What’s it like to be old? One person’s answer.
Have you wondered what it’s like to be old? It’s not easy to ask someone, partly because you don’t want to imply they’re old--- maybe they don’t think they are! But as an older person myself, I think it’s interesting to think about, and examine how I feel about this inevitable stage of life.
We are certainly not all alike, even if we have being old in common, so no one person can answer the question for all. I’m a woman, so already that makes my life experience different from 50% of the population. I don’t have to worry about food, shelter, or access to health care, as too many do. I’m in good health, I can see, hear, and move about on my own, unlike many others. These 3 factors alone have a major impact on how I personally am experiencing my old age so far.
A first question: when are you “old”? For me it’s always been “15 years older than I am today”, but at some point along the way I crossed a boundary, and surprisingly to myself, I am now old! No quote signs. It’s a kind of shocking fact--- I can’t pinpoint exactly when I decided I was old. Maybe it was a birthday, turning 80 is a stunner, but only a day older than being in my 70s. Maybe when I noticed people were treating me a bit differently--- or do I project my own feelings on them? Maybe when I realized the stiffness in my joints is with me pretty much all the time now, my voice is weaker. I need my glasses to see the choices on the remote. I can barely express a thought for lack of recalling a word. Book and movie titles are a lost cause, along with names of people, even old friends! I need to write myself a note just to remember why I’m walking into a room, what was it I intended to do there? Everyone talks too fast and enunciates poorly, especially on TV, and my kids on the phone are just barely understandable--- I’ve started to shrink, to be inches shorter for heaven’s sake!
Many of these characteristics start to show up at a much earlier age, foreshadowers of what’s to come for apprehensive middle agers. It’s the overwhelming piling on that finally tips the age question. These are the constraints that affect how I live now, and given these, how do I feel, what’s it like to be old?
None of these has really changed the essential me. I enjoy the same interests, the same forms of engagement with the world at large, the same loving interactions with family and friends. In the past I’ve been a goal oriented person, now I am learning to be satisfied with process itself. Usually, now, I’m more patient with my own shortcomings, and I try to be more tolerant of others. I’m not as flexible in responding to challenges, I think I may be more sensitive to perceived slights, I’m certainly more forgetful. Some days I have lots of energy and can take on tasks with a fresh outlook. Other days, not so much, and I just meander over the internet, or watch TV, or sit with my cat and daydream. But I’m still me.
A challenge for me is accepting the commendable tendency of others to defer to my age and decrepitude--- I usually really need the support offered, but find it hard sometimes to accept: a victim of the “I’m not that old!” syndrome. A friend advises me to take advantage of all this proffered help, it makes up for some of aging’s shortcomings. Maybe hardest of all is learning to live without dear friends who have died or are lost to dementia.
As I hope this short essay suggests, how one feels about being old is personal and varies from day to day. A change in health, the proximity and status of family and friends, these and other factors will change what it’s like to be old. I believe every old person has a different story to tell, even though many underlying descriptors are similar. If you want to know what it’s like to be old, you need to keep asking!