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What is old?

Observing the wide age range of our Democratic candidates during the debates recently, I wondered, just how do you define “old” these days? Studies show that the younger we are, the more likely to perceive old in terms relative to our own age. To a 20-year-old, a 50-year-old seems ancient, but to an 80-year-old, 50 is the prime of life! I remember once, my mother was recounting to her own mother, my Grandma Zita, the multiple health problems her mother-in-law Nora was experiencing. Grandma was herself approaching 90. Grandma said, “How old is Nora now?” When my mother replied that Nora was 82, Grandma said, with the most serious expression, “Yes, 80. That’s when everything just seems to start falling apart.” It was all my mother could do to keep from toppling off her chair with suppressed laughter. Don’t we all wish year 80 was the beginning of our decline in energy, strength, and facial elasticity?

When my peers and I discuss aging, though we acknowledge that society labels us as old, and we may even call ourselves old, we don’t really like the label. Unquestionably, we're eligible for Medicare and Social Security, so the numbers add up. Similarly, most of us admit that our bodies are wearing out – that we are slowing down. And the mirror certainly doesn’t lie. But paradoxically, in our heads, we are still young. So we get tired of our doctors reminding us, “…at your age (whatever bodily malfunction) can be expected.” We already know that. We don’t want constant reminders. It’s like doc telling a teenager, “You drove too fast and wrecked the car and got this gash because your frontal cortex isn’t fully developed yet, and therefore, you’re stupid and impulsive.”

Recently my doctor asked about my back pain level following a spine procedure. (I hate that What's your pain level question. One person's 😪 is another person's 😫.) I replied,“I have arthritis in my spine. It isn’t going away completely no matter how you treat it. I’m 71. I’m never going to feel 21 again. It's a fact.” She said, “It’s so refreshing to hear that. Most of my older patients expect everything to be perfect after this procedure.” I doubt that. We WISH everything could be perfect. But odds are, we know we’ll never be the same as we were in our 20s, no matter what pills we take or surgeries we undergo, and if we actually think we will, it’s time to have our heads examined.

Nevertheless, one thing hasn’t changed for most of us, and for that, I think we deserve not just respect, but reverence – and that is our vast store of experience and memories. We have an immeasurable stockpile of career experience in every field imaginable. We have raised our children to adulthood and produced an entire generation, many of whom have already raised their children to adulthood. Thanks to the astounding advances in technology in our lifetime, we are the first generation to have personally witnessed and experienced the emotions of so many extraordinary, life-altering moments in history: the Kennedy and King assassinations, the walk on the moon, the dramatic cultural changes brought about by the political upheaval of the 60s and 70s, Watergate, the evolution of the computer from the size of a room to the size of a tiny chip, the list goes on through the decades... In short, we have important stories to tell, even if no one is listening. I wish I had written down the stories of my elders: my father-in-law, who won a silver star in WW2; my mother, whose life with extended family in rural Oklahoma changed so dramatically when poverty forced my grandparents to relocate their eight children to San Francisco; my father’s mother, who married at age 14 and traveled west with my grandfather by covered wagon in search of a better life. But I didn’t, and I regret it. That’s why I wrote as many family stories as I could remember and gave them to my granddaughters, so the family history won’t be lost to them when they are “old,” whatever age that might be.

I still can't decide if I’m old. My veiny, mottled hands and silver hair say yes, but my curiosity and desire to keep learning new things say no. The patronizing way I’m sometimes treated by strangers says yes, but the laughs and lively discussions I share with friends and family of all ages say no. Nonetheless, you can call me a senior – that’ll get me some discounts. Just don’t you ever call me elderly – that’ll earn you a hard Facebook block.

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