That's the first half of a maxim that is crucial to understanding what old age is like and if you've been hanging out at this blog for awhile, you've read it before:
If you seen one old person, you've seen one old person
Obviously it is a play on a common insult: If you've seen one [insert anything you want to disparage], you've seen them all.
It is doubtful that is true for anything but it is particularly not true for old people. Even so, every person past the age of 60 or so is too often lumped together as though we are all the same.
The baby boomers make a good example.
The oldest of that generation will be 70 next year, the majority retired – voluntarily or otherwise. But the youngest are just 51. They've still got kids in college and are hoping there is time to save a lot more money before they retire.
They don't have much in common but any time you see their name in print or hear it in any other media, they are assumed to be the same kind of people.
And the worst of those boomer references include everyone from age 60 to dead in the category. For too many media types, “boomer” has become a synonym for anyone older than about 50.
Yet, the variations among us are at least as wide and deep as with the youngest ages of humanity. No one expects a two-year-old to be anything like a five-year-old to be anything like a 10-year-old to be anything like a teen.
More, elders age at dramatically different rates. Absent health problems, pretty much all kids walk, talk, run, jump, etc. at the same age – as close as within a week or two of one another.
Some old people, however, are frail and infirm in their fifties while many 90-somethings are as physically active as people decades younger, driving cars, and living independently. The constraints of old age, dependent as they are on genes, health and dumb luck, diverge without much relationship to actual years.
Certainly, however, some generalizations can be made. The older we get, the more our bodies wear out, systems slow down, strength wanes and we become increasingly susceptible to the so-called “diseases of age” - diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, etc. Who gets these and survives them for a time or not, is largely a crapshoot, hard to predict.
Barring a big deal disease – or until one happens – life overall and our capabilities slow down little by little and that happens no matter how much the midlife people tell us that if we do this and not that they won't.
Those people are wrong - there are no miracle cures for old age.
For the decade I've been writing this blog, starting when I was a “youthful” 63, the people I've paid most attention to about “what it's really like to get old” are my friends, Millie Garfield and Darlene Costner.
Each of them has 16 years on me (we celebrated Darlene's 90th birthday a few weeks ago and it won't be long until we do the same for Millie), and they have both, over these many years, let me know – with great, good humor but serious about it too – that I don't know nothin' yet about getting old.
In fact, it was just those words that both women used in comments last week. Darlene:
”If I could give advice to the young writers I would say: Sometimes we can't plan what we will do in the future.
“...all of you under the age of 80 who are experiencing slowing down should know that 'you ain't seen 'nuttn' yet'.
“I couldn't move fast if the room was on fire. I couldn't think fast if I were to be paid a million dollars for the right answer if given in 60 seconds. There are times when I feel like an old clock that is losing more time every hour. Or maybe an old car whose parts are falling off one by one.
“And yet I am still enjoying these waning years. I can still indulge myself in the activities I am able to enjoy and I have the freedom to set my own time table, slow though it may be.
“So don't fight the aging process and make adjustments in your lifestyle and activities as necessary.”
Millie arrived at the comments that day a while later, after Darlene, and probably didn't see the point in exerting herself to explain old, old age:
”Darlene said it all! 'You ain't seen' nuttn' yet.' Pay attention to everything she said. Words of wisdom - What a lady!”
Through the years, I've listened carefully to both these women; they have much more experience than I. They are nearly a generation older, only 10 years older than my parents. They were kids during the Great Depression; teens during the War; just getting going as adults in the post-War boom and that gives them a different outlook on life – and, undoubtedly, on old age - than me and certainly to baby boomers.
Only a young person could believe that people 50 or 60 and older can be lumped together – either as individuals or collectively.
As several readers have noted on past posts about this topic, finding only one catgory, “65+,” for age when filling in forms or responding to surveys is annoying and it is more than that. It is misleading and can even be dangerous when drawing conclusions from questions related to caregiving and government health policy.
Life is as different between 65 and 85 or 90 and beyond as between infant and teenager. Our culture needs to understand that to be able to make wise or even just useful decisions.