What Does Old Feel Like?
What does old feel like? How do you know when you’re old? I recently turned seventy, so I´ve started giving it some thought.
Perhaps my being a physician gives me a different perspective. To me, feeling old isn´t about aches and pains, cataracts, loss of hearing, fatigue and the like. It isn´t depression or loneliness. I have seen patients of all ages, including children, experience these symptoms. Grey hair, wrinkles, and sagging jowls are solely outward manifestations of aging. They make you look old, but not feel old, unless how you appear to others plays a large part in your identity. So I have removed illness, both physical and mental, and appearance from my criteria for feeling old.
Having eliminated these, I’m still left with the question.
What would make me feel old?
I feel no different now than I have ever felt. I have the same love of family and friends, love of music and painting, intellectual curiosity, delight in learning new things, and desire to explore new places and experiences. Mother Nature in her infinite variety never ceases to fascinate me. I’m definitely not done yet, whatever ‘done’ is. I doubt that I will ever reach a point where I won’t want to continue to grow intellectually. Only dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, could change that.
This seventy-year-old woman can remember more history, because she’s lived longer, but inside she’s thirty-five. I feel like I’m in the prime of my life, with years ahead of me. Why couldn’t I live to be ninety, with a little luck? Looking back, my mother must have had the same experience.
She was in her mid-seventies when I suggested that she go to a senior citizen center to meet new friends. She turned to me with a look of disgust on her face and told me, ‘I’ll never be old enough for that!’
I remember laughing at her comment, thinking how could she not see herself as old? How unrealistic and positively silly of her! How pompous of her to set herself above her peers! Now I realize that advanced years alone cannot define a subset of the population. It isn’t homogeneous.
If there are aging people out there who have the same outlook as my mother and I, and most certainly there are, then there are an enormous number of people who appear elderly to others, but don’t relate to their peers, because they perceive themselves as younger. That’s a troubling thought.
We have been programmed by the mass media and Hollywood to define aging in terms of physical limitations. “I’m slowing down. My arthritis makes walking difficult. I can’t drive at night any more.” The body is feeling the effects of aging and people interpret that as ‘feeling old.’ As I stated at the outset, people of all ages have physical limitations, but it doesn’t make them old. It makes them disabled, and disabilities can be dealt with to improve quality of life. Being old and feeling old are not synonymous.
I believe there are subsets of the elderly who define aging differently. There are those who define themselves by their arithmetic age, and lower their expectations of what life can offer, simply based on a number.
“I’m too old to do that.”
What does that mean?
“It’s not proper for me to take part in ice skating. That’s for youngsters. I’d look silly.”
Perceived societal norms dictate behavior, unnecessarily restricting options. Then there are those who celebrate their eightieth birthday by sky diving for the first time. These people clearly are not bound by those constraints. For them, their number of years doesn’t define them.
A second subset determines aging by physical limitations and pain. They feel defeated by what they see as the inevitable consequences of aging and can’t perceive a way of surmounting or circumventing them. Their good old days are gone, never to return.
To them I would say, “How about the good new days? You have other options.”
Then there are those who, having lost the ability to walk and are wheelchair bound, learn to paint. These people belong to the subset who focus upon their mental acuity and zest for life, regardless of their infirmities. These are the painters, sculptors, photographers, singers, writers, bikers, hikers, and travelers who choose to remain active and creative because they believe they can and must continue to improve themselves and expand their knowledge. It gives pleasure and meaning to their lives.
Lumping the elderly together for socialization can be very alienating for this third group. Agile minds need to associate with other agile minds, regardless of age. Activities need to be planned for people with common interests, not common ages. Young and old can learn from one another and benefit from each other’s unique life experiences.
Younger people, on the whole, tend not to want to socialize with those they see as old. Perhaps it makes them uncomfortable because it reminds them of their own mortality. Perhaps they can’t see what they have in common with people two or three times their age. That in itself is a learning experience.
There is a difference between remaining active and growing. I love to sing and enjoy the ‘old songs.’ I know the words and melodies, but singing them isn’t a challenge. I belong to a concert choir that performs choral music written by contemporary composers, with new harmonies and rhythms. There are many older people in our group as well as college students and young adults. Our love of music transcends age.
Society has always seen aging as nearing the end of the road. The sunset years. Time to rest and take it easy. Until the twentieth century, there was little that could be done to ease the discomforts and inconveniences of aging. Life expectancy was lower.
Today the number of elderly is growing rapidly, due in large part to the number of baby boomers, people born between 1946 and 1964, who are attaining retirement age. Advances in medicine and technology have raised our life expectancy, also adding to the aging population. Retirement for this group is far different than in previous generations. Many are continuing to work, or reinventing themselves, finding new careers, hobbies and ways to continue contributing to society. These people don’t see themselves on the decline. They are in a new phase of their lives, with endless opportunities.
We need to redefine old age in this new era. Old age begins when neither the body nor the mind is capable of growth and development. It is not a number. It is a diminution in the ability to process new information and use it. By this definition, there is no age limit. Old age begins when dementia rears its ugly head. Some people think clearly and continue living fully into their hundreds. For others, unfortunately, it kicks in much earlier, because of the onset of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. In the early stages of dementia, those affected are often aware of their diminished capacity. Perhaps this should be considered the first sign of aging.
It will be for me. As long as my mind is clear, I’m unchanged from my youth. My body surely shows signs of aging, but I define age as mental, not physical. As long as I can enjoy a sunset over the ocean, learn new skills, and expand my mind, I am not old.