ELDER MUSIC: Gordon Lightfoot
Our Plastic Brains – Even in Old Age

When Does Old Age Begin?

Last week, on a post titled, A Day in an Elder's Life, reader Flora Davis posted this comment:

“You know, I was shocked to hear that you're 69. I'm 76, and to me 69 seems like a kid. I'm still waiting to feel 'old,' whatever that means.

“Seriously, when would you say old age begins? Are we simply as old as we feel? And what would that mean since it changes from day to day?”

That oft-repeated adage we've heard all our lives - you're only as old as you feel – is nonsensical. Since no one has before been the age they are, that's how that age feels. How could it be otherwise?

Further, is it possible for anyone to feel the same at 75 as they did at 60, 50, 40 or 30? I hope not. That would imply no change, no learning, no new knowledge over all those years. Events, experience, joys, tragedies, successes and failures (taking into account individual degrees of self-awareness) should and do change us, teach us and, sometimes, make us a little wiser. It happens only with the passage of time.

Now and then throughout most people's lives, someone, on being told our age, is bound to say, “Oh, you don't look that old,” and it is invariably taken as a compliment because to look old is the ultimate sin in American culture.

The pressure to look young surrounds us every day of our lives in newspaper and magazine advertisements, television commercials and such shows as Nip/Tuck, comedians' jokes and job-seeking advice. Oprah Winfrey has made the pursuit of youthful appearance a fetish for 20 years.

A lot of the cultural abhorrence of old age is the word “old” itself. Here is a list of synonyms for “old” from one online thesaurus:

aged, along in years, ancient, broken down, debilitated, decrepit, elderly, enfeebled, exhausted, experienced, fossil, geriatric, getting on, gray, gray-haired, grizzled, hoary, impaired, inactive, infirm, mature, matured, not young, olden, oldish, over the hill, past one's prime, seasoned, senile, senior, skilled, superannuated, tired, venerable, versed, veteran, wasted

Although some old people are debilitated, decrepit, enfeebled, impaired, infirm, senile, etc., most are not – at least 80 percent - and these words should not define old age.

When I was planning Time Goes By in 2003, one of the first decisions I made was to never use cutesy euphemisms for “old.” On this blog, if nowhere else, old age would be dealt with directly or, in the parlance of the Sixties, I would tell it like it is. Old is old. Say so and perhaps, in some small way, it would become a less negative description.

Flora asked, when does old age begin? Millie Garfield of My Mom's Blog (who at 85 and like Flora, has been referring to me as a kid for many years), in a comment on the same post, noted the medical definitions, young-old and old-old. In general, physicians and researchers divide old age thusly:

  • Young-old: 55 to 74
  • Mid-old: 75 to 84
  • Old-old: 85 and up

Some in the medical community skip the middle category and classify everyone 75 and up as old-old. This makes sense.

When I attended a week-long seminar in 2009 (The Age Boom Academy where a dozen journalists and I were allowed to study face-to-face with about 35 experts, including two Nobel laureates, from many individual fields of aging presenting their latest findings), the consensus was that old-old begins at 75, the age at which, on average, the diseases of age begin appearing in the population in large numbers.

Seven years ago or so, when I created the parameters for a blog to be included on the Elderbloggers List, I chose age 50 as the low end to qualify. I didn't know as much about aging and generations then as I do now and if I were beginning that list today, I would set the age at 60. There are several reasons – mainly, that the decade between those two ages makes a large difference in one's worldview.

At 50, many people are still raising children or getting them through college. By 60, that is largely finished and most are beginning to consider winding down careers and retiring (if they haven't already been dispatched from the workplace due to age discrimination).

Given the overwhelming cultural inclination to demonize old age, there will always be deniers, people who claim at 60, 70 and even 80 to still be young. How foolish that is just on mathematical grounds. Average life expectancy in developed countries ranges from about 77 to 81, so if you have hit 60, you have entered the realm of the old.

Be proud of it. You have lived, loved and learned. In most cases, you still have a long way to go and much to give back from your years of experience. But it is damned hard to claim knowledge – and respect for it - if you insist on a pretense of youth.

Old age is not an iota less valuable than youth which is, as Dr. Bill Thomas has written, not the gold standard of life, whatever anyone says. On this blog, the old are celebrated not over youth, which has its own virtues, but equally, beside it.

Nevertheless, it is hard in a youth-saturated culture for anyone to remain entirely immune to the omnipresent pressures of anti-aging nostrums and Botox injections. So I want to add a small personal warning to readers.

When I was a kid, there was a catchphrase grownups used to claim they were not getting old: life begins at 40. It was, of course, taken by everyone in reverse – at 40, you were old - not something anyone wanted, then or now, to be.

Like most people, after I became an adult I believed 40 was the divide between young and old and when that birthday was approaching, I spent my 39th year too frequently bemoaning this belief to my friends. (To their credit, they did not abandon me.)

Then, when 2011 was about to arrive a few weeks ago, I remembered that in this new year, I will hit another of those big round birthdays, 70, and was surprised – even after all these years at Time Goes By lobbying for a positive view of age – that I feel a bit of vapors about it, a gulp, an oh-my-god moment or two.

I suspect that one way I will deal with this trepidation, mild as it is compared to 40, is to write about it here. I don't know how yet, but related posts will no doubt appear. Unlike my 40-era friends, at least you have been warned.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary Follett: Things You Do Not Prepare For


I know exactly how you feel as you (gulp)approach 70 because I've been there. It hasn't been too bad, but in March I'll let you know how I feel when I turn 74. And another thing, Ronni: you are a darn great writer.......loved this post. Dee:)

Hormones or the demise thereof were the first clue I was headed over the top of the hill...but that is compensated for by all my experiences and knowledge...so it IS all a number.

Thoughts hit home. I agree, tell it like it is. I reached the 60 milestone last year and as I continue in the workforce, I encounter dramatically different career experiences than that of my 40s and 50s.

Perhaps if we count all of the good things about being old?

Old age envy might creep in.

Many of the younger would love to be able to sleep in, read a book from cover to cover,
not have to report every day to a boss, have health coverage etc.

In my previous life I spent some time working as an RN in a hospital Med-Surg unit. All of us quickly learned the uselessness of age alone for anticipating the needs of a new patient. Regularly, in report, we asked for clarification, i.e. "a young 75 or an old 75?" Age is definitely not just a number! At 63, I have "young" days and "old" days and all of this for me is mental (as in attitude or mood). I am frequently brought up short with surprise when I am reminded how old (by the numbers) I have become. When did that happen? Our children think we lead a "boring" life but we rather like it!

I, too, had a hard time turning 40, although I am not sure I admitted it to anyone at the time! Having a second child at age 45 was a huge surprise (I thought that I couldn't have more children) and my wonderful doctor and I laughed every time he had to fill in my chart with the Latin word for "older pregnant woman" which I have since blanked out of my memory! Half the time now I can't even remember my age.(Did I turn 63 or 64 last year?)

The definition of old age has changed over the years.

It used to be: As old as my grandmother.

Then it was: As old as my parents.

Then it was: Ten years older than me.

Now it's . . . wait, it's still ten years older than me!

Passing through the 70,s and most ways no different then my 60,s. So it is really just a number
Always surprises me when people in their 50's and 60's refer to themselves as old.
Will let you know when I feel old. Think it is a long way off.

Sometimes I have to laugh when I read about these 'old' people on this blog who are at least 10--15 years younger than me. Yes, I have been very fortunate in my health but even more fortunate in my choice to be a perpetual volunteer! I have always been too busy to reflect on my age!
Now that I am almost 83 I still 'volunteer' and hope to "go while the going is good".
I do think much more often of the special people of my heart that I miss terribly--and always will. May I live to be worthy of them!

"I am old, I am old, I wear my trousers rolled" - "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" T.S. Elliot

I'm not rolling my trousers yet. How about you?

You won't delete this one will you?

Maybe one sign of aging is when you delete the remarks of those who don't agree with you.

I think our development follows the same pattern now as it did when we were babies. Changes - like teeth coming in for example - tend to happen in a similar order from one child to the next (incisors first, etc), but the age at which they happen can vary hugely from child to child.
Whether you're talking physical, mental, emotional or spiritual development, the same rule seems to apply. Throughout our lives we progress from stage to stage in a similar order but each at our own pace.
Bill Plotkin speaks really well to this in his detailed, metephor-rich road map for whole-life spiritual development entitled Nature and the Human Soul.

Each year that passes finds me unable to do things that I did the year before. Growing old is progressive just like growing up was. The difference is that it's in reverse.

Old age requires many adjustments but also has many rewards. The only thing I regret about being old is the obvious; statistically, I am much closer to the end of my life.

