Almost universally, surveys reveal that people believe old age begins at some time beyond the age they are at the moment. This is particularly so of age deniers but many of the rest of us congratulate ourselves, if only privately, on our youthfulness.
Other surveys ask how old people feel compared to their current age. A common answer is, “I feel 10 years younger than I am.” You can substitute 15 or 20 years which turn up regularly in those polls.
Here's my perennial response that: This makes no sense. It is an unanswerable question because whatever you feel at your current age is how that age feels – at least, for you.
And a lot of how old people feel depends on their health.
Some gerontologists and geriatricians divide old age into three (or four) general age groups. The Wikipedia page on old age (which is a good overview) reports several such definitions including these two:
Young old – 60-69 years
Middle old – 70-79 years
Old old – 80 plus
Young old – 65-74 years
Middle old – 75-84
Old old – 85 plus
There are more such divisions, but you get the idea. Personally, those few years of difference among the categories don't amount to a hill of beans but although ageing is not an exact science, the categories are useful in medicine for identifying life changes that are generally expected if you live long enough.
Still, we age at dramatically different rates. Some people at 60 are in severe decline; others at 90 are robust. But that doesn't make either of them young.
The age at which people are considered old is important socially, commercially, politically and governmentally. Retirement age is set depending on a culture's perception of old age which determines access to social security benefits, health care and allows legislators to set public priorities and spending for elders.
(It has occurred to me that if the age deniers I've met controlled the definition of old age, none of us would have Social Security benefits or Medicare – and that's only halfway a joke.)
Then there are the young young's definition of old. In my reading around the web over many years, I have seen uncounted blog entries by 29-year-olds terrified of their impending 30th birthday when, they say, they will be over the hill, unattractive and unsexy.
That tells you a lot about what young people think of their parents and grandparents. I recall that when I started dating at about age 16, I was appalled – and embarrassed - that my mother, recently divorced from my father, was starting to date too, at age 40. To my teenage self, she was way past the age when a person could fall in love.
My experience with a cancer diagnosis over the past seven or eight months has reinforced how much one's health has to do with accepting old age. My age is 76, 77 in April, and as noted above, that is the age I feel. I've always felt to be whatever age I am at the moment.
But I am more aware now of decline. These days, I plan my activities carefully because I tire more easily than before the surgery last June. One event a day is about all I'm willing to undertake and “event” can mean even a longish telephone conversation with a friend.
A visit to the doctor is usually enough for one day or dinner out with a friend or a shopping trip with more than one stop, etc. Recently, I invited neighbors for dessert with some cheeses and ice wine because I couldn't face cooking a whole dinner. (Yet. Maybe soon.)
A young person with a serious health problem can, in most cases, expect to bounce back to full capacity. Most old people won't. And if you are lucky enough to escape a terrible and/or debilitating diagnosis, gradual decline is your future. That is the difference between old and young.
Lots of people like to say that age is only a number. Oh yeah? I don't mean to be harsh, but you will die and most of us die because we are old. That is the nature of life.
Our job in old age (whatever number you put on it) is to make peace with that inevitable which doesn't mean there are not a lot good things about growing old.
When did you (or will you) accept that you are old?