As I of write here, the few news stories about elders, a large number are about those, even 80 and older, who climb mountains, jump out of airplanes, run marathons and otherwise outdo even much younger people at physical challenges.
These super-achieving old people are always portrayed as heroic, as the ideal, and that the rest of us should be out there biking the brutal Tour de France or its equivalent.
The result is, of course, a not-so-subtle pressure for all elders to keep doing, keep achieving and push, push, push ourselves to be like 30- and 40-somethings until we're dead.
What those reporters, young 'uns themselves, don't know is that the old people they are interviewing are the aberration. A large majority of us are quite happy to stick closer to home and take our exercise, and our lives in general, in lighter form.
What important today is that In many cases it is not just a preference, it is all we are capable of. On Wednesday, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, noting that “energy in an arc, and it bends over a lifetime toward depletion”, wrote
”I’m 54 now, and aging is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s also the greatest blessing that I’ve ever been given: I’m not just still around, but I also savor the wisdom of greater perspective and the freedom of letting many of the demands I once made of myself fall by the wayside.
“The hell of aging is limits. But that’s the heaven of it, too. Sometimes to have the parameters of your life shrink is to be unburdened of too many decisions and of indecision itself...” *
All true and it may be the first time I know of that a reporter wasn't giving us the usual “but...” about running at least a half marathon or starting a new business from scratch.
Those limits Bruni mentions? Whether a result of illness or “just” old age, they are impediments even to everyday, ordinary tasks as my most recent mystery malady has made clear.
Without going into detail, it is mostly joint and body pains that come and go and move around my body. An over-the-counter pain killer makes them mostly tolerable but leaves some everyday activities difficult to do.
I can't reach the microwave without a sharp pain in my arm. Getting in and out of bed produces shots of pain from neck to knees. Sometimes my hands hurt so much I can't hold the toothbrush. You get the idea and compared to some I know, I'm doing well.
Yet as difficult as it can be, most old people keep going. Maybe slower, maybe not getting out and about as frequently as they once did and taking more rest breaks but as much as possible, they are doing the things that need getting done along with the pleasures, old and new, they can accommodate.
As Frank Bruni understands, they can “...savor the wisdom of greater perspective and the freedom of letting many of the demands I once made of myself fall by the wayside.”
Yes. Old people know a lot about how unimportant are the things that once seemed crucial. And even as physical demands become more difficult, that “perspective” of which Bruni speaks comes into great play in old age, just when we need it most.
How lucky for us.
It is the patience, creativity and persistence of old people, largely without complaint, that allow them/us to adapt to the one thing that is constant in everyone's life: change. There is just more of it coming at us faster when we are old.
For all that, to me it is not the elder mountain climbers who are heroes to be held up as paragons of old age. It is the majority of old people, the millions who take the lemons life gives us and make the best lemonade we can in our individual circumstance.
They are the ones who deserve our hero worship and hurray to all of us.
* The Frank Bruni quotations are from his weekly, email newsletter which is not yet available online.