through adulthood adapting to the milestones as they come along – first job, achievements, promotions, marriage, children, divorce sometimes, empty nest, becoming a grandparent. But no matter how sudden or jarring the event or transition, the minutiae of daily life continues: brush your teeth, take a shower, cook dinner, wash the dishes, do the laundry, take out the trash.

And so it is for old people, if not their observers, that there is a similar continuity to daily life when the next, old-age-defining transition – retirement – comes along. Plus, our interests, opinions, passions, friends, personalities, likes and dislikes don't change just because we get old and except for not going to the job each morning, we are, for better or worse, the same people we have always been.

One of the biggest changes in old age is not within ourselves as much as in how other, mostly younger, people treat us. We are dismissed, ignored and made invisible based solely on our appearance. Put the same words, thoughts and opinions we have in a younger body and the world pays attention.

This forced disappearance into a void that is foisted upon elders is part of what it's like to be old and it is insidious. Just as a kid told repeatedly that he is stupid seems to become so, an elder who is ignored frequently enough stops trying to be part of the world. (This is one of the reasons I promote blogging for elders. Within each of our little blog worlds, readers listen and respond. We are still respected here.)

Old age is changing. Because we live so much longer than previous generations, there can be 20 and even 30 years, a third of our lives left after leaving the workforce. Some, if they are not laid off and can avoid age discrimination in hiring, prefer to continue working. Others, in retirement, pursue interests that were postponed during busy midlife.

What is not given enough attention in old age, however, is the right to do nothing – or what would appear to be nothing in the eyes of younger people. But it can be a relief to no longer have places to be, goals to achieve, quotas to meet.

It may not seem as exciting as the competitiveness of corporate life or partying the night away, but getting the garden (which moves at its own, slow pace no matter what you do) just right, for example, is equally satisfying and not something I appreciated 30 years ago.

A younger person would probably dismiss me as an old couch potato sitting quietly in my favorite chair most evenings. But my mind is busy, having the time now to reflect, contemplate and weigh alternatives at leisure. Or to shut out everything around me and lose myself completely in the world of a novel. Or to listen – really listen and not merely hear a Beethoven symphony. Or, other times, to wallow in the mundane amusement of TV cop shows.

So perhaps the one definitive thing that can be said about being old is that it is slower, in the best interpretation of that word. It is not an attribute that is widely admired in the go-go ethic of young people. But that's okay. Whoever wrote Ecclesiastes knew what he was talking about with “to everything there is a season.”

I think I understand why that young man asked the question. I once thought old people were alien-like too. I was disappointed on my 21st birthday when, as an official adult at last, I did not wake that morning with a complete understanding of life. Fifty-seven Forty-seven years later, one surprise is how much I have not changed, except for the external packaging.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lois Cochran reflects on beloved pets in the tale of Tigger.]


Yesterday I answered a phone survey and one of the questions was my age. When I responded to between 60 and 65, the questioner said, "Wow! You don't sound that old." Do young people even think older people sound old? What a lot of work to do to change these preconceptions! Thank goodness such a caring, thoughtful, and wise woman as you, Ronni, has taken on this challenge. Thank you!

I think that attitude toward growing older is key to how we do it. If we accept the inevitable changes with grace, then we will "not seem as old" to others.

Oh my goodness! I just contacted you through your website (have lost your email address for some obscure reason!) and then read your post today. What a coincidence! For, I wrote about what I am understanding about becoming sixty today:

Ronni - Love this post. Especially like the word "slower".
But it truly seems like I am continually running to finish my latest project. But I am "slower".
I like it!!!

Fabulous post. You have really caught it!

Oh, beautiful, Ronni. I remember my mother in her 80s, looking at herself in the mirror and saying, with some wonder, "I don't feel any different than I did at 16."

She certainly wasn't referring to her physical health; she was in assisted living with a diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease at the time. I think she meant that her experience of herself, of being Freda, of being a human being alive in this world, felt the same as it had at 16.

Age isn't just a number, but neither is it a sum-total definition of what it feels like to be human ...whether the number is 8 or 18 or 88.

Very nice summing up of getting older. Since our present selves are the sums of our experience and innate attributes, it makes sense that we would change over time. The experiences add to the sum as we continue to live. Our genetic inheritance contributes to other changes we experience.

For me getting old is just continuing to live. Mary's note also caught something essential, I think. Our sense of ourselves is formed quite early.

