If you’re like me, you want two things that don’t match up: you want a long life, but you don’t want to grow old. This is especially true in America’s youth-adoring culture: “60 is the new 50,” “you don’t look a day over …,” “young at heart,” etc.
Confronting old age is like staring at the horizon while driving on a long, flat road. The horizon never gets any closer. I’m getting old-er, but I assure myself that I have yet to reach the horizon of being old. I’ve developed a new definition for middle age. When I look at the newspaper obituary page, I notice that half the deceased are younger than I and the other half are older. That makes me middle-aged, right?
I wonder when old begins. And why is it such a pejorative word? A thirty-year-old friend recently sent me a link to an article entitled, “How Acting Like an Old Person Actually Makes You Happy.” The article was based on a study reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychology that concluded: “Comparison of age cohorts using polynomial regression suggested a possible accelerated deterioration in physical and cognitive functioning, averaging 1.5 to 2 standard deviations over the adult lifespan. In contrast, there appeared to be a linear improvement of about 1 standard deviation in various attributes of mental health over the same life period.”
Did you get that? My cognitive functioning may be deteriorating, but I think it says that while our bodies and minds may decline as we age, we get happier. The article suggests we embrace our “inner oldie:” live in the present, have a positive outlook, never stop growing, and develop fewer but deeper friendships. Honestly? That stuff automatically comes with age?
When I turned seventy, I figured this decade would be pretty much like my sixties. A friend who is eight years older warned I was in for major changes. She may be right. Things keep disappearing, like my eyebrows, my chin and my abdominal muscles.
A recent article in The New Yorker magazine quoted Eric Verdin, C.E.O. of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, saying “if you just kept aging at the rate you age between twenty and thirty, you’d live to a thousand. At thirty, everything starts to change.” The article continues with the dreary news that from thirty on, our risk of mortality doubles every seven years.
This weekend we celebrated the hundredth birthday of my longtime friend and colleague, Elizabeth Widel, who still writes a weekly newspaper column. In her usual self-effacing manner, Elizabeth dismissed the “awful lot of fuss. All I had to do was stick around.” She’s done more than that. She always has and continues to live a full and rich life. She teaches by example.
As each day dawns, I recognize I’m another day closer to dying. That may sound dismal. In fact, it’s motivating. I know I’d better make it a damn good day.