To be 74 years old is a peculiar experience.
Seventy-four years is an age that doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. Seventy-four is someone else’s age. Sixty-four maybe, but not seventy-four. A 74-year-old person in the news is referred to as “elderly.” That doesn’t feel like it belongs to me either. And yet . . .
Daily life is not without its aging reminders.
There are two of us in my household, and we are both doing our best to incorporate preventive health measures into our lives — a baby aspirin once a day, a flu shot once a year (“especially important for the elderly”), grab bars in the shower, YaxTrax for walking on ice and snow in the winter, railings on all the stairways inside and out. Of the small group of women friends with whom I get together every couple months (all of us near the same age), four of us have sustained serious falls. Some of us more than once. For one of my falls, I tripped on absolutely nothing on a sidewalk on campus, landed flat on my chin, and ended up with a broken jaw. At one time in my career I was deeply into the literature on falls prevention in the elderly; how to apply all that knowledge to real life, however, is not always obvious.
Medical diagnoses are starting to pile up. Nothing life-threatening, but, in the past three years elevated cholesterol, low vitamin D, and low thyroid hormone have all appeared on routine blood tests. Each new diagnosis leads to another pill. I remember when I worked at the VA hospital in geriatrics I was amazed to learn that older people take, on average, seven different medications a day. That statistic no longer seems so astounding; instead, I appear to be rapidly approaching this number. For me, throw in an allergy and chronic low back pain and I am almost guaranteed to be working my way through seven medications a day.
And then there are the changing family configurations over time. On Ed’s side of the family, we have several generations of relatives living nearby, especially in the Milwaukee vicinity. I have experienced large family gatherings of these generations for over 50 years. In the first of those years, I was the new, fresh young face on the scene — Ed’s girlfriend, then fiancée, then young wife. Gradually we moved into the next family level with baby Jane and then baby John. We were part of the young marrieds with children, mingling with the other young couples and keeping our eyes on the little cousins as they played together. All this time, the oldest generation sat nearby, slightly apart from all the hubbub, enjoying their day largely by watching all the family activity and reminiscing with the person in the next lawn chair. By the time our children grew into the high school and college phases of their lives, the oldest members of the extended family had died, and Ed’s own parents, aunts and uncles had moved into the space for those who sat and mostly watched the family doings.
A few years ago, the generations shifted again. We actually don’t get together in large family gatherings much anymore, but at the last such occasion — a picnic for a grand-nephew’s graduation from college — I realized that we were now the ones who mostly sat on the sidelines. I suddenly recognized our new status as I climbed out of the car and looked over at the clutch of people around the picnic area. We were now the oldest generation. We would now be the ones who mostly sat in the lawn chairs and chatted with the person next to us. I was, frankly, somewhat taken aback.
I find that, at times, I look back on my life and wonder, “Did I do most everything I hoped to do? Was it a full, rich life?” It seems like it was. There is a Quaker saying about one’s path in life — “Proceed as the way opens.” I like that, as it encourages us to take advantage of opportunities as they arise — as the way opens. But should we also be more actively creating openings for ourselves, and have I done enough of that?
And what about this mortality thing?
When I was a young adult, I remember wondering whether or not old people held a special awareness in their daily lives of the relative proximity of their own deaths. Did very old people feel a looming presence of death — not only for others in their lives but also for themselves? The writer Florida Scott-Maxwell, who wrote her journal at the age of 82, said “The old are unsure of a future. . . they are dependent on the sentience of the moment.” I think I do feel the sentience of the moment more keenly than I did a decade ago. But, to me, the presence of death is still mainly for others in my life. When my blood tests reveal new inadequacies in my physical state, I feel frustration and irritation. But for Florida Scott-Maxwell, new medical problems were seen more in the context of the ending of her life: “When a new disability arrives I look about to see if death has come, and I call quietly, ‘Death, is that you? Are you there?’ ”
More than the mortality thing, my awareness is increased now about living in a different stage of life — that of an older person in the world. Perhaps this is what the seventies are all about. And perhaps that is why, at age 74, I sense the beginnings of feeling at variance with the times. As Scott-Maxwell says, this feeling of variance “is confusing, wounding.” This is a feeling that goes much deeper than trying to keep up with the latest powerpoint technology or the latest options for new countertops in the kitchen. The feeling of variance in many ways pervades my everyday living — when I am on campus and facing a class full of bright young people and remembering my own days as a student; when we go to hear the Madison symphony at a matinee performance — knowing full well that the Sunday afternoon time-slot is first choice for older people; when I am standing on a crowded city bus and someone looks up and offers me a seat; when I see someone I haven’t seen for a long time and I sense they are giving me the once-over, trying to fit this white-haired older woman with the younger version that they knew so well; when I am with my granddaughters and I realize that, to them, this older me is the only one they will ever know.
There is a poignancy to these moments that sometimes approaches melancholia. Yet, at the same time, an intensity of life still exists.
In her doctoral study of the meaning of the aging experience, Sharon Kaufman said that the older people whom she studied, ” . . . do not perceive meaning in aging itself; rather, they perceive meaning in being themselves in old age.” So, yes. I am now 74 years old. And yes, I am conscious now of living out a time in my life that embodies the experience of being older. And yes, I am also aware of feeling at variance with much of what is going on around me. But — an intensity in my days continues as I am being myself in my seventies. Come hear me sometime, as my piano partner and I thunder out the duo-piano arrangement of the Mambo from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.
Kaufman, S.R. (1980). The ageless self: Sources of meaning in late life. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Scott-Maxwell, F. (1979). The measure of my days. New York, NY: Penguin Books Ltd.