Shortly after my 80th birthday last February, I started “field testing” the statement “I’m 80”. I did so out of a curiosity catalyzed by the responses I experienced the first few times I said the sentence. I was startled by the responses to this simple statement; they were varied and most, surprisingly, intense. Some people wanted to “comfort” me by assuring me that I didn’t “look like I was 80” or “act like I was 80”. Others looked distressed, as if I had told them something tragic or sad. Many seemed to want to find a way for my candid statement to disappear, to “pretend” it never happened. A few people were non-reactive, which also fascinated me.
And I was surprised. I had decided decades ago to always state my age as my little one-person rebellion against the messages women receive to not tell others their age because it will lead to troublesome treatment. Of course, the warning is accurate, but I wanted to not be held hostage by others’ biases. So, I had often publicly stated my age. During my 70s, I had never evoked the intense response I was now experiencing. Being 80 was apparently something new, and not particularly good news.
My ”field testing” is now complemented by a national dialog, where we collectively ponder the ages of our senators and representatives, and the media pursue a persistent exploration of the competency of one of our potential 2024 presidential candidates who is also 80. There is a great deal of “worrying” about such an elderly candidate, yet rarely is it noted that this candidate’s likely opponent is only three years younger at 77 years of age. Apparently those three years are quite damaging to the functionality of the human.
Over the months since February, I have begun to form some judgments about what I am learning in my “I’m 80” exploration. These judgments are augmented by my current favorite book on aging by Leah Friedman titled The Unexpected Adventure of Growing Old. Friedman describes the early phases of aging as “Young Old Age”, where an individual enters the unknown territory of aging. I tend to think of this stage as also Aging Internship or Aging Orientation. Subtly, but persistently, we humans notice things are not as they once were.
Examples abound. Our plans for the day are only half achieved, since we ran out of energy though we had not done so in the past. We need about half of what we once ate per day to sustain our health status and avoid weight gain. Most of our joints appear unwilling to engage in physical exertion that was once easy and spontaneous, and when our joints aren’t resisting our plans, our stamina collapses. We forget something important and those around us give us a worried look. In contrast to our prior transitions, we feel like we are watching things disappear, not emerge.
I think this early orientation to aging covers the terrain that once was not just the beginning of aging but also the middle and the end. Longevity changed that, though we seem collectively unclear about what longevity is about. Now, the conclusion of “Young Old Age”, Friedman posits, is followed by the “Middle Stage of Aging”, a settling in, which occurs during our seventies. I tend to concur, but think this idea is rather new, and we are now viewing the 70s as we once viewed the 60s. The recent death of Jimmy Buffett, mourned by many, was described as dying “young”; he was 76 years old.
Eighty, I am convinced, is now viewed as the beginning of “serious aging”. While Friedman calls it the “Age of Fulfillment”, a description I agree with, my sense is those observing 80 from a “younger” position, think more of it as “serious aging”, where all the things that our society is fearful about in terms of aging, death and dying, suddenly have immediacy. Now obviously a person can live another 5, 10, 20 or more years, but for some reason, as we adapt to the new realities of longevity, it seems our society is pleased to let us function in our 70s but red flags our 80th birthdays.
So that seemed to me to be what I was dealing with when people reacted strongly to my sentence: “I’m 80.” There is more however. While many people (often nurses) are quite calm and seem comfortable with my sentence as simply a statement of fact, many people dive into unusual behaviors. As I noted earlier, some try to comfort me as if I just announced I was dying. Some try to help me deny my age. Some become extremely “helpful”, trying to do things for me as if I no longer can do them or insisting on things I should and should not do, as if I have lost the capacity to make my own decisions. A sudden undertow of patronizing behavior and unsolicited advice shows up, and my resistance is treated as incipient dementia. Some simply jump over the word “80” but their response looks rather contrived or desperate.
What I have concluded is these caring humans are not reacting to me or my sentence or my well-being. My sentence, “I’m 80”, stimulated their personal stories about aging, death and dying, and hence their personal reactions, their fears. There are often times when I feel like the exchange I am having is so completely about the fear of the person responding to my sentence that this actually has nothing to do with me, rendering me invisible as we together engage in transactions about their fear. The fear feels intense and emotional. It also can be overwhelming to explore or absorb. I wonder how often elderly people are actually having relationships with others that are merely an arena for the manifestation of someone else’s unacknowledged fear of death. I wonder if this is really how ageism manifests.
There is good news here: we are apparently, societally, slowly adapting to our recent embrace of longevity. Or we are trying to adapt. To some degree, we have extended the timeline for living, yet it has seemed to me we are still rather “stuck” in our denial of death and dying and our fears about this last stage of the human life cycle. We’ve extended our timeline; we just haven’t figured out what to do about the end. Recent stories of ultra-wealthy men trying to find ways to avoid aging and stay alive forever reinforces my hunch about all of this.
I have no way of knowing whether my perceptions of my conversations with persons reactive to my new sentence, “I’m 80”, are accurate or my judgments about them true. I do continue the conversations, and intend to keep learning from the dialog. I believe that the larger and more profound questions about “Fear of Dying” continue to challenge our culture, and this will persist until we imagine and create a more constructive and caring way of living out the final stages of our human life.
“My face carries all my memories. Why would I erase them?”
- Diane Von Furstenberg -
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