And I truly understand the slower nature of retirement. This for me is a relief, a gift. I treasure the experience.

Hi Ronni,
At 67, my external packaging has certainly changed, but I am basically who I've always been. As a matter of fact, looking back, I like myself more than ever realizing how I managed the journey thus far.

BTW--Am I mistaken or did you make yourself ten years older in today's blog? Not that it matters of course. Just wondering.

Oh my goodness, Claire Jean, you're right. I've never claimed to be any good at math. I've fixed it now.

Remember the movie (or maybe a serial), "The Invisible Man"? I can't remember much but I think it was Claude Rains who played the lead and I remember him in a hospital and when they took off the bandages completely covering his face and head - there was nothing there.
Invisibility is one of the chronic "challenges" of elder life ( maybe it should be written "elderlife" ).
Unfortunately there is no remedy or cure for the condition so we've just got to "suck it up" (disgusting expression) and live with it? Maybe not. Maybe there is a "work around". It might involve an extensive awareness campaign aimed at the under-30's - make that under 40's to help them understand old people are just like young people- only older.
At the moment most of the yougsters think we are members of a different species - not like them at all.

GREAT POST RONNI! (as usual)

Alonso of Aragon was wont to say in commendation of age, that age appears to be best in four things,—old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read.
Francis Bacon, Apothegms. No. 97.

However you put it, aging is gift. For those of us fortunate to have survived our first half of life, it is odd to reflect back to our youngers years, years when we surely thought we "knew it all".

Though I feared getting old when I was 21, I can't imagine not having this sense of self-acceptance now. Back then, I was forever preoccupied with the opposite sex, my physical appeal, my future, everything "me" but still very insecure in who exactly I was.

While I occasionally miss that young lithe body and frentic energy, I feel quite compensated for the gift of, well, wisdom for want of a better word. There is a depth to my emotions and thinking now that were less pronounced/refined/defined in my second and third decade. Self-knowlege and acceptance is only attainable in its best form in our older decades.

Perhaps due to the "slowing" effect you mention, Ronni, or just part of the big picture of aging, it is one factor of growing old I didn't understand or expect.

Sweet mysteries of life. ;-)

Good post and I agree with it for how it is. Inside we are still us and when I used to see my nearly 90 year old mother-in-law sitting cross-legged on the floor of her house, sorting through things before she went to an assisted living center, I saw the little girl still in her.

When I met Darlene, who is almost 20 years older than me, we sat and talked and there was no age difference on the one hand; but she then said, you do know what is coming, don't you? And I said, yes I do. She meant that as we age, especially the years between 60 and 80, we are likely to face more physical challenges. She certainly has in the last year; but talking her, hearing her internal energy, her sense of humor, I still saw the little girl inside. Perhaps that is even more true in the actual old body years (and those years do exist) than at say my age when I am just heading into the winter of my life-- assuming I live to the age of my mother or mother-in-law.

In our daily newspaper's obituaries/death notices page, families often provide a picture of the deceased. These pictures often are of loved ones as they looked when they were younger. Many complain about this, preferring that the most current photo be shown, as if they were born old.

For me, these pictures help to dispel the invisibility of old age. It makes me curious and I become interested in the person's whole life, not just the end.

I was with you all the way on this piece, Ronni. Excellent summation! But I wanted to shout "bravo!" when I saw the paragraph about the right to do nothing. That's what bothered me the most when we officially retired. Everyone around us our age and older seemed to be trying to outdo each other. I fought for the right to do absolutely nothing if I wanted. So that's pretty much how I handle getting older. If I want to I do it. If I don't, I either don't or find a way to get around it. (Sometimes I do go to the gym in an effort to keep the joints moving, but not to look like a 20 year old!) I like myself on this end of my life better than I did at the other one when I didn't even know what life was about!

Well put Ronni. At 67 I don't feel the same; my body makes itself known to me in ways that never crossed my mind or senses in earlier days. I pay attention better, forget more often, and have to add recovery time into any trip. Still I am more curious about life than I was in midlife and I can ignore or tolerate the fobiles of others better than in my more sharp tongued youth. Sometimes though, I feel there is a 17 year old inside me wondering where the heck this body came from and urging me on, and a 10 year-old, who wants to play, and probably lot of other ages as well. I am slowly integrating what I hope are the best parts of those various ages into my now.

