Monday, May 04, 2015

More Than Just a Number

When it comes to aging, many people like to say “Age is just a number,” by which they mean they’ve reached a certain number – say 60, 65, 70 – and they’re still healthy, fit, and strong and don’t want to be written off as old. I get that. Old is a dirty word in our youth-obsessed, youth-oriented culture.

If you’re 60 or older, have you noticed that most of what’s on TV (shows and commercials) and in movie theaters isn’t directed at you? Are you finding it difficult to find clothing that (a) fits and (b) doesn’t look ridiculous on you? Do you find yourself not understanding the social references made by young comedians? Is it harder to find music on the radio that you like? And if you’re not super-tech-savvy (or inclined to be) do you feel out of place in the new high-tech normal? Aging isn’t about numbers. It’s about how you feel in society – and how society feels about you.

In other cultures – not many – the aging and the old are revered: for their knowledge and wisdom; for the roles they’ve long played in society and their families; and because they represent the value of the past. That’s not how it works here, or in Western countries in general.

In the marketplace, you’re over-the-hill in your 40s. In your 50s and 60s you’re viewed as essentially worthless, and unless you have your own business you’re virtually unemployable. In your 70s and beyond, you’re resented because you get government “entitlements,” or are just regarded as a drain if you’re ill, at which point your loved ones (if you have any left) might warehouse and largely forget about you.

“Age is just a number,” both as an idea and as language, makes as much sense as “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Age is an important factor in our lives throughout our lives. As kids and teens we can’t wait to get older, because older means grown up and freedom. You can legally drive, vote, drink, have sex, and ignore your parents at assorted youthful milestone ages.

During our 20s, 30s & 40s, we feel we’re in our prime. After that, whether we’re in good shape or not, things begin to change. We reflect on our lives, careers, personal choices, finances, in a way we may never have before, because we know we likely have less time ahead of us than we do behind us, and there’s no way of knowing what condition we’ll be in as time marches on.

Circumstances and relationships change. People (family, friends, colleagues) relocate or die. There are friends we get rid of or who get rid of us. For lots of folks – especially women who were beautiful in their younger years – appearance becomes an issue. Teeth become troublesome, hair turns gray or falls out, gravity takes its toll on your whole body, joints hurt, your body may not tolerate the same foods.

The machine begins to show its wear and tear. And to lesser or greater extents, so does the mind. You remember less. You’re confused more often. Things just change – more for some, less for others, but change is a universal reality and that’s not about numbers, it’s how life works.

At the end of March I had a bad fall and I’m still more debilitated by it than I already was. Now I have one of those “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” medical alert devices – sensible, necessary, and I don’t really mind. But it doesn’t exactly represent vitality.

More importantly, one of my dearest, longtime friends, a man I knew for over 40 years, died last week at age 66. Too soon, too soon. He knew he was sick and was willing to fight. He never got to wage that battle. And I have a sad void within where a bright light used to be, the light of someone who loved me, who remembered my parents and my youth, who shared many of my values and opinions, who was generous and supportive. 

When we lose such people, we lose the witnesses to our lives. I don’t have that many witnesses left. No, age is not just a number, especially as we get older. Among other vital things, it’s time to assess/reassess who and what is important in our lives. Maybe there is some “human deadwood” we should shed. But it’s time to treasure everyone and everything we care about. Because it can all slip away in a New York minute.

No comments: