People used to think of growing old as part of the natural progression of life from birth to death. Not anymore. Now we go directly from middle age to you’re-just-as-old-as-you-feel. “Old age” has been dropped from our vocabulary. “You’re not old!” people say when I describe myself that way. I’m 74 with an assortment of age-related ailments and a generous complement of sags and wrinkles. If I’m not old, who is?
Today, we’re supposed to age “well.” The term is fraught with expectations that I, for one, can’t meet. If I’d belonged to an earlier generation, I’d have been expected to retire to the proverbial rocking chair on the porch — but my age mates are not going gently into that good night. Older people in the 21st-century expect to be able to ski, play tennis, run marathons, bicycle, swing dance and even sky dive indefinitely. These days, if you slow down with age it’s your own fault. It means you’re not eating right, working out, taking the right supplements, thinking positive enough.
The Boomer generation was going to live fast and die young. We’re still living fast but we’re not dying young — so we live as fast as possible as a way to pretend that we’re not going to die at all. Unfortunately, those of us who are suffering the physical and mental ravages of age are an uncomfortable reminder to our more youthful peers that they, too, will one day grow old.
I am assailed daily with stories of elders who do amazing things at advanced ages — run marathons at 85, teach yoga at 90, bungee jump at 96. These stories are supposed to be inspiring. I find them depressing. I will never do any of those things. The rest of us old folks — those who actually suffer from common ailments of aging such as arthritis, heart disease or emphysema — feel left behind in the mad rush to never get old. I wind up wanting to stay home, because in this age-well-or-you’re-worthless world, struggling to keep up is humiliating.
Many people in their 70s do not have physical limitations. They can do everything they did at 50, and more power to them, but not being one of them makes me and a lot of other seniors feel like pariahs among our peers.
I have a 77-year-old friend with spinal stenosis, a common and painful ailment of older people. She is unstable on her feet and can’t get around without a walker. She is very sociable but refuses to go out because she’s ashamed to be seen with her walker. The ageism that makes her afraid to be seen with a walker winds up further marginalizing older people who are already segregated from the mainstream. It’s no wonder that loneliness is becoming an epidemic among seniors.
Even retirement communities advertise themselves as for the “active senior.” If you’re not active, you’d better find somewhere else to live.
It’s time that the media stop fishing for clicks with their stories of older people engaging in extreme sports and focus on celebrating seniors who find a way to live well despite physical limitations — people like Carmen Herrera, who sold her first painting at 89, or Barbara Beskin, who landed her dream job as an industrial designer in Silicon Valley at 90; or even seniors like Joe Bartley, who got bored with retirement and was thrilled to be hired as a waiter at a local diner at age 89.
It’s also about time we seniors stop judging each another by how “youthful” we act or look.
I’m taking a page from Martin Luther King: “I have a dream that one day elders will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the tautness of their muscles but by the content of their character.”
Erica Manfred is a journalist, essayist and humorist who writes about everything from dentistry to divorce to fantasy fiction. Friend her on Facebook.