The Need for a Few Good Geriatricians

If You've Seen One Old Person...

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.


Ronni,you are so right - as are your two lovely older friends. We elders can't be lumped together just because we are 55 or older.
I too have known people in their 50s who are really in bad shape, and people over 90 who joke and laugh and keep up with the conversation. I am in a bridge group with a woman who is 102, and she plays better than I do at 69.
I think people use stereotypes of elders just as they do of ethnic groups, religious groups, and nationalities - to them, it seems easier to lump people together than to try to know individuals. It's mental laziness.
As usual, you have provided a thought-provoking piece. Thanks!

Interesting post. I have always taken a lesson from my mother and paternal grandmother. While my mother had a minor stroke at 60 (refused to take BP medication) and though she recovered, she went downhill from there. At 70, she couldn't drive, had to use a cane, developed Type II, then Type I diabetes and died at 78.

My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, was making veggie gardens at 75. She could name all our descendents (and their birth/death dates) well into her 80s. She was fun to talk to, read voraciously and was able to get around until she broke her hip at age 90. She then went downhill fast, dying at 92.

But those two showed me the wide chasm between elders -- and not lumping them all into a 65+ group.

My friend just turned 90 years old and lives in a senior residence nearby.

We met seven years ago after I asked her if she needed gardening help, when she lived alone in a bungalow.

I cherish my friendship with her. she has given me some valuable advice about life.

We go for breakfast every two weeks and chat about life, goals, family. She is not bored or unhappy with her new living arrangement,

She drives, is on various committees, and is friendly to her fellow tenants.

However, she likes her privacy and doesn't want people ringing her doorbell without an invitation.

I like how she has made a home for herself, and stays close with her relatives, who live in other provinces,

She has no children, however, she has nieces and nephews who visit her regularly from other provinces.

If this is how life might be at age 90, well, then, I won't be tiptoeing fearfully toward it.

Getting older surely has its downsides, but they're not so much the ones I expected when I was younger. What I underestimated was human adaptability. We can adjust to limitations and a 'new normal' better than we think we can.

Everyone's life has some good and some bad in it. We can't choose to have nothing bad happen. We can choose whether we spend our time obsessing about the bad and being miserable, or deliberately focusing on the good parts, which are always there when we look for them, and being happy.

And yes, there are some situations that are so bad no-one could find any reason to be happy. All the same, I am pretty sure these are far fewer than we would think from the outside.

I know lots of people born the same year as me, 1951, and they are all different. Even my closest friends that I relate to best because I think we're on the same wavelength are vastly different from me.

In a way, you can't blame most people for categorizing all old folks into one wrinkled lump. After all, how much contact do people really have with seniors. I, myself, had a tendency to view the elderly as one homogenous group, and I was 62. It was not until it was necessary for me to move to an ALF, that I realized that the diversity among seniors 65+ was as different as the 18 to 35 demographic that advertisers love so much. I'll bet there are many of you who rarely make contact with more than one or two seniors at once. But go to a senior center in your neighborhood and you will be enlightened when you see the variety of wit, humor, skills and interests these people have. The greatest disservice we can do to anybody is to say "Oh, he's a -----, they're all like that.

You're so right, Ronni.

is a bit like going to a nude beach for the first time. You always thought human bodies were much the same, with a few minor differences in shape and size and sagginess, but when you're actually there you discover, with delight, that the variety is astounding and endless - and quite marvellous.

I think if we define Baby Boom as a large increase in live births, then the boom took place 1946-1960. I checked the graph shown on Wikipedia for baby boomers. By 1960. The birth rate was down to pre war levels.

But I suspect the later date, through 1965, is used because for some reason these births reflect some common factor with the earlier ones. Perhaps they are meant to reflect the births of the youngest children of the youngest veterans of WWII veterans?

The early Boomers should be grouped separately from the later Boomers, IMO. But even if the birth groupings seem to share broad brush characteristics, the individuals are each unique, carrying genetic, cultural and personal factors that go beyond their birth dates.

So much of how our generation is described is now written by much younger people, defining us by our ages as if we were all of a piece. Or, as if we are maddening, selfish people. Or perhaps, as if we are exotic and unknowable. We, ourselves, should be defining ourselves for ourselves, as well as for those that don't have a clue about us or the attainments of age.

We could probably make a start in not stereotyping if people would stop giving names to generations. As a Baby Boomer, I'm sick to death of being blamed for every ill in society and being labeled as self-absorbed, while the "Greatest Generation" is, well, the greatest.

I am sure there are many not-so-great people in the Greatest Generation, just as there are many selfless, caring people among the Baby Boomers.

We are all different and we are all the same. That's the bottom line.

There comes a certain age when you realize you have been given a gift of a few extra years on this planet and you are grateful in spite of the damage aging has done to your body.

You can either enjoy them and focus on the beauty that is always available (even if it's only pictures in a book) or you can focus on the arthritic hands that drop things and hurt.

It's really up to you. But then, that's true at any age.

Having sounding like Pollyanna I must qualify that. We never know the pain someone else may be suffering so even that advice has its limitations.

Along with generalizations, we should avoid stereotyping as Dr. Porter pointed out.

When I was young (living in the mid-west in the 50s) a lot of families lived together. I remember lots of homes had some spinster aunt or uncle who was just part of the family, sitting in the kitchen all the time. They didn't SEEM to be serving any purpose, but they did. They showed (by example) what was going to happen with age.

Now that our older relatives don't live with us (or even in close proximity), we don't see the aging process...making it impossible to know what to expect. This, plus the fact that the media has always loved lumping everyone together....well, I see no end in sight.

