The Longevity Prescription of Dr. Robert Butler: Set Stress Aside

Being 90-Something

category_bug_ageism.gif Human nature being what it is, we all have our prejudices. I don't mean the nakedly open hatred of those who would burn sacred books of others' religion. Or circulate a caricature of the president as a witch doctor. Or even public servants who want to eliminate programs that benefit elders and the disabled. Those people are easily exposed for what they are.

Today, I am talking about the rest of us and the much more subtle value judgments we make about people we don't even know, silently discounting them based, perhaps, on their taste in clothing, their accent or their weight.

Without enormous evidence of positive value in other respects, most of us prefer the well-dressed, the well-spoken and the skinny over others and that sometimes makes a difference in how we choose friends, for example, or how we vote. What is interesting about this is that all else being equal, we can be unaware that we make these distinctions.

(Although a negative can't be proved, I am convinced that if Sarah Palin looked like – oh, say, me – she would have disappeared from the national media on November 5, 2008.)

I have been reading, studying, thinking, writing and speaking out about aging and ageism for so long now that I had flattered myself into believing that this is one area of life where I am free of unconscious prejudice. As often happens, however, just when I'm feeling full of myself, something happens to knock me off my pins.

Let me tell you a story.

Last Friday, I stood on line at the supermarket pharmacy waiting to get my annual flu shot. The woman in front of me and I exchanged some polite words about the weather and I felt a little envy that she, who appeared to be five or ten years older than I (I'm 69), had a much thicker head of hair.

When she reached the counter, the pharmacist read through the form she handed over and then said, “Congratulations on your 98th birthday.”

NINETY-EIGHT!? Suddenly, I was unabashedly listening closely. There followed an informed discussion on her part, in as strong a voice as the 40-ish pharmacist, that this year's vaccine formula includes protection against the N1H1 virus.

After receiving her shot, the woman left the counter pushing a cart with as steady and firm a step as my own. Later, I saw her walking out of the parking lot carrying two bags of groceries.

Over the weekend, I gave a lot of thought to that small encounter and particularly to how shocked I was that a woman who is 29 years older than I, a person identified in medical literature as the oldest old, is as agile and mentally sharp as others who are a couple of generations younger.

Now it is true, as we have discussed here through the years, that the rate at which we age – that is, become less physically and, sometimes, less mentally able - is highly individual. Factors generally include health, genetics and plain, old dumb luck.

Nevertheless, as I thought about that woman, I became uncomfortable with how surprised I had been to see a straight-spined, 98-year-old jauntily walking off toward home with her groceries.

That discomfort arises, of course, from recognizing my prejudice – that upon hearing someone is 98, I expect them to be weak and frail, living in a nursing home or, at least, being waited on hand and foot by a relative.

But as my guess of her age, when we spoke, placed her at 20-odd years younger than she is, I further realized two other things:

• I have no ability to estimate age in the old, and

• There is no telling how many 90-somethings there are among us who are just taking care of business - buying groceries, using the ATM and standing on line for a flu shot like everyone else.

We are well indoctrinated to believe that the most aged are decrepit. But now I wonder, barring disease, ill health and, perhaps, self-fulfilling prophecy caused by that indoctrination, how many stealth oldest old we see every day.

Oh, how I wish I'd gone after that woman, introduced myself and gotten to know her.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Richard J. Klade: Ya Gotta Know When to Play 'Em


I hope you'll see her again and have the opportunity to meet. She would be worth knowing, I'll bet.

Was going to write just like Kenju! Look out for her and I'm sure she has a lot to tell us!

I was going to suggest hang out at that pharmacy till you see her again but something tells me this lady doesn't need much medicine!

I smile at this post. Wish you had "run" after her.
This is the way I want to age.
But then how would she react.
At er two weeks ago after a fall - the comment as they looked at my insurance card "you do not look that old". Just smiled and thought "One Woman just keep on doing what you are doing".
My aunt passed away last year at 94 and was irritated when someone much younger asked her - what did she attribute her long life too. She said to me that is a stupid question. "I just live and do all the things that I can".

I recently had a similar experience and it does make one stop and re-examine one's own biases. It also gives us all a "new" model as we age, and that's a good thing. Thanks for writing this.

I have never been able to determine anyones age. Kids on up.
Great story because it makes me feel like standing up taller and think about what interesting thing to do next. As a rule, the media and advertising pounds us into the groud with negatives and dire predictions and so,by degrees,we're brought lower and lower with poor expectations.
Be on the look out, you might just spot her!

Having a mother-in-law who died at 95 and lived in an assisted living apartment until the last few months of her life, I saw quite a few elderly people and as you said, there just is no judging what someone will be able to do. Some were very alert, still mentally agile. One man had taught into his 90s at the nearby university. Others had lost a lot of their physical strength and mental capacity.

Some of it is illness other than simple old age that drags people down. It did my mother-in-law with gradually increasing kidney failure (she was a late developing Type 2 diabetic who didn't know how important watching her blood sugar would be to her kidneys until it was too late) and finally a fall that shattered her hip. It isn't just simply getting older but what else comes across our path. Some of that is genetic and some environment or lifestyle.

I had never really cared to get into my 90s, having seen how it can be. I figured dying in my late 80s would be just fine, but we don't choose that either and if someone can stay as the woman you observed, than late 90s sound just fine. It's why trying to eat and exercise responsibly is so important as we might get there and it'd be a lot better to be there in as strong of condition as possible.

Sometimes they gather people together who have aged strongly to ask how they did but most of the time when I have read of that, the rules they followed weren't the same.

I find one of the signs of my own aging is that I cannot accurately guess the age of most ANYONE I encounter. I often feel as if I'd lost whatever markers I might have relied on in the past. Mostly, this doesn't matter to me, but it is disorienting.

Should it matter that I can't trust myself to guess someone's age within a 20 year band? (I mean that.) I don't know.

Never good at guessing age either. There's a 90 year old lady in my neighborhood; she just quit mowing her own lawn two years ago! Looks to be in her 60s, really.

My paternal grandmother lived to age 92, but some of her decline in the last years was due to losing my grandfather and their lifelong home to a tornado. In my opinion, overwhelming emotional losses can sometimes be as devastating as physical problems -- after a certain age.

I have a dear friend who is still managing her own business as well as teaching at college. Since she sometimes mentions retiring I wondered how many years she had to go before being eligible for S. S. I had never asked her age and she had never divulged it until last week. I thought she was probably in her early 50's. She volunteered the information that she would soon be 70. I was stunned.

Age is relative. I have known some people who were old at 40 and others who are young at 90. All of the factors you mentioned, Ronni, play a part.

I usually play tennis with my friend Lon once or twice a week. What he sometimes lacks in mobility, he makes up for with extraordinary hand/eye coordination and what we usually refer to as "court sense". He knows where the ball is and where it's going to be at all time.
Lon has already celebrated his ninetieth birthday - I don't know how long he'll continue to play but he ain't gong tp just "fade away"

If it was a supermarket pharmacy I bet you'll see her again, she probably shops there.

I had a little of that myself this weekend, prejudging the capacity of someone at any age. I went shopping with friends and family, five women all together, two over 80. We live in a small semi-remote rural town so we drive an hour or so to get to a larger one and go everywhere so we can in one day.

When I heard the agenda I thought I'd pass out. Craft store, Pier 1, Target, lunch at Red Lobster, Penney's, Costco, Victoria's secret (yes, there was no one under 62 in the car either folks, we like nice undies and perfume too) and a side trip north to a Merchantile that sells batches of enchiladas that can be frozen. It went from 9 to 6. Our 80+ women, and me, had to sit occasionally, we tested all the chairs in Pier 1 and Penney's. If they need something they ask but its "I'd rather do it myself" as it should be. I can see have underestimated them and myself at 68. It made me wonder how much I have bought into the "sit down and get out of the way" baloney. Couldn't do it two days in a row, but it is faint hearted of me to go around thinking it is all downhill from here.

I have just returned from a meeting of my women's pilots group in Boise (aka The Ninety-Nines). There were several there over 80 who are not flying any more but some are. One soloed at 78 and is still flying but my favorite is M. who at 80 flys everywhere. Looking at her I would say she is hardly out of her 60's. I tried to coax some "secret" from her - like what she uses on her face - but instead just got a hug.

*LMAO* It's nice to know that someone other than me gets pulled up by her own petard, so to speak. How many times have Ronni & Crabby preached about there being a definite timeline defining the "normal" aging of children but that no similar timeline is possible for adults/elders/oldsters?

I suspect that, had you stopped the oldest old woman, she would have been as non-plussed as you and I are when people declare that we "don't look" our ages. *still laughing*

Thanks for sharing your story, Ronni. A good laugh at ourselves is healthy - as long as we don't overdo it.

I'll join the chorus. You will see her again somewhere near your home. :)

I just got my unconscious ageism challenged by a book called What Are Old People For? written by William Thomas MD. One of his points is that our culture defines aging as synonymous with decline, so that instead of seeing elderhood as a valuable stage of life, we see the old and frail as failed adults.

I wish I could say that it was my experience with my father who died this summer at the age of 91 that challenged my beliefs in this regard. Unfortunately the last years of his life were unpleasant and painful. I do wonder how much of this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Changing our beliefs is a first step to finding radical alternatives for ourselves, I'm sure.

My own experience of old-old people is limited somewhat by the fact that my parents died at 68 and 72. Some days I need to forgive myself and allow myself to be "old" so I can have a rest and do nothing! I can't imagine being 98

Knowing her or not, she's an inspration no matter what our age!

I am 64, and I am hoping that there will lots of us in our 90s just like that "young" woman.

Not long ago, as I walked down the hallway in my doctor's office, a petite and perfectly healthy-looking woman walked past me, accompanied by a nurse. I overheard her say she was 94. I stopped, turned and did a classic double take. Would have sworn she was no more than 70, tops! Made me smile all day.

Ronni, your story gives me hope.

Yeah, this is great! This is part of what my being a patient advocate is all about. Determining what treatments are recommended with good prognosis must consider the overall health of the individual. I've, regretfully, seen medical decisions made that did not take the patient's full body state into consideration.

Just had a story with pictures in our local paper about an elder tennis players group, including elder (late 90's) widow of management consultant, Peter Drucker.

I've worked so long with so many elders, been acutely aware of the wide span of functional differences regardless of age, I don't think I have pre-conceived expectations about age based on appearance. I can't tell someone's age based on how they look in many instances either, despite my experience.

Ronni - if you want to know her story - ask the pharmacist if he would, to give her your number so the two of you could meet. Maybe at 98 the privacy issue is no big deal. I too never could tell the age of someone. My own kids are 44 and 43 and I still think they are 10 and 11. Oye Vay - Happy Healthy New Year 5771 to you and all your readers, Jewish and Not...

Another enjoyable, thought-provoking article, as are the comments. Just want to add I am writing Celia's comment on a wall:

..."but it is faint hearted of me to go around thinking it is all downhill from here." I'm 61 and 3/4, but have good friends who are active at 85 and more. I love to hang out with them for their stories and perspectives.

Thanks for you all for being 'here'....~Kathi

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