I must comment to a comment made by Rain about me. You are so kind and I guess the little girl will be in my until I expire. [Maybe that's what they mean about a second childhood. ;-).]

I Ronni nicely summed up the aging process . Everything slows down and the older we get the slower we go. I compare it to an old car that wears out a part at a time.

I've noticed that while my body is becoming less vibrant, my spirit is becoming more vibrant. I think more, and empathize, philosophize, and understand more. I actually wouldn't trade my growing wisdom for a pain-free back. I like myself better now.

With me, approaching age 70, it's more like a second adolescence: dreamy, moody, strange and contentious!

Spot on post and very insightful comments!

I am curious about the "invisible" comment folks make. Maybe I'm not at that age yet, but I will be turning 50 this year. I'm single, a bit overweight and quite reserved. I have to tell you that when I go out I'm constantly chatted up by both men and women in stores and standing in lines. Is this what you mean by becoming invisible, or is it that you think your opinions don't matter to anyone?

Again, I'm just curious.

Ronni, you said it all, you put into words perfectly our "now". I am finding it to be the most fulfilling, aware and beautifully personal time of life... thanks!

What I like best about being older is having the glorious freedom of time. Time without constraints, restraints, expectations or duty.
I delight in squandering large amounts of time day dreaming, walking slowly to admire the budding trees, reading all night, knowing I can sleep into the next day.
Time is a reward ~ an award ~ it's a wonderful retirement gift!

Beautiful post, you hit the nail right on the head.

Hattie - a second adolescence?

Yeah, but maybe with less hormonal rushes as at age 14!

just what we always say here in our small town, where the majority of folk are elderly. BUT, I have never lived in a friendlier, more helpful, cheerier, livelier, more active place than this.

Invisible? Irrelevant? No way.

Celia, it's true that all the ages we were before are still inside us somewhere! They say a young person doesn't know what it's like to be old, but an old person does know what it's like to be young.

It does seem odd that we're supposed to be so out of it and irrelevant. We're still here, still existing, and just as much a part of life as anybody of any age.

Ronni, maybe when people say "I don't feel my age," they mean "I don't feel the way I thought I would feel at this age." We are so conditioned to expect the worst.

In my seventies I still think and feel pretty much the way I always did, but am delighted to have more time to spend as I choose. Everything takes more time as I slow down, so that's a good thing!

Love this post! You said everything I've noticed so well! Thank you!

Spot on, Ronni. Once again giving voice to how I feel and think. Gardening has taught me much about slowing down, really looking - and not just seeing - and developing patience.

And, of course, in this corner of Spain taking things slowly, savouring things, is part of the culture....perfect.

Breathtaking. I second everything you wrote, and the readers' comments before mine, too. I'm mercifully rid of many bad habits (taking things personally, for instance) and indulge maximally in better ones (among them, speaking my truth [more] promptly and tactfully, shunning toxicity and time wasters, [wisely] letting go faster, blowing off irritants, embracing what is, and following my bliss [usually] guilt-free).

"AGE plays a role in forging stereotypes, too, with older people traditionally seen as “harmless and useless,” Professor Fiske said. In fact, she said, research has shown that racial and ethnic stereotypes are easier to change over time than gender and age stereotypes, which are 'particularly sticky.' ”

I'm well into my seventies and new to blogging, but eager to try it. Loved your post, it's right on! I try to arrange days where I have "nothing to do", after several days filled with activities. I find that's a good balance for me. Keeps my neurons firing, while leaving time to just" kick back".

I enjoyed reading your blog.Ive always wondered what its like to become of age.I wonder about my mother and is she happy what goes through her mind.I watch myself become older.I think to myself. i have no eny for younger people but im actually more content with being around people my age.I also feel i appreciate things more.

