Full disclosure: I just turned 80. Phase 5 of my life. Honestly, I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t want it. But it’s not like I had a choice. It just turned up on my calendar one day. Time is like a one-way ratchet, relentlessly clicking off one day at a time but, as the saying goes, it is what it is. So, like it or not, having attained this point in life, I wanted to pass on a few thoughts on what it’s like and what can be done about it.
I remember the line in Paul Simon's song Old Friends “…how terribly strange to be seventy” penned before he was 30. Aging is indeed very weird and its outcome is predictably dour.
The Good News is I’ve already exceeded the statistical life expectancy of the average US male, so every new day is like free or a bonus, or winning something, right? After all, we have always been told that these are Golden Years, a time to kick back, age gracefully, and revel in the spectrum of a wisdom gained by a lifetime of experiences. Right...
The Bad News is...there’s not a lot of good news, truth be told. Inside every old person is a young person screaming: “what the fuck is going on?” There are good days. There are bad days. Aging is like a concatenation of slow-motion catastrophes. I try to avoid mirrors because the person looking back at me seems like an absurd parody of my younger self. And worse, most of my diminishing social time is now spent with doctor visits…procedures…check-ups…waiting for lab test results, pathology reports or whatever…waiting for the next shoe to drop and obsessively dwelling on my own mortality.
Then there's the growing list of things that no longer work. Intimacy is now in a non-recoverable state…and that hot body that I wake up to every morning…comes with a cold nose and a waggy tail…licking my face to remind me it’s almost breakfast time! When I get up, I am seemingly locked in a ritual, a kind of perpetual Groundhog Day. Get up. Check for damage. Coffee. Breakfast. Shave. Walk the dog. Nod to the neighborhood walkers. Clean the leaves off the driveway, Go to the store…Brush Floss Pills tv zzzzzzz. Rinse and Repeat.
And…adding insult to injury. Guess what? Ageism is alive and well, the only “ism” that is still socially acceptable. Go for it. Have at it. Who doesn’t like old people jokes? They’re funny as a crutch. But now I can empathize with the discrimination and micro-aggressions others have suffered. It’s not that overt or dramatic, it’s more like I’m just invisible. I was once young too, so I get it.. But “old” is just a reference frame, right? When I was 15, I thought 20 was old. When I was 35, I thought 40 was old. Basically, anything over 5 years was old.
But I also assumed that most older people, given the wisdom that comes with age, had it together, had life figured out, were smarter, more secure, and could easily manage stress. Just five more years and I’ll be there too, right? But after a while those series of five-year leads started to slowly turn back around a stare me in the face. Stigmatized by ageisms like “over the hill” or “losing it” it became obvious that getting older was now a liability. Even marketing people don't want people like me in their research. Ok, fine. I never even considered 80 to be possible. Now it's just something I don't even want to think about.
But...Studies show that most older people are happier, right? A 2011 Gallup survey found that as we age happiness follows a U-SHAPED curve. People’s sense of well-being was highest in childhood and in old age, with a dip around midlife. But it turns out this only holds true in countries where wealthier people tend to live longer or, alternatively, where the poor feel resentment and don’t mind saying so. Or maybe the people who participate in these surveys are those who tend to follow the curve, while people who feel miserable in late life can't be bothered with the questionnaire. So let's just say, the jury is still out.
I can already hear the objections: Wilson, can you just Get It Together? Jesus Christ man, stop complaining. You’ve got it pretty good…for your age
...and they would be mostly right.
I’ve had some close calls in my life, a near-death experience with pneumonia, then with the same cancer that killed my father at 53, which subsequently staged a comeback as if to remind me, once again, that my mutant genes were totally out to get me. Add to that three spinal surgeries, multiple cardiac ablations and yet...here I am, still stayin’ alive, thanks to science and continuously evolving medical technologies.
The irony is, if I were born just a few decades earlier, I would probably be not be writing this piece...complaining about age.
So now that there are more old people cluttering up the environment, there are plenty of self-help books with feel-good titles like Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age and Marc E. Agronin’s The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life Most of these books dole out advice reassuring us that getting old just means we have to work harder to stay young.
But it also helps to have a real-life perspective. During the late 90s and early oughts, when I had the flex time that comes with self-employment, I helped care for a friend of mind, actually a former boss, who had multiple sclerosis. He was diagnosed at 40 and by 48 he was a quadriplegic. He was a former elite cyclist, a champion sail-boater, an avid hiker, and an intellectual. But now he spent his time living at the VA in Menlo Park where he could get 24-7 care. I was one of a number of caregiver friends helping him with his daily activities.
I always enjoyed my time with Arden, especially for the conversations and his perspective on life. MS may have paralyzed him from the neck down but it did not dampen his spirit or intellect. Although limited in his working hours, he continued to focus outside himself as a social activist. With his sense of humor and perpetual optimism, I always left those sessions with an upbeat attitude.
Then there’s neuroscientist Sam Harris’ poetic piece on Gratitude. It’s very short but very powerful. I come back to it every so often just to Reboot my Limbic System. Here’s just a sample:
"To have your health—even just sort-of
To have friends—even only a few
To have hobbies or interests, and the freedom to pursue them
To have spent this day free from some terrifying encounter with chaos is to be lucky
Just look around you and take a moment to feel how lucky you are
There are at least a billion people on earth at this moment who would consider their prayers answered if they could trade places with you. There are at least a billion people who are suffering debilitating pain, or political oppression, or the acute stages of bereavement.
You get another day to live on this earth. Enjoy it”
So, yes, aging has its problems and sometimes feels like it's out of control. Guess what? It is.
But a wise person once reminded me:
“Old age is a privilege…denied to many”