“Old” can’t be measured in yearsBy Elinor Miller Greenberg, EdD
“Everyone wants to live a very long time, but no one wants to get old,” said wise “old” Benjamin Franklin.
As each year passes, we become more and more aware that we have less and less time left. We all know that no one is immortal, but we somehow believe deep down that an exception will be made in our case. It is hard to imagine the world going on without us.
During this past week, I’ve had many reminders of how finite our lives are. The amazing, but troubled Michael Jackson died suddenly at age 50. He was younger than my two daughters. The glamorous, but not very well appreciated Farrah Fawcett died from cancer at age 62. She was younger than I am by more than a decade.
My own husband celebrated his 82nd birthday this past week. Neither of our parents lived to be that age. Also this week, my eldest relative, my 95-year-old uncle, went to the theater in New York with his girlfriend, as he does every week. He is the only one in our family to reach that age.
An obituary appeared in the newspaper this week announcing the death of a local politician and businesswoman whom I had known quite well. She died at age 100. Just imagine: she was born in 1909, before World War I, before airplanes!
The journey through life is lengthening, and we are often in good health well into our older years. The last time I stayed overnight in a hospital was when I delivered my third baby, our first son. He will celebrate his 49th birthday this summer. My three baby boomer children, who are entering their 50s, teared up a bit this past week as their dad blew out his birthday candles, with a little help from our two-year-old granddaughter.
When is one considered old? Is it somewhere in our 60s? Our 70s? Surely, it must include our 80s. And, absolutely, our 90s!
Perhaps the number of years we have lived is not the correct measure of “old.” Some people are old at 45; others seem young at 85! A few months ago, the manicurist at my beauty salon received 13 bouquets of roses for her 90th birthday. She works part-time now, but she still works. And she is one of the cheeriest people you could ever hope to meet.
America is aging. The baby boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964, began to turn 60 in 2006. They will start turning 65 by 2011 and will cause the Social Security and Medicare systems to balloon. We are told that by the year 2050, one-third of the world’s population will be over 60. The demographic picture will look a lot like a two-humped camel, with the two relatively dependent populations—our youth and our aged—being supported by the smaller midlife group. That may be an unsustainable situation. It may cause people to continue working well into their 70s and to start working at younger ages, just to support the weight of this dependency.
The Rewards of Aging
Americans have always worshipped youth.
We are a young country, and we embrace the vigor of our youthful populations. But none of us stay young forever.
And age has its rewards.
- First, our older years are our mellower years. We are less focused on what others think of us and more comfortable with who we are.
- Second, in our older years, if we are lucky, we get to have grandchildren. Few things in life bring us as much pleasure as grandchildren. If one’s grandchildren live nearby, we are part of their growing up. They leap into our arms as we come in the door. We bring roses to their ballet recitals and sit through the heat of their relay races. We snap photos of their graduation from kindergarten and get teary as we watch them receive their high school diploma. Life is renewed with the birth of each child, and the world starts all over again at that moment.
- Third, in our older years, we have the opportunity to stand back and support others in their pursuits. We can relax and not strive so hard to be the best. We can observe. We can appreciate. We can drink in the beauty of the mountains capped with snow and the waves lapping on the beach. We can watch. We can enjoy.
- Fourth, in our older years, our relationships deepen. Those about whom we care most become fewer, and we love those few even more significantly as we age. Real friends stand by. Loyal spouses are sensitive to our every move. Appreciative adult children welcome family heirlooms as anniversary gifts.
- Fifth, each day dawns in a fresh and glowing sky. As we watch the golden sunrise and smile at the orange sunset, our heart sings for the sheer wonder of these infinite phenomena. If we are wise, we drink in these moments. We stop and enjoy. We gasp at the magic and beauty of the world we inhabit.
So much to do, and so little time left! My own aging mirrors what is happening throughout our country. If I am able to live another 20 years, in 2029, I will be able to know my grandchildren as young adults. Perhaps I will be able to witness our country becoming more mature and diverse as it, too, ages and mellows.
Time is, indeed, the ultimate mystery. It is the only real resource that each of us has. It is more precious than gold and more elusive than water. We cannot touch it. We cannot own it. Time is ours to embrace and to use well. That is life’s challenge.
What does it mean to get older? It means that, finally, we understand and cherish time, the greatest gift of all.