Thank you!:)

10:32 PM 6/2/2009

i'm 54 years old.i've always listened to the current music(rock) of the day and always ,thanks to cable,collected plenty of horror movies.what makes a person old is when they become "a cling" on sometime in their life.my friends that are my age decided in their 30's that they were going to cling on to the 70's era and not accept the music of the 80's,the movies of the 80's,etc,etc.and of course now they're saying things like,"i rememember when WE were younger" and "in OUR day"...i get sick of hearing that from people my age.they decided at a young age to cling on to their high school 'era' days,bent on being disatisfied and grumpy about the 80's,90's and now the 2000's.they actually look older than i do,in my opinion BECAUSE they've been cling ons for so long.i'm 54 and i have the same interests i did when i was in my 20's.the only difference is that those interests and hobbies have technically advanced.movies,music,technology in general.i hit the gym daily and walk two miles on the treadmill.i have no physical problems and in fact i love theme parks like six flags and love the rides.i can't find even one person my own age to ride the rides with me at the theme parks and carnivals and the fair,etc..they either have knee,leg or back problems or some other physical thingy.maybe i break the mold of the typical man in his mid 50's.i'm not sure.i only know that i feel physically,the same as i did when i was in my 20's and 30's.i never was a sports admirer so i never played football or baseball,etc,when i was younger,so i was never what one would call athletic to begin with.when it comes to feeling what most people would call old.. i don't.. i feel like i did at in my 20ish youth.i DO read sometimes about sexual drive diminishing as one gets older,but mine hasn't.i have the same drive as i had in my..well..it's never changed.pretty strong but not to the point of bizzare or anything.

do i break the typical mold of an older man?? i ask that because i sometimes feel guilty,as my friends act really strange toward me when i mention doing things that require being physically well , like carnival rides and so on.i guess what i'm asking is am i like totally different than most people my age?? i have only 1 friend that can do go to places like theme parks and he has a slight back problem and can only ride the slow rides like kiddy rides..which for me is like...no way.

i found this site quite by accident and i'm glad i did.it's informative and enlightening.

everybody please have a great week!!

10:32 PM 6/2/2009

frist off let me say i am about to turn 20 but one day around 19 years old i it felt like the world just hit me in the face meaning i started to not do things like a young man would do i started to not want to be with different women its like i just want to be with one woman tell the day i die and its one thing to say that but its another to really feel that way

I am 62 yrs.old and have always been a little slow...now am maybe just a slight bit slower....Am blessed by our Maker Jesus Christ to make me free free indeed in l994...I mean he made me whole...a understanding beyound an undderstanding...blessed assurance...I care for the elderly as my job...and am told how old are you? and I let them tell me and they guess 48 or 50..The only cure for aging is out of this world...Love and Prayers always..BB

I simply ran into this post while doing a search for "what it feels like to be older." I am 22 and have barely began to live my life. I have always been so curious on ageing mainly because death is my biggest fear. My way of thinking is everyday is a day closer to dying and it scares the bejesus out of me. Ive had long talks with my mother about how she felt during different age groups and the main thing i took away is that getting older gets easier to accept on a daily basis, and that death will eventually be a daily part of my life. I have never been the one to ignore "old" people. I dont view anyone by their age group. I will admit that I am a honestly a nicer and more sincere person when I come in contact with anyone that reminds me of my grandparents (65 and older.) Not because I feel sorry for them, or anyone, I just enjoy the company more. I was taught to respect my elder. Todays society is just so rude. I work at Best Buy, and dealing with hundreds of mean people that treat me like I am their personal shopper and should know why we dont have a certain item is in stock is tiring. but once I see anyone over the age of 50 iI would spend a lifetime with them if they would let me. It is always a pleasant experience. Not trying to seem weird or rude. it is just my opinion. Thank you for this blog posting. I know I am not the age group it was intended for, but it was a very enjoyable read.

hey i'm a 25 yr old and am looking for purpose in life, your blog helped me gain a lot of perspective. also, i'd like to point out, that even as a young man, young people treat me as alien, even though i am considered attractive, people are usually insecure and caught up in their own anxiety in social situations. perceptions of old people have changed to be more positive, but perceptions of strangers have become worse.

I've always been scared to become old, as are most. I find this post reassuring, and I thank you for making it.

I'm 33. Since I started working all I can think about is retirement. But your article has given me pause; if only because I'm contemplating what I'm filling my life with while I'm still young. A 2 year old son, another on the way. Time moves fast now while i'm preoccupated, but when I retire, what will kindle my soul? What will fill my days?

You're an inspiration. You are writing and sharing your thoughts in your elder years and as such, you have that spark. I now understand what I will do to fill the void of life that has left me - share my knowledge.

Thank you for this... I am currently a 22 year old man with the same question you were asked. I’m pleased to know that there is no divide, and will certainly make sure I’ll not counting people out just because they appear older (I always hated that when I was younger)

I’m not sure if this blog is still active as it is now almost 2020, but thank you very much (-:

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