We don’t all come with the same expiration dates, so it seems odd that the number of years we live on the planet determine when we arrive at old. Sure, over time some of our parts wear out depending on how well we kept them up, but simultaneously other things grow or improve. Only a few generations ago, the average lifespan for humans on the planet hovered around 35-40 years. Today, many of us will live 35 years after we turn 65. A bonus lifetime! We will look back at 65 as middle aged. Perhaps we need to rethink old.
Am I Old? What Does That Even Mean?
Culture shapes our aging expectations; all 5-year-olds are ready for Kindergarten, all 13-year-olds have reached puberty, all 16-year-olds can drive, and all 18-year-olds are adults who can vote, fight in wars and leave home. Really? Still we lack an ‘official’ target age that separates young and old. We get a pass on gray hair and wrinkles for years before the senior discounts start accumulating. Retirement age fluctuates widely across career fields and income levels. Even the start dates for Social Security benefits vary by age groups. Originally, Social Security provided pensions for workers attaining age 65 with the expectation that most would depart the world by age 70. Today’s retirees are multigenerational! Some collect pensions in their 40’s while others extend work years into their 90’s. So, good news; apparently, there is no universal age at which we turn old!
Nevertheless, as young and competent as we might feel, and as hard as we strive to keep up with current events and technology, sooner or later we bend to the not-so-subtle cultural messages emanating from individuals and institutions telling us that, sure enough, we have crossed over into old.
Subtle Signs We Are Aging
Evidence of our oldness creeps in innocently enough. Kids definitely perceive differences between young and old, and are quick to remark honestly on aging. For example, a 3-year-old nagged about NOT mentioning human differences might sweetly note, “Grandma, you’re not old. Just your skin is old.” A teenager might tactfully guess our age at “Somewhere between 40 and 100”. Clearly, in the minds of children, old age comes early and lasts most of our lives!
In contrast, by our mid 50’s to 60’s, tactful adults tell us how young we look, or worse, that our age is just number. Senior discounts at our request might require a show of ID in the beginning but eventually clerks automatically apply the discount without asking. “Old’’ is no longer a matter of opinion. Eventually, we reach the level of old at which we are praised for doing things we have always done, “I can’t believe you can still …”. Before long those comments morph into “Someone else can do that for you”.
Obvious Signs We Are Aging
The retirement we look forward to throughout our working years might shake us up a bit when it finally arrives. Before that point, we remain reluctant to believe we have reached the last marker before old. We know old is approaching because we’ve had lots of hints. Those once isolated gray hairs and wrinkles are now too numerous to count. Shockingly, our same-aged friends suddenly appear so much older than us! The public events we attend mysteriously attract an ever growing number of older looking people. We walk by mirrors startled to see the reflection of a parent. The wait staff calls us “Hon” and even old looking people offer us their seats. We might maintain the highest level of competency throughout our career, yet the day after retirement our resumes lose value in the workforce. Although we might actually be more physically fit than ever before and the voice in our heads still whispers that we are really 38, the rest of the world is unconvinced.
As we age it is easy to do ourselves in; we play the “old card” when it increases our ease. Who doesn’t like to be pampered? We happily let other people carry our packages and shamelessly accept their offers to put our bags in the overhead compartment even when we can easily perform those tasks. We hop on the carts in airports rather than walk to our gate and ride the Rascals at Target, because why should we walk if we don’t have to. We circle parking lots searching for spaces closest to entrances even though we have no problem walking. We take increasing numbers of pharmaceuticals rather than modify our lifestyle because healthy seems like too much work and, so far, we’ve gotten by just fine. In our pursuit of comfort, we are really no different than any other age group. But the more we “play old,” the less we move. And the more comfortable we are in the role, the more we expect people to treat us as helpless.
Confirmation: We Crossed Over
Medicare is the last nail in the “young” coffin. While enrollment in Social Security and retirement involves only impersonal paperwork, Medicare requires surrender for a good going-over by a physician. We might be shocked to discover our regular doctor does not take Medicare patients and, instead, refers us to a gerontologist; a bit insulting considering our still living parents – not us – are geriatric patients! During the enrollment appointment, we notice office personnel engage us while making continuous eye contact and speaking a bit louder and slower. After answering every type of medical history, contact information and living will questions, we are further quizzed about the current month, day of the week and year, the name of the state we live in and the name of our nation’s president. We might even be instructed to draw a clock with as much detail as possible. After the paperwork is under control, we could be required to take a wheelchair ride down the hall for physical tests, even while protesting that we walk between 3 and 6 miles every day. Does anyone leave such a visit still thinking they have an ounce of young left?
At some point, and in spite of the story our inner voice tells us, we recognize that somewhere, somehow we crossed an invisible line, and there is no reversing it. Going forward, life will include a lot more eye contact and slow talking, endless questioning on the most basic information, and (mostly unnecessary) help getting from one point to another. Soon enough we start running into upper age limits that prevent us from engaging in activities we want to pursue. Somewhere between 65 and 70, and long before most of us are ready, we jump from “I might be getting old” to “I am too old for most things”.
Say ‘Bye Bye’ to Old!
This is all a lie. Resist these cultural messages! None of these broad and artificial messages reflect what is true about our individual selves. They misrepresent the most generous and forgiving season of life, the right now. This is our springtime, not our winter! It is our time to blossom and bear the fruits of our lifetimes of experience. We are freed from the constraints of raising families and making a living and it is our time to live. Our bonus lifetime waits to be filled with growth and development, joy and laughter, peace and fulfillment.
During this season, we have in abundance what everyone desires – time. It is time to acquaint ourselves with the voice in our heads telling us we are as competent today as we were yesterday. We are at peak capacity for learning and doing everything we ever wanted and we have time in which to do it. We need not succumb to the well-meaning noise urging us “take life easy”, “lounge around all day”, “hire someone to do that,” or “let me do that for you”. We must shake these echoes from our heads.
Reassess and March On! Challenge the Status Quo!
Instead,why not opt-out of that stagnant worldview and reimagine our lives on the fresh new planet that emerges every morning? Why not put our own stamp on the golden years? It’s totally our choice! It’s totally doable! We need only reach inside and release the joy and magic of our 5 year-old-selves, the hopes and dreams of our 20-year old-selves, the strength and power of our 38-year-old selves, the wisdom and insight of our 59-year-old selves. Yes, really, they are all still there! We have never been a single age, each of us contains the whole of our history. We are AGELESS.
We ageless selves can pack up our competence, brush off our confidence, unleash our enthusiasm and begin to pry ourselves away from the yoke of ageism. We can live fully in the now. We are still capable of continual growth and change. Nothing is off the table: a trendy haircut, learning a new technology, dancing in the square, volunteering or getting a job in a field we wished we had entered, commiting to a healthier lifestyle, teaching a class in sewing or painting or martial arts. Everything is still on the table! Nothing can stop us from making a new friend, hanging out with young people – really young people – or going back to school, traveling, or even climbing on the park’s playground equipment! Hopefully, the years have toughened us up a bit and we no longer fear taking a few risks. The vastness of life’s possibilities is limited only by our inability to say, “yes”. We still have the time to reclaim our value and place in today’s world.
We can still Rock and Roll, Baby!
Science suggests our thoughts create our personal reality – not the other way around. Being AGELESS begins with a state of mind. That is great news, because regardless of our physical, economic, social or technological constraints, anyone who is reading this sentence has the ability to tackle the transition to AGELESS.
Follow our upcoming entries for suggestions on how to rethink the AGELESS you. Reconsider your appearance and how you feel. Find purpose and explore the value of setting goals to rediscover your joy. In the meantime, be thinking about how you want to write the last chapters of this life!
We Can Do This!
Sue and John Erwin
Turn the Page on Age: Be Ageless!