The idea of aging has always fascinated me. A few months ago I accompanied my husband Ed to a medical appointment, and while he was getting examined, I tried to pass the time reading on my iPad. But eventually the book was less interesting than the scene playing out in front of me. This particular office specialized in ophthalmology, which means the majority of its patients were usually on the elderly side (whatever elderly means these days). The layout was such that each patient had to come in the door and cross the room (right in front of me) to the reception window to check in. There each patient was asked to state his/her name and date of birth as the receptionist confirmed the appointment. (I was highly suspicious that their being asked to vocalize this information in a way others could hear was an invasion of patient privacy laws, but I won’t get into that.) As I watched patient after patient come and check in, I found myself trying to guess their ages before they so loudly announced their date of birth. I carefully watched the patients as they entered, some walking independently, some with canes, some leaning on a relative or friend, some with walkers, some being pushed in wheelchairs. I looked at their hair, their faces, their bodies, their clothes. I mentally compared them with other people I am acquainted with whose ages I know. At the very second the patient arrived at the window, I guessed their age. Then when they stated their date of birth, I saw how close I was. You’d think it would be easy, but it wasn’t. I know I’m 62, and I know what I look like, and I’ve seen some people I graduated with and know what they look like today, and Ed is 70 and I know what he looks like, and Mom is 93 and I know what she looks like, so I have a pretty good base of comparison. The fascinating part? Someone could be hesitantly using a walker and be my age, and another one might briskly walk in unaided and be in her 90s. The main thing I learn when I play that game (which I also play if I’m standing in line at the pharmacy, as they do the same drill) is that everyone ages differently, there is no pattern, no recipe to follow, and some people seem to thrive with it and others seem to be just counting the days until it’s over.
Aging is a strange thing. It happens to all of us, at least the ones who are lucky. Aging usually brings with it more physical aches and pains, hopefully some wisdom and insights, some regrets, some physical changes that are jarring and sometimes debilitating, and worries specific to planning for the future. Those of us around my age have these things in common, I would bet. Many books have been written especially for the Baby Boomers, trying to help us age “gracefully.” I just finished “Keep Moving” by Dick Van Dyke. He has the upbeat attitude and humor about aging one would expect from him. But in the end, my journey into aging is all mine. I enjoy hearing other people talk about getting older, and sometimes I glean some good advice, but my experience will be unique, just as yours will.
I don’t ever mind talking about aging and its sibling, death. The subject is extremely interesting to me. Now, my mother, she is very uncomfortable talking about death, and that’s fine. But to me - aging and death make up the next great adventure! It’s the planning aspects that make me nuts.
So many decisions I have to make now are subject to my estimate on how long I will live. Which is, of course, something I just don’t know. Mother is still living at 93, but my dad died at 64. Hmm…do I add those up and divide by 2 to get an idea of my probable lifespan? Or did I inherit more genes from Dad and really only have 2 more years to get this already overdue quilt finished? Or did I inherit more of Mom’s genes and need to prepare financially for living to a ripe old age, requiring extensive help for self-care? How long should I work? When should I start receiving Social Security? People my age and older understand that there is now a lot more sand in the bottom of the hourglass than the top and the need to plan accordingly. But how much sand is in the hourglass to begin with? If I knew that, maybe I could make some viable decisions.
Also when I think about aging, I think how unfair everything is. They say eat healthy, get exercise, and regularly activate your mind in order to live a long time without dementia. Mom is, as I said, 93 years old, and never did nor does she do any of that stuff and although her body is wearing out, her mental status is fine. Dad, who never drank or smoked and who was a lover of theology and philosophy and reading never made it to 65. Go figure. My cousin Michael and my best friend Bernie died years ago, yet I’m still here. I frequently read news articles about people who die in car wrecks in their 20s and 30s. Surely we can assume they thought they would die of old age. Doesn’t everyone?
We aging people also have to deal with a lot of fears. Do I have enough money to live on for many more years? How bad will my health deteriorate? Will I ever be a burden to my kids? Will my spouse die and leave me alone or will I die first and leave him bereft? Even things as simple as writing a “starter obit,” making sure our kids know where to find my online passwords and a schedule of when bills are due and how they are paid, etc., are on my mind. (I handle all the money stuff and my husband does all the cooking. If I go first, the bills won’t get paid, and if he goes first, I will starve to death.) Will I even be able to work as long as I need to? As a medical transcriptionist, I need a focused brain, working nimble hands with no arthritis and no falls resulting in broken bones in my arm or fingers, clear vision, excellent hearing, and a back and neck that can withstand hour upon hour of sitting. I often joke that I wonder which part of me will go first, because if I lose any of these abilities, my job is toast. And then the biggest question of all…how long will Ed and I be able to safely drive? The last vestige of independence.
I even have mini-panic attacks when I think about my 4 grandchildren. If I died tomorrow, would I have successfully passed on whatever knowledge and wisdom I want to give them? Have I made enough memories? Years from now, will they view me as a vibrant (yes, older!) woman who could get down on the floor and play with them or an old lady who lost her sense of excitement and wonder and got so decrepit she had no stamina? In my childhood, I had 2 grandmothers. My maternal grandmother was anorexic and lived most of the years I knew her in a state mental institution. My paternal grandmother lived with us in a dark room in the back of the house. She never came out for anything and I remember her arguing and crying when my Dad made her take her medicine. She could be quite scary. I don't want to be a scary old lady. I want to be an interactive, energetic, fun old lady.
Alas, the future is unknowable.
Getting older is frightening, exhilarating, anxiety-provoking, and definitely challenging. Dick Van Dyke in his book wrote that he once got to meet Fred Astaire. He asked Fred if he still danced, if he still did the things he always used to do. Fred’s answer was, yeah, but now it hurt.
At that doctor’s office that day, I saw some hope. I saw some elderly people who seemed to be coping with their aging journey well. In my mind, I pointed to each of them and said, “You are my role model; you are who I want to be when I get old.”
In my job as a transcriptionist, I hear a lot of dictations where the provider gives an opinion of what age means to them. I’ve heard a 75-year-old patient referred to as “middle-aged” and a 60-year-old patient described as “elderly.” I guess it all depends on where you’re coming from. I remember when our son Matt was about 3, which would make me about 31, I was cuddling with him in a chair, and I whispered, “Matt, will you take care of me when I get old?” Matt replied, “But you ARE old!” I was taken aback, but pulled myself together and asked, “If I’m old, what is Granny?” He said, “She’s VERY old.” I then brought up good old Aunt Bessie, who would have been in her 80s, I guess, and asked, “If all that’s true, then what is Aunt Bessie?” and Matt said without missing a beat, “She’s ALL old.” So there.
In the near future, I would like to expand the aging discussion to what it feels like to watch my spouse age, watch my Mom age, and watch my kids age, but for now, I am just astonished at watching myself age. I guess I’ll just keep turning the pages on my life’s story without ever knowing how many pages are left in the book. Thank God I’m still interested in how the adventure unfolds and enjoying the story along the way!