The serendipity is that it arrived when I had wondering for awhile if we – you and I, other old people, younger people and the media that report on ageing (who are rarely old themselves) – spend too much time worrying about all the terrible things that can happen to us in our late years.
The thing that worries us all, of course, is an awful diagnosis or the accident – a broken hip, for one example - that can turn us instantly from living in competent independence to helplessness from which we may or may not recover. There are plenty of other things that can wreck our old age plans too.
We are reminded of this from a lot of angles. Discussions of nursing homes – often horror stories. Reports on ageing in place and its alternatives - sometimes, recently, with warnings about the dangers of living alone. Articles reminding us to see our physician at least once a year even if there is no immediate reason. Warnings about drugs interactions and so on.
Pretty much the only good news about growing old are reports of the outliers who climb Mt. Everest at 85 and run marathons at 90 which infer that the rest of us, the 99 percent, aren't keeping up and are, therefore deficient.
(That Montreal Gazette story anchors its report with an interview with an active elder who refuses to give her age but is described by the reporter as having “passed the biblical allotment of three score years and 10 a couple of decades ago.”)
The overview of elders health in the Montreal Gazette story repeats the typically negative way statistics on our group are reported.
”In the 85-and-over age group, 35 per cent of women and 23 per cent of men lived in nursing homes or other care facilities.”
Really?! I think the more honest news is that 65 percent of women and 77 percent of men in that age group do not live in nursing homes or other care facilities.
Here's another example:
”Among Canadians 80 and older, 37 per cent had four or more chronic conditions in 2009, from a list that includes arthritis, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, effects of a stroke and Alzheimer’s...”
That means, if you look at it differently, a large majority, 63 percent of Canadians 80 and older do not have four or more chronic conditions.
Geriatrician Bill Thomas has been saying for years that old people have standing in the United States (undoubtedly Canada too) only as far as they behave like young people – and the widely-believed stereotype is that old age is a terrible time of life filled with disease, debility and decline, a belief that automatically marginalizes elders from participating in society.
It's certainly not untrue that our bodies slow down in all kinds of way as the years pile up but it's not all of us by any means and not even a majority. Take a look at what a wide-ranging, 2009 Pew survey discovered about how elders really live versus younger people's expectations for their own old age:
”About one-in-four adults ages 65 and older report experience memory loss. About one-in-five say they have a serious illness, are not sexually active, or often feel sad or depressed.
“About one-in-six report they are lonely or have trouble paying bills. One-in-seven cannot drive. One-in-ten say they feel they aren’t needed or are a burden to others.
“But when it comes to these and other potential problems related to old age, the share of younger and middle-aged adults who report expecting to encounter them is much higher than the share of older adults who report actually experiencing them.”
Here's the Pew Research chart comparing young expectations to elder reality:
While working on this post, I've been trying to remember what I believed, in my childhood and young adulthood, what old age was like. It's not so easy to do, in my case. There are hardly any elder relatives.
My great Aunt Edith retired from full-time work at age 70 and lived on her own until she got sick at age 89 and died within a few weeks. Until then, she did quite well with some help during the last few years with house cleaning and shopping. She had a wonderful sense of humor about the physical surprises that snuck up on her in old age.
Both my parents died relatively young - my father died in his mid-60s from cancer that had been diagnosed while he was still working so he didn't get to grow old. My mother, even with two hip replacements, lived well on her own until she died at age 75 of cancer.
A couple who were sort of adopted grandparents I knew throughout my childhood were active, healthy and lived on their own until they died. For awhile we thought Ray had become deaf but then realized he only pretended so when he wanted to ignore his wife who always had one more household chore for him, then one more and so on. It became a family joke that he was so selectively deaf.
Friends' parents I knew were healthy and living on their own until into their late 70s and 80s and beyond in a couple of cases so discounting disease, which seems to me to be happenstance over which no one has much control, my personal experience with advanced age is it works out pretty well for most people.
And two of my best online friends that I've known for a decade, Millie Garfield and Darlene Costner, will both be 91 years old this year. They are wonderful role models for any of us who are lucky enough to grow as old as they are.
There is, of course, no way to know with certainty if our expectations affect how our old age turns out to be. But mine are all positive and without being too stupid about it, I think I will just continue to believe that I'll get old similarly.
What about you?
SPEAKING OF LIVING WELL INTO OLD, OLD AGE: On Sunday, our own Darlene Costner will celebrate her 91st birthday. Happy Birthday, Darlene!