There's the way we feel about aging and then there's the way people start to look at/treat us. Now that's a surprise! You're doing whatever and then someone responds to "how you look," not to YOU as you feel inside. That's an adjustment for sure.

Like you, Ronni, I will reach the big Seven-O (uh-oh!) this year. I know it's only a number, but...well...it does seem like an awfully big one.

My mother is 94, living alone and doing well, so she looks back at 70 as nothing at all to dread.

May we be that fortunate!

Much food for thought in this post. I wanted to respond in about 15 places, but I forgot where. I still feel 12, at least in the pool. On dry land I feel every arthritic bone in my body. Thanks for a thoughtful piece.

Dee, I turned 74 a couple of weeks ago and it's not much different from 73 or even 68 (for me). I guess I view old as Sightings defined it: 10 years older than I am now. I hope I differ from the average in that I'd rather avoid the diseases of old age that are supposed to set in at 75, which I'll be next year. Like most of us, I'd much prefer to die in my sleep at 85+ while still relatively healthy. Hats off to SuzyR's mom--94 and on her own.

I agree with Monica that our work force experiences change as we age. I stepped down from a management position about 8 years ago and, although I'm fortunate to remain employed part-time, it's obvious (sometimes painfully) that my role has changed. I still struggle with that sometimes. I know things won't be returning to the way they used to be--and I'm not sure I could sustain the pace if they did!

I will be 70 this year. It feels like a more substantial passage than 40 50 or 60. Grateful for good health, creative energy, optimism. Here let me get up on the soapbox about the word OLD which deserves reclaiming by all of us older adults. Its roots mean "to nourish." And that seems to speak to something very basic about aging. By the time you accumulate 6 or 7 or 8 decades, hopefully you know something useful about nourishing onself and others. To me old is a nourishing, powerful journey into new territory.

Having survived an 'old people's disease', at age 31, I had a "preview of coming attractions". Thirty-two years later I'm still fighting the good fight. And I appreciate the saying "Everyday is a gift -- that's why it's called the present -- so I try to get through each day as best I can. Some days it's easier than others but that's the way it's always been and always will be. I can deal with that.

I've seen the 'white light' and said, "Not yet." so count on me to be hanging around for a long time. I'm glad that I'm old. The only thing I miss really about being young is the energy and memory I had in my misspent youth.

The older I get, the more I push out the numbers for the definition of being old. At 70, old to me is 85. Maybe I'm kidding myself....LOL

Yesterday, I felt old. Today, whipping my common cold into shape, I feel really pretty darned good. At sixty, I felt just barely middle aged. Even after seven surgeries, I still felt flat out good. When my hip went, and I followed the doc's orders to not walk, suddenly I ached in every corner and felt old, beyond old, and even older.

Yes, you have to have the zest to keep on living life, but zest doesn't help if you hurt everywhere. Now that I am swimming, walking, and stretching again, I can tell you that I truly am only as old as I feel. Most days now I feel middle aged....at 70 too.

Sixty was the big one too me and before that 26 or 27, somewhere in there. I felt I had left behind being a girl at that age. At 60, I felt I had reached old age. I don't think I will care at all about 70 as once I reached old age, what difference do a few digits mean? It might come again somewhere on a birthday though. Often you don't know until you've had it.

OLD AGE ENVY! Now that's a flag I will help carry. When will we start BRAGGING about our ages again?

My father always objected to fancy wancy terms like "senior citizen" and "sunset years". He would get quite angry and say: "What's wrong with the word 'old'?"
He was right. What is wrong with it?
My moment came, believe it or not, when I turned 30. I was drunk for 3 days. I hated hated my thirties. I felt done for. Over the hill, youth mispent and nothing to show for it and no hope.
I was terribly wrong, of course. Each successive birthday decade now is exciting to me. I have lost far too many friends in their forties, fifties and now sixties. So 70 to me will be a milestone to be truly celebrated and honoured.
I haven't felt old since I turned 40.
Whatever old means.

In less than a month I earn the "old-old" label, I guess. It always surprises me when news accounts of some accident/incident involves someone younger than me who's "elderly". I am regularly told that I don't look/act almost 75. I respond, "Believe it, this is the new 75". Doing my bit to change the aging image.

Wow, Mage, seven are a LOT of surgeries, but it sounds like they were well worth it in terms of mobility. So far the three back surgeries I had in my 20s are holding together. Except for occasional problems with knees and shoulders, the rest of me seems to be, as well. I hope my good fortune continues. My husband is 81, and he's in pretty good shape, so I'm hopeful.

As long as I can get around, live independently, run my own errands, take care of our home, drive, work and volunteer, I don't feel really old because I'm part of the larger outside world. That's true for me even if others view me as old. I could probably let one or two of those things go, but when they're ALL gone, I think I pretty much will be, too.

When I hit the Big 7-0 my first thought was that I can get away with shaving off a few years. It took a couple of months to finally think: what's wrong with 70? And why can't i admit it out loud? So I started a blog called Big 7-0 and Going Strong. Now I own 70 and 71 and 72 is six months away. In certain social situations I just might be inclined to shave off 4 or 5 years but not in blog-land. The 70s are good so far and "going strong" is real not whistling in the wind. Honesty is good too if it inspires others in any way.

Everyday I try unsuccessfully to define myself by the numbers. I have a long way to go, that's all I know. As well, I won't be bullied and denigrated because I offer things differently because I act within what I feel comfortable with within my age. I'm happy to report, I'm done with apologizing about not being younger!

Bring it on, Ronni, I for one will be happy to listened to you sound out 70 and what it all means!

I am sure age is just a number, sort of. However, at 54, when I read that old age was supposed to start in 9 months, that didn't feel right. But when you say 60, that makes sense. Because I can feel the first motes of old age floating through me like dust of my life to come.

Funny that Mythster and I both thought of Prufrock in connection with your subject,Ronni.

Here is another line that is appropriate.

"For I have known them all already, known them all:—

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;"

Wouldn't life be interesting if sex hormones did not wane with age?

Enjoy the number you are now because the next one is coming. When it arrives enjoy it too as the next one... Well, you get the idea.

What a wonderful piece Ronni. I found it thoroughly engrossing. It recalled a piece I wrote on this topic about a year ago. I have since located it and posted it on my blog.

Life After 50, or 60 or … whatever.

Wow, lots to think about, and thanks Ronni. I remember I was devastated during my 39th year on becoming 40. When I finally hit 40, it wasn't such a big deal, I had suffered the year before. Then when I turned 50, it was rough, because I was single, lonely and hated my job. Now that I am 67, I find that my attitude has a great affect on how "old I feel." When I get busy I get better and that goes along with aging. Today I feel good, healthy and alive because I am starting to get involved in the community, I am in gratitude for my healthy and my family. Its an adjustment to be retired, especially when its forced on you and you aren't quite ready to accept that shift. But now, after a couple of years of letting go of what was, I am now looking forward to what will be.

Okay I am going to try this: I hope somebody can offer me some words of wisdom. I have read all the comments, and really enjoyed that mostly they were positive on reaching 70+.

Anyway, everyone has something to look back on, I mean gained experience in doing something.

Because of my own insecurities and low self esteem and lack of belief in myself, I just never did anything. I feel like I missed the boat on everything, and that I have been sleeping my way through my life, ( I mean metaphorically, not being promiscuous) just being a housewife, and getting divorced and remarried, dating and such. That is it.

I have reached 59 years and have nothing to look back on. I had one son, but always feel and know I was not the best mother. Was in a bad marriage and such. No life experience though, I never just did anything, like I read about every one else who is older.

I regret my past, and that is probably why I am so afraid of getting older. I even just got my driver's license last year at 58.

Anyway, now I am left with the feeling that my life is gone (or a lot of it) and I have no memories, no experience. The time has just gone, and I didn't even realize it.

I just do not know how to feel, and I thought that maybe someone would read through this and offer some words of wisdom on how or what I could do and how to look at my life now.

As I said everyone, I mean everyone has a life of experiences to look back on, some contribution made by their work and such. If I had that I probably would not mind getting older, and loosing my looks and stuff. I could have felt that I had done something worth while in this world.

Well, I am repeating myself now. I hope some one may offer their insight or opinions to me.

My mother in law is 91 and still colors her hair and has a manicure every few weeks. She is not denying her age but living the age she perceives herself to be. And in that age, she wants to look her best.

The shift in advertising to use older women is leading the way to teaching us a deeper sense of beauty and what constitutes the advantages of aging. There is a new culture of age on the horizon.

It isn't so much that we believe we are as old as we feel, as we need to feel young enough to be old, The same energy that fueled us as young people can be tapped to enjoy, celebrate and share the wisdom garnered by age.

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