Living in the age of old, old age

How old do you want to get?

I don’t know about you, but I want to live a long time. Not just into my 70s — I turned 50 earlier this year — but into my 80s, 90s and maybe even to 100 and beyond. Of course, I don’t want to die. (Ever, preferably!) But I also want to live long enough to see my children grow up, to see them become the adults we’re only getting inklings of right now.

My grandparents lived mostly healthy, active lives into their late 80s. One reached age 90, and likely would have lived longer had it not been for a head injury after a fall on a concrete walkway. (And they all ate almost nothing but Southern food all their lives.)

So, living to 100 is at least within the realm of possibility — if I can get there in good enough health. And if I can, I’ll be in good company. By the middle of the century, the United Nations projects more than 3.6 million people worldwide will be living past age 100. In the U.S. alone, that number will hit almost 600,000, up from just over 80,000 today.

Plenty of people I know don’t feel the same way. They either don’t see the point — “at a certain point, enough is enough,” a friend of mine told me once — or they’re not interested in sticking around once their friends and loved ones have shuffled off this mortal coil.

They tend to agree with the author of this article in The Atlantic from several years ago. In it, Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist who’s written 10 books on health care in America, says 75 is “a good age to aim to stop”:

“Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and our children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value.

But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”

(The sound you hear is me exhaling s-l-o-w-l-y…)

Well, that sounds a little harsh. Sadly, it’s all too often true, as we all know from personal experience; to be fair, the article is very thoughtful and far more nuanced than the brief couple of paragraphs I’ve quoted here. You really should give it a read.

Still, what Emanuel writes feels pretty harsh, to put it mildly. I’m sure we all feel like we could be the exception that disproves his rule, right?

Thing is, some people do. Plenty of people, actually — like those in what may be my favorite magazine article of all time, a mid-2000s piece in the New York Times Magazine titled “Life in the Age of Old, Old Age.”

I could paraphrase how it begins for you, but I don’t think I will even try to top the article’s author Susan Dominus, who leads with this great story:

Nov. 22 was an odd date for celebrating the birthdays of the four Blaylock sisters, given that none of them were born on that day, or even in that month. But Joe Watts, the son of the oldest sister, felt the celebration should take place before the Iowa winter weather inconvenienced guests flying in from out of town, and besides, his mother, Audry, was turning 100 — why wait? “This is a very expensive party,” Joe, who is 63, reminded her every so often in the weeks leading up to the event. “So you better not die before this thing happens.”

Audry responded to her son's teasing with an easy irreverence, a kind of humor she developed only very late in life, in the two decades since she turned 80 — practically another adulthood in which to try on a new self. “Joe's always saying, ‘Now, Mother, that suit we bought for the party was so expensive, I think we're going to bury you in it,’” she said the day of the celebration, as she finished getting dressed in her studio apartment. Clutching a railing in her bathroom, she peered into the mirror, evaluating the elegant, slightly stooped woman she saw there, checking the placement of a small gold pin on her lapel. '“So I said to him: ‘I don't know, Joe. I wouldn't be so sure about who's going to bury whom.’”

And that’s just the start. Later on, you meet a father and son who were still working together (at the time of the article’s publication) at ages 100 and 73, respectively. Also the doctors who are studying centenarians to figure out what helps them live so long — as you might imagine, strong social networks, keeping physically fit, and an active mind appear to play big roles.

What strikes me as I read the Susan Dominus article is the completely different perspective she gives vs. the one written by Ezekiel Emanuel. In the latter, most possibilities for most people are foreclosed by age 75; why even bother thinking about living a life much beyond that?

In the former, however, Dominus speaks with scientists who hold out tantalizing possibilities for life that most of us have probably never stopped to imagine. What if — and this is a big “if” — our lives could be extended to the degree that we’d have to think about them entirely differently? What if we could be like Audry Blaylock above, and have “practically another adulthood in which to try on a new self”?

To be honest, I’m not sure where I land on this. (This post really is an exercise in thinking out loud, rather than me bringing you a conclusion I’ve already come up with; I’m wrestling with all this myself.)

A story I heard several years ago really made me think about all this in a way I hadn’t before. In a PBS special on aging, the host interviewed a woman who was retired and in her 80s, and living in an apartment community with other retirees.

Her husband had died years earlier, as had several of her friends. But she found quite a lot to occupy her life — she painted, she traveled with newer friends she’d made, and she spent time working with nonprofit organizations in her city.

Even though she missed her husband very much, she said, she enjoyed day-to-day life more than she did when she was younger. When the interviewer asked why, she replied, “I don’t have the burden of the future anymore.”

I had never considered that you could look at life in that way. (Have you?!) The future a burden? Really?

What I take away from it now, having had years to turn it over (again and again) in my head, is that perhaps every age we go through has something unique to give us and teach us. If we’re lucky enough to be healthy when we get there, it may offer up possibilities and potential we can’t see now.

And as the Blaylock sisters show us, this journey may have a lot more twists and turns than we think 😃

I’d love to hear your thoughts, either in the comments or in reply back. As always, I hope you had a great run out there today — keep in touch!

Your friend,

— Terrell

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