“Old age is no place for sissies.”
That adage never made much sense to me.
Navy SEAL training is no place for sissies. And you won’t find namby-pambies running a marathon, climbing California’s Mount Whitney, or playing college rugby. Milksops and snowflakes don’t raise six children, build skyscrapers, or work 70 hours a week to bring a restaurant to life.
The difference between these sorts of activities and old age