On Aging (Like a Fine Wine)

February 2014

 

This past June I turned 65 and became old. Well, I didn’t actually feel any different from when I was 64, but our country conveniently gives us a cutoff point to tell us when we are old, and it is 65. I now have my Medicare card, a card for the “Medigap” (supplemental health insurance) plan I signed up for, and my Prescription Drug plan card, and so I’m all set to age even more. I almost forgot to mention another card – my Senior SmarTrip card for the Washington DC Metro, or what my (older) sister calls my “oldie card,” that allows me to ride for half price. I’ll bet you can’t wait to turn 65 (if you’re not already there) so you can get your oldie card too.

Getting old has a few drawbacks – or “challenges,” as we now call drawbacks – but I’m not going to focus on them, partly because we all know what they are and partly because I swore to myself that this was going to be an upbeat essay. Which won’t be easy for me, being an almost pathologically honest person. Not mentioning the pretty obvious drawbacks … I mean “challenges,” feels deceptive to me. Still, it is a sin of omission rather than commission. And the upsides of getting old have not been given their due.

The first upside: you haven’t died yet. This is a variant of “It beats the alternative.” It sounds flip, but really, think about the people you’ve known who have died young. There is a natural distribution of ages at which people die. About 20 percent of males and about 12 percent of females in the United States can be expected to have died by age 65.[1] Old people are the lucky ones who are still left standing. Even with the wrinkles and the aches and pains (oops! Wasn’t going to mention those…), most people would much prefer to be alive than dead. I certainly would.

And there’s a certain freedom that comes with age. Remember all those times when you were a teenager and you lay out on the beach with your teenage friends while they tanned and you burned – and you didn’t have the inner security to just say you didn’t like doing that? And so you did it to “fit in” (and ended up with a fever because the burn was so bad). Remember those days? Well, maybe you were much more secure than I was, but “fitting in” was real important to me back then (as I think it is for most teens), so that the preferences of the group, rather than my own preferences, determined many of the things I did. But being old, I do what I want rather than what “the group” tells me it’s cool to do.  This is immensely freeing. If people suggest I do something I don’t want to do, I just say, “No thanks. I don’t want to do that.” And if I want to do something others think isn’t cool – like using an umbrella in the rain or putting up the hood on my down jacket when it’s above freezing while everyone else is wearing short-sleeved tee-shirts – I just do it.

Many women say that past a certain age they start to feel “invisible.” I don’t think I ever felt all that visible in the first place, so I don’t really feel much of a loss there. And invisibility is, in its way, freeing too.  It allows me to focus less on my physical appearance and more on what my mother used to call my “inner beauty.” Oh, I still care about how I look, but I care more about how I am; I would still like people to think I’m pretty (a harder sell, what with the wrinkles … oops!), but if I had to choose, I would much prefer that people think I’m interesting or smart or clever (or any number of other good qualities).

The truth is, our society places so much emphasis on physical beauty, especially for women, that by the time we reach middle age, let alone old age, its preeminence has really, really sunk in. By the time we’re old, we really get it – and we get that we no longer have any chance of being considered beautiful – because let’s face it, it’s so much easier to be beautiful when you’re young.

But if, by old age, you’ve managed to develop some of that inner security that was so lacking in youth (well, in my youth, anyway), it will serve you well, because you’ll be secure enough to just not care that you no longer look young.  You will have noticed that there are other qualities that surpass physical beauty in value. You may have noticed that you now possess those more valuable qualities.

Basically, if we’re reasonably well adjusted, as we age we get more comfortable within our own skin. I have many times noticed that people I knew in high school or junior high are nicer as adults (and perhaps even nicer as older adults). And that, I think, is because they’re more comfortable with themselves, more inwardly secure.

Because our society tends to focus so heavily on some pretty superficial measures of “worth” – like looks and money – we tend not to notice how important this inner security is. But it’s very important. It’s sort of like the difference between an old shoe that’s conformed to one’s foot versus a slick and pointy-toed high heeled shoe; the latter looks good but is wobbly and hurts to walk in, while the former may not look so good but is oh so comfortable to be in. If you are set to “walk” for years to come, you want the comfortable ones. Older people have had more time to get comfortable with themselves – to have (hopefully) learned from some past mistakes and made some adjustments; to have come to some realizations about what’s important in life (or important to them) and what’s not. I’m certainly much more comfortable with myself than I was in my teens or my twenties or thirties or forties.

Think about a beloved grandma. You adore her because she’s warm and loving and has always been there for you. She’s like comfort food – not haute cuisine, but familiar and delicious and filled with fond memories. Does she care that “beautiful” may not be one of the first adjectives you would use to describe her? Probably not. She loves that you think of her the way you do.

I’ve noticed too that people who were rather severe or brittle in middle age often mellow out when they get older; they become warmer and easier to be with. This was true of both my father and my father-in-law. Not that either of them ever became exactly “cuddly,” but each of them seemed to let go of some of the hard-nosed judgmental attitude that so characterized them in middle age.  Perhaps all those years gives one a different, humbler perspective. Or maybe just the sheer psychological/emotional weight of all those judgments – on others and on oneself – becomes too much in one’s frailer years. Perhaps what you had considered other people’s many failings just don’t seem to matter so much any more; perhaps your own don’t either. Maybe old people, sensing that there’s not endless time left, don’t want to waste it on judging themselves and others.

We tend to focus on what we’ve lost when we’re old – our youth, tautologically; and the qualities that come with it – our energy, our agility, our looks, our bodies relatively free of aches and pains. Of course, there are plenty of people who even in youth do not have energy or agility or good looks or bodies free of aches and pains – but on average the young have all these things in far greater abundance than the old.  And even though the old have other desirable qualities in far greater abundance than the young, we still focus on what we’re losing rather than what we’re gaining.

There are at least a few reasons for this. First, people tend to dislike giving up something more than they like getting something. In fact, in behavioral economic studies, economists have found that the amount of money necessary to compensate people for giving up something (i.e., what they would be willing to accept to forgo the item) is generally greater than what they would be willing to pay to get that same thing, if they didn’t already have it.

Second, the things we must give up when we get old – the above-mentioned characteristics of youth – are pretty obvious, and obviously desirable.  In contrast, the positive qualities that we gain in old age are generally not as obvious, even though they are by no means worth less and are arguably worth more.

And finally, it may be partly cultural. Some societies seem to value the elderly far more than others. Ours is a youth-oriented society; we value all those things youth has to offer. We tend not to notice the less visible qualities that older people often have that are in much shorter supply among the young or even middle aged.

But these less visible qualities may help to explain something interesting and unexpected: researchers have found that older people are, on average, happier than younger people – and this is true across cultures.[2] And the reasons why – the characteristics of old age that enable this increased happiness – seem to be the very qualities noted above that might be summed up in the word “wisdom.” Older people are better at dealing with difficult life situations (having had more practice), they are more adept at regulating their emotions, they are less wrapped up in expectations and judgments – of themselves and others, they are less eager to please others and more willing to just be who they are.

Of course, at 65 I’m still “young-old,” and I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there are indeed differences between being “young-old” and being “old-old” – between being 65 and, say, 85 or 90. I would also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that how we feel at any given age depends a lot on circumstances that are often beyond our control – in the older years, most notably on our health, and the health of those we love. While there are certainly things we can do to stay healthy as we age (eat well, exercise, etc. – we all know the mantra), we mostly don’t know what to do to avoid a whole host of serious medical conditions, like most cancers. And even when we do all the “right things” we may still end up with a serious condition that all that “right living” was supposed to fend off. (My mother, who was a “health nut” way before it was fashionable, got breast cancer at age 80; I’ll never forget her response: “I don’t understand it; I took such good care of myself.”)

It’s relatively easy for me to dismiss the “aches and pains of old age” since the kinds of aches and pains I’ve experienced so far are relatively minor compared to the “aches and pains” associated with, say, cancer.  Which brings up an important point: There’s no getting around it – there really is a lot of luck in life, and there’s no way that isn’t going to influence how we feel about being old, as it will influence how we feel about just being alive.  But I expect I’m better able to come to that realization at the age of 65 than I was when I was, say, 25. I’ve simply seen and experienced so much more; my understanding of the randomness of life – as of so many other things – is based on my own experience and observations, and so is not just an intellectual understanding.

I’m sure that by now, as an old person, I am the envy of any young people reading this essay – all that coveted wisdom, to say nothing of my “oldie” card.  But I hope I’m “aging gracefully,” as the saying goes, and so I won’t lord it over the young.  Instead, I will gently remind them that their turn will come, if they’re lucky.

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3 comments on “On Aging (Like a Fine Wine)

  1. Heather says:

    Excellent essay! Thank you.

  2. Marianne says:

    You make “old age” sound just wonderful. Think of a journalist adding “elderly” to any journalistc event! And since death is inevitable why postpone it past the days when life was at its best? I bet you never knew I was such a misanthrope!

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