What’s it like to be old?

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, June 20, 2018

First, you can’t fully understand old age until it happens to you. 

Old age is a strange country to enter, seemingly as remote as Antarctica and just as inviting to those who are not elderly.  Although many of us are aware of our incremental aging — things like turning 40-something or not being able to do as much as we once did — we nevertheless tend to identify with those younger and not older. 

Yet the fact of being old still comes as a shocker.  Even with the obvious passports that allow us to enter this strange country, Medicare or Social Security cards, many of us believe some sort of mistake has been made. 

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We’re not really that old.  Some stare into the mirror and wonder at the uninvited person looking back at them.  Who replaced that 30-something with the old person anyway?

Who inhabits this strange world? Well, the old are stereotyped as frail, forgetful, addled, eccentric, even frightening and deathly.  Easily confused, they forget things while those younger never do.  They can’t hear well and often confuse times, places, people and events. 

Moreover, they tend to fall asleep almost anywhere, except at a doctor or dentist’s office. All have the stage props of old age, walking canes, trays of pills, wheelchairs, hearing aids and handicapped parking stickers. 

Recently, while walking around Harmon Field with a cane, as I was recovering from knee surgery, a cute little tyke stopped, looked at me, and shouted, “You must be old!”  He barely escaped my lunge. 

Yet if we don’t recognize that old geezer in the mirror staring at us, it’s probably because we’re not that person anymore.

Our lives do not constitute a single, continuous, recognizable entity. Instead, as we age, scales and layered versions fall away to reveal an almost completely different person.

Some call it “mellowing,” an omnibus term used by the uninitiated.  Our titles, degrees, ranks, occupations, awards and other arbitrary designations given to us in a particular world and time we once inhabited no longer mean much. 

While some in the military or business even embrace and promote their past, most do not.  Nonetheless, our new “self” is as fragile and temporary as past ones. 

Strangely, older people likely to be dead within the next few years don’t seem to dread it at all. In fact, they joke about it. 

After all, it’s the only way out of this strange world we will all inhabit.  A very elderly Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., surely one of the best justices ever to sit on the Supreme Court, commented on the beauty of one of the young reporters before the Court. 

“Ah, to be 70 again,” he supposedly chuckled. 

Still, the French composer, Daniel Auber, might best have personified an acceptance of aging and death. At a funeral he felt obliged to attend, he remarked to a fellow mourner, “I believe this is the last time I’ll take part as an amateur.”   

Milton Ready,