A few months ago, I turned 85. That makes me an old lady.
Hearing that, there are those who will question my calling myself a lady. Almost all will rush to contradict me, to tell me that I am not old. So adamant will the latter be, one might think I was confessing to a terrible disease.
To their assurances that I am not old, I can only respond, “Nonsense, if I am not old at 85, when will I be?”
I relish admitting my age because I do not think that the word ‘old’ is a pejorative. I have earned the years and except for the blight of those anguished times when a child struggled with terrible disease, there are none I would give up. Yes, old age has its baggage — but so did youth and middle age. The downsides of aging are well-known, everyone recognizes them. But along with the aches and pains, financial worries and loneliness that may come with age, there also comes a very special kind of freedom.
So, before you send the bromides, all designed to deny the reality of old age, let’s deal with them.
Some will tell me that I am only as old as I feel. True, but that was true also at sixteen when, with a little Kleenex in my bra, I could convince myself that I looked 18. At forty, I had days when, depending on what I had imbibed the night before, I felt like Methuselah, others when I was as frisky as a teenager. The difference is that the day an 85-year-old feels as frisky as a teenager is the day he or she will fall and break a hip. At 85, one approaches friskiness with caution.
Get young friends, some say, as if that is an inoculation against aging. . Think about how silly that is. At 85, what choice is there? I am almost always the oldest person in the room. My young friends are invaluable when I have computer or iPhone problems, and they do keep me in touch with their world., The latter, however, is a mixed blessing – their world can send me into despair: For them, and for what I believe they are missing.
They cannot. however, replace the old friends, the ones who knew us long ago, who observed our development, witnessed the events that shaped us. Losing them is one of the most difficult parts of aging. With each death, we lose a part of ourselves. Old friends are the link between us and both our personal history and the history of the world we knew. They remember the depression, World War 2, the fifties and the tumultuous decades that followed. They remember when there was no television, when families bought ice from a truck, when telegrams were delivered to the door. The young have little interest in anything that happened before the internet, and if it isn’t on Google, it doesn’t exist. I recently told a forty-year old that a building looked as though it had come through the blitz – he had no idea what the blitz was. Without our peers, we are unmoored, disconnected from our own reality. .
Others will insist that 85 is the new 75. To which I say, “Nonsense. I have been 75, and 85 is very different, if not physically, psychologically.”
Which brings me to the other bromide, that 85 is just a number. Yes, but what a number! This one comes with flashing lights, pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. At 85, one cannot escape the realization that there is more life behind you than there is in front of you. That perhaps is what Philip Roth meant we he referred to 85 as “dark old age”.
I am not for a moment suggesting that the old have a monopoly on death. We all know young people who have left this earth far too early. But the young go to bed believing in their immortality. The aged tend to go to sleep each night wondering “Will this will be the night, will they wake up the next morning?” At 85, one lives with the quiet acceptance of the inevitability of death.
We would all like to go easily, in full stride, painlessly. But there is no menu, we do not choose. Keeping ourselves healthy and strong makes us feel good but, in the end, we have no control over the way we die.The toned and fit may go before the indolent and slothful Death keeps its own counsel. It creeps us slowly, or lashes out suddenly, It arrives in a cloud of morphine, or as sedately as Shakespearean sleep, it announces itself through disease; it mocks our years at the gym. It gives us time to prepare, or it leaves our families with mountains of mess to sort. So, prepare.
I am from a generation whose mothers told us to wear clean underwear because we might be in an accident. At 85, I hesitate to leave dishes in the sink before I leave the house. What would my children think if they found my nest a mess?
Above all, in Philip Roth’s dark old age, you find yourself living life both forward and backward, examining self, pondering how to make the remaining days meaningful. The author, Ward Just, might well have been thinking of this old lady when he wrote these words in his book, A Dangerous Friend:
“It is always necessary to look forward and backward at the same time. Only in that way can we preserve our identities and live truthfully. You know the end of things as well as I do. We cannot pretend not to know them or deny that they exist.When we relate events from the past we know the results and must acknowledge them, whether or not they bring us understanding, or consultation, or shame.:
In th next blog: Rebranding Old Age.
Joan Sutton Straus’ book, The Alzheimer’s Diary, from Caregiver to Widow, is available at your favorite on-line bookstore.