The surrealist artist and poet Dorothea Tanning is 96 years-old. The gentleman who organizes our local golf club tournaments is 82. Countless people in their seventies (do the Rolling Stones qualify?) lead full and active lives.
My father is in his sixties. At this point in his life, numerical age is irrelevant. After surviving two cancers surgeries, he’s now suffering from congestive heart failure. Those little ordinary things we take for granted — walking from the front door to the mailbox; climbing four stairs up the front porch — have become increasingly difficult for him. The ravages of poor health have made him “old” before his time.
Seeing my dad’s rapid aging has made me reevaluate my conception of “the elderly.” I realize now that we tend to think of the elderly as anyone who is older than us. High school kids, one of which I was just yesterday it seems, view people in their forties as old. Healthy people in their sixties collecting Social Security benefits don’t see themselves as elderly; it’s the people in nursing homes who qualify for that description. Age may be a state of mind, or a score on a stress test, or a number on a page. How you define it is probably a function of where you are in your journey. But this much is certain: we’re all headed for the same destination.
Jokes about the elderly are seldom genuinely funny, but they serve to allay our collective fear of memory-loss, incontinence, impotency, and dependence on others. We talk about the elderly as though they were an exotic species to be viewed with curiosity and muted apprehension. The truth is, they are us several years down the road. We are them, several years previous. And while many of the outward symptoms of age may frighten or outrage us, it beats the alternative.
Or does it? The Stoics didn’t think so. And more than a few people I know have vowed to take matters into their own hands before they’re incapable of doing so. I myself have wondered about how “old” I might (or might not) let myself become. These musings, I think, are a natural reaction to fear of the unknown. We see the elderly all around us, but until we ourselves are actually old, we can’t know what it’s like. (Some people say it’s wonderful in a way; others say it sucks.) If you are free of Alzheimer’s or cancer, if you may still love and laugh as you wish, being old doesn’t feel very old at all. If you aren’t half the man you used to be, being old must feel like a curse.
Seeing my own daddy struggle with the ravages of poor health, I have new compassion for the elderly. I no longer wonder for whom the bell tolls. It’s for all of us.