One thing though, thank goodness for your blog. One beacon of truth in a sea of you-can-be young-forever claptrap :)

Lots to think about in this blog. Darlene, I think, hits it best. We all have our joys and sorrows--some almost unbearable but we still live. As long as life is present there is always something to be done, solved or ignored.
At 87.5--please note the .5. I have had a very busy, productive life. Filled with all of the above. There are days when the sorrows and regrets overwhelm me, then those days when somehow I am able to say "to h--- with it and carry on. We can't change the past we can change the example we leave behind for our children and friends. I want mine to remember me with a kind thought or two and better yet a laugh!

Decades ago, when I taught courses on aging, I told my students that I could more easily describe the average 20-year old than the average 60-year old. I then showed them data on variations within each age group by income, health, education, marital status, housing, attitudes, politics, sexual behavior, work, etc. The differences among the 60-year olds were much greater than among the 20-year olds.

As someone commented, the age stereotypes are perpetrated by marketing people. But they target young adults, so their generalizations aren't too far off. Nancy referred to the 'Greatest Generation.' Marketers also label them the 'G.I." and "Silent Generation" -- more stereotyping! I'm 71 and not at all 'silent.'

Government policies also encourage age grouping. Medicare: everyone age 65+. Older Americans Act: 60+. Social Security: 62, 66 or 70 for different benefit levels.

As you and many commenters write, the older we are the more we understand that the differences are much greater in old age. In fact, there is a myth that all Baby Boomers are well educated, doing well financially, etc. Few people realize, for example, that 11% of Boomers do NOT have a high school diploma (age 65+ is 19%). More than half of them have little or no retirement savings.

In any age group, but especially Boomers or 65+, there's a "tyranny of averages" that hides major differences. Ronni, thanks for this reminder.

One again .. Thank-you!

This paragraph is so true.

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.

The most surprising is that as skills wane or physical strength changes with age I also have less vested in keeping things (myself) the same. I just do not care that much. I will give it my best shot and then I move on to something else.

This is the first year I've felt "old". I'm 82.5 (with a wink to NWD) and after a trip to the ER for a problem that turned out to be attributed to the fact that these things happen "as you get older". Hmph! The parts just start to wear out.

Some days are "Okay-let's GO!" and others are "Oy vay!" And actually it's kind of interesting to note the changes in our bodies-from a scientific viewpoint. The thinning of the skin, loss of balance, more ache to the bones, etc. I never realized or gave it any thought it till it happened.

Teenagers still cry "Nobody understands me!" and here we are still saying the same thing. Truthfully, I really don't care what group I'm put into-media be damned.

The only phrase that I wish they would stop using is "The golden years"...gold doesn't tarnish like this!

Aren't they delightful.

my mother used to say most of her friend's husbands went to pot at age 70. She said it so often, that I dread each year as I approach it--I am now 67.7 years of age. 80? That would really be something. I suppose, after the 70 milestone is absorbed, one assesses and absorbs it and just moves forward, provided all "working parts" are still in order and not adding too much drag or pain on my motion and mobility. Dementia, would be the "wild card" and we can only hope we are 'passed over" or a cure or retardant might be found. Back to my mother, she had a dear aunt who was in her late 80's when she was in her 70's and she served as her mentor and telephone companion for many a year--her key advice was, stay out of nursing homes, at all cost. Well, easier said than done; my mother spent a good 2 to 3 years in one, but didn't seem to care--like everything, she got used to it, until the end, when one day I called her to go over neighborhood memories and she told me that she was no longer interested in them, and, as it went, nor was she interested in talking to her "golden boy" youngest child and she went about the business of passing away at 85. Probably time for me to turn to religion to help put all this in perspective? I have NO older mentors, or older family members, just my wife, and she is a tad younger but relates equally to all this, but with life expectancy tables generally more favorable as a female. At least there is "Time Goes By" and I am thankful for the insights.

I reveled in being a "baby boomer." I felt invigorated by the fact that my generation cared about issues -- the Viet Nam War, Civil Rights, Women's Rights, the environment, all of it. I demonstrated, marched, volunteered time, campaigned, you name it!

And what did we accomplish? Nothing.

I still feel strongly about all those issues, but the world I see around me has not improved. In fact, I see so many wrongs and I get so indignant, but no one else seems to care.

And now I'm old and in poor health. Some days I can't even make myself read the newspaper, it depresses me so. Some days I can do household chores, but some days I can barely walk around. And what have I accomplished?

I have two grown children who are financially successful and who have children of their own who have graduated from college (something I never managed to do, although I went back to school several times). One of my children I feel close to and one I feel that I am only marginally important to, but they both have social consciences and are both busy with their own families and with their successful work -- in general they are happy, productive people, so I guess I must have done something right. Right?

Sounds like you've done a lot of things right, Classof65.

If you've seen one of a pair of identical twins then you don't know the other, what on earth makes anybody think you can generalise over entire age ranges like this? But if you really insist with this "if you've seen one..." idea, then I will pick as my one Mick Jagger. Seventy two and still strutting his stuff like a good 'un. This is what i expect to see from everybody from the ages of seventy to one hundred and twenty.

On the other hand, society does force people into molds, in particular having to retire at sixty five or seventy or whatever. That can affect a lot of people, quite badly in some cases, and it always happens at the same age because it's externally imposed.

Lastly, Classof65, just because everything didn't go according as you hoped, it doesn't mean you didn't achieve anything. All the protests about the Iraq war may not have stopped it happening, but it may well have helped stop war in Syria.

"Some people believe that there's no progress. They're wrong. There is progress, but it always takes far longer than you expected, and it's always disappointing when you get it." George Orwell, and I agree with him. Further I would add, that it's still worth fighting for. I salute you for what you did.

lastly lastly, for the record, I am a mere babe at 47. Even younger than you boomers.

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