Check this out – the first former President Bush skydiving on his 85th birthday last year.
Mr. Bush made his first skydive on his 75th birthday and has now promised to do it again on his 90th in 2014.
Last week, The New York Times published a feature story about old age as a never-ending adventure – “adventure” defined as extreme sports or rather, extreme for elders. They cited a 74-year-old who made it to within 1,000 feet of the top of the Mt. Everest before turning back; an 89-year-old on a visit to the South Pole; and another 89-year-old, Tom Lackey, who
“...took up wing-walking. Last summer, he strapped his feet to the top of a single-engine biplane, like the daredevils of aviation’s early days, and flew across the English Channel at 160 miles per hour — with nothing between him and the wild blue yonder but goggles and layers of clothing to fight the wind-chill.”
Hardly a week goes by without a human interest story about another "amazing elder.” 80- and 90-year-old marathoners turn up every two or three months. A 75-year-old salsa dancer becomes a YouTube hit. Three 60-somethings make it to the very tip-top of Mt. Everest prompting this assessment from a climbing blogger:
“Good for these three oldsters. Instead of sitting around playing cards, hanging at the shuffleboard court, or taking a brisk walk around the local mall, they're getting out there and breathing thin air and suffering and having a great time redefining old age in the mountains.”
“Redefining old age.” No report about elders engaging in extreme sports avoids this cliché.
Before I go any further, let me assure you: I believe anyone who wants to take up parasailing, free climbing, bungee jumping or any uncommon sport should do it no matter what their age - that is, as long as their possible need for extra help or attention does not unduly burden or endanger other people who are with them.
Nevertheless, the more elders who are proclaimed to be “redefining old age” by participating in what are usually young people's activities, the more ambivalent I become about it.
Sometimes, as with the 75-year-old salsa dancer, the video feels to me more like exploitation than celebration. “Look at that old granny trying to be sexy at her age – ho, ho,” it seems to say.
Other times, there is a whiff of condescension in reporting on the pluckiness of old people who try operating out of expected range. When 90-year-old Ilse Telesmanich sprained her ankle hiking in South Africa, the Times story noted that “she tried to keep going on the three-week trip...hobbled as she was.”
And when 11 elder overachievers are pulled together in one place – a 92-year-old barefoot water skier, a 70-year-old snowboarder, an 80-year-old surfer, etc. - as on this website, it feels like any elder not "defying their age" by risking life and limb is failing to uphold the cultural exhortation to maintain a pretense of youth until the day we die.
What concerns me, as the number of stories of elders in extreme sports proliferate, is that old people who are content to play cards, read a book or teach a grandkid how to ride a bike will come to be seen as slackers, that if they are not biking the equivalent of the Tour de France, it must be their fault if they suffer a stroke, cancer or heart disease.
It is interesting that among all these stories there are no reports of failure for age-related reasons – a 90-year-old who collapses halfway through the marathon, perhaps, or a 75-year-old motorcycle racer who causes a crash, a ski jumper who is paralyzed in an accident. I don't believe it doesn't happen.
On the other hand, I might be persuaded that these elder adventurers are an inspiration to couch potatoes to at least take a walk. They might even be an inspiration to young people.
But I'm not sure. I just know I'm increasingly uncomfortable about what the message is becoming with each new story about an elder's extraordinary physical feat.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: The Silly Cheese Wars