For the purposes of this episode, I don’t mean biological old age. We’ve already explored that. We know that all of us will experience both physical and cognitive decline. The unknowns are how much and how fast. The goal is to die from natural causes in your sleep before either of those problems become cataclysmic.
To pursue this further, though, I think we need to define our terms. After all, what do we really mean when we say ‘old age?’
I started with the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry:
“There is no universally accepted age that is considered old among or within societies. Often discrepancies exist as to what age a society may consider old and what members in that society of that age and older may consider old. Moreover, biologists are not in agreement about the existence of an inherent biological cause for aging. However, in most contemporary Western countries, 60 or 65 is the age of eligibility for retirement and old-age social programs, although many countries and societies regard old age as occurring anywhere from the mid-40s to the 70s.”
Pretty nebulous and not really all that helpful. Old age is about a lot more than retirement, no? To get some ideas, I tried googling ‘famous quotes about aging’ to see what others have said about it. Interestingly, everything that came up was either upbeat or humorous. I tried searching for ‘negative quotes about aging’ and I got the same feel-good lists. I tried ‘Who said getting old sucks?’ and a good clip popped up of Michael Douglas and Robert DeNiro discussing aging when they were both around 68-69 in 2013. Spoiler alert: they were both pretty upbeat about their future prospects.
Evidently, you can’t say anything bad about getting old on the web. Why is that?
Bernard Baruch came up with a creative way to get around the problem: “To me old age is always fifteen years older than I am.”
Strangely enough, I have to agree with him. Seventy-two doesn’t seem all that old now that I’ve reached it. When I read obituaries about people dying in their 60s and 70s, I think, ‘So young!’ Looking forward, my gut tells me that 85 might be old, but then I meet someone who is 85 and they blow-up my stereotype.
This raises the possibility that, perhaps, there is no such thing as being old. Maybe being old is a social construct like race and exists only in our minds and our world view. What do you think?
Oh, sure, you can rack up birthday after birthday and you can be the oldest person in the room and you’re probably not as spry as you used to be, but is that enough to classify you as ‘old?’
I’ve never sat down and created a list of criteria that I could use to tell me when I was old. Is it when I can no longer jog 2 miles? Is it when it takes me a long time to organize my thoughts and say something? Is it when I need help with my activities of daily living?
It might be that, to a great extent, we confound deteriorating health with old age. For most of us, the two go hand in hand, but it’s the health issues that eat away at our quality of life, not our numerical age.
The same can be said of our cognitive abilities. Because the vast majority of dementias occur in ‘old age,’ we confound the two. In fact, it is the disease of dementia that is the problem, not our age.
The ageless Satchel Paige raised a good point: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” What I like about this idea is that it puts the determination in your hands and not in the hands of those around you. It assumes, though, that you’ve still got your wits about you. I’m guessing the answer he might have provided is something along the lines of: “You are as old as you feel.”
There is, in fact, some research that suggests having a perceived age (“How old do I feel?”) that is lower than your actual age can be protective against age-related decline.
Sally and I have adopted a motto to help us manage some of the challenges we’re now facing in our early 70s: “Smart, not brave.” It acknowledges that our bodies and brains are not what they were in our 20s. It relies upon our having the insight and wisdom to know when we are pushing our limits…and to accept that conclusion when we are.
So it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to come up with a good definition of what it means to be old. Perhaps being old is, after all, a state of mind and not a chronological fact. Maybe being old is not a problem, but the diseases and declines that correlate with it are. Or maybe it exists, but it’s really hard to define. Perhaps we don’t need to define it, but just recognize it, à la Justice Potter Stewart who, when asked to define pornography, answered: “I know it when I see it.”
Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I’m not there yet. And given the current state of my physical and cognitive health, I have to agree with Maurice Chevalier: “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”
Finally, let me leave you with Mark Twain’s view on the subject: “Age is a matter of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
And some days I feel old. And some days I feel young. And the feeling always centers around how my body feels.
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I hadn’t thought about the fickleness of feeling old. You are absolutely right: our bodies are probably the primary driver of our feelings about how old we are.
Sandy always tells me to grow older but not old. As to Paige’s: You are as old as you feel you are. I am definitely getter older!
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Solid advice from Sandy. As for feeling older…join the club!