Some thoughts on growing old

You’ve heard old age called “the golden years.” Don’t believe it. That was an advertising slogan created for a nursing home back in the 1950s. There’s not much “golden” about old age.

Don’t get me wrong. Becoming an old person sometimes isn’t all that bad, particularly if you still have relatively good health, a clear mind and reasonable mobility. For many people, old age can be a dreadful time of illness and suffering.

A common comment on old age is, “It’s better than the alternative.” That also is not necessarily so. I’ve seen many old folks for whom death, the alternative, is a welcomed release.

In my own case, I have been very blessed. I’m in pretty good health at age 86. A pacemaker keeps my heart from going too slow and medicine keeps it from going too fast. A stent keeps one of my main arteries open for blood flow. Hearing aids help keep me in the loop when people are talking. I’ve got an incurable, untreatable abdominal condition called “sclerosing mesenteritis,” but it acts so slowly the doctors say that I’m likely to die before it causes me another major problem.

The good news: After you reach 80, they don’t submit you to the torture called “colonoscopy.” Whew!

I still get out and walk four to six miles a day. I eat well but try to keep my weight at a reasonable level.

I have a great wife who, even after 62 years, still puts up with me. So, life’s pretty good.

When you get old, people treat you differently.

I got my first taste of this when I was only 62. I was being introduced as a speaker to a group of journalists in Luanda, Angola. The managing director of the news agency, ANGOP, who said, “Our guest today is an old man. You can tell he is old by his white hair and the lines on his face.” At this point, I had to restrain myself from jumping up and asking, “Hey, who’re you calling old?” He continued, but what you can’t see is the intelligence, the knowledge and the wisdom that his age has brought him.” I relaxed a bit.

Later on, I mentioned this to the young Angolan newsman assigned to accompany me.

“Oh, he wasn’t insulting you,” he said. “He was praising you. You see, we don’t have many old people here in Angola and so they are revered.”

He was right. The average life expectancy for a male in Angola at the time was somewhere in the 40s, caused by years of civil war, disease and lack of good medical care in some areas.

Here in the United States, being old is not always respected as it is in Angola and elsewhere.

Sometimes younger people get impatient because you don’t react quickly enough. Sometimes people are patronizing or treat you like you’re an imbecilic child. Sometimes they are overly polite or act like you’re so fragile you might fall at any moment.

And waitresses, particularly in diners, are likely to call you “honey” or “sweetie.”

Young people also tend to talk so fast you can’t understand them. If you ask them to slow down and repeat, they say the same thing, only faster.

As to an old person’s wisdom, younger people often just brush it off.  They think you don’t know anything, that you’re stuck back in some ancient time, like the 1990s.

I don’t know how other old folks feel about it, but I don’t want to be treated any differently than everybody else, young or old.

I also, by the way, don’t like the term “senior citizen.” It originated in this country back in the 1930s as a euphemism for “old person.” I think if you need something other than “old person,” “elder citizen” might be better. When people refer to seniors, I think they’re talking about kids about to finish high school or college.

Also, I write these lines as an old man. Women of a certain age certainly view things differently.

My advice to those contemplating retirement: Have a plan, not just a financial plan, but an activity plan. Lying on the beach or just doing nothing sounds great while you’re still working, but it gets boring after a couple of weeks. The days get long when you have nothing to do. It’s good to at least have a hobby. A guy I know was at wit’s end until he started volunteering.

Even though I have been retired from more than 20 years now, I have never stopped working. I continued to teach part time at the University of Tennessee School of Journalism until 10 years ago. I also continued to do some professional editing and translating. Now I’m finishing my memoirs, the deadline approaching faster than I wish.

The best thing about retirement for me is that my time is my own. I do things, work, lunches, other social occasions, at my own choosing and at my own pace. I enjoy life more. Even my spiritual life has improved because my wife and I have time during the day for spiritual exercises we rarely did in earlier times. I also like being able to take an afternoon nap. It helps when you get up at 4 a.m.

I have lots of friends, many of them a little older or younger than I. But inevitably when we get together one topic of conversation, after sports and politics, is health.

Here are some things I don’t like about getting old:

  • Being told what we ought to do, such as moving to a nursing home or giving up driving. We’ll do that when we feel it’s time. (So far, our five children have refrained from doing this.)
  • Losing hair on my head.
  • Growing hair in places where I don’t want it, i.e., ears, eyebrows, and nose.
  • Forgetting people’s names.
  • Feeling stiff, particularly on waking up in the morning or trying to get out of a car.
  • Misplacing stuff. “Have you seen my glasses?” “Could you call my cell phone for me?”
  • Walking into a room to get something and forgetting what it was.
  • Learning of the death of another dear friend or relative and wondering why I’m still here when they’ve been called home. Not that I’m in any hurry to join them, you understand.

As Mark Twain said, “Do not complain about growing old. It’s a privilege denied to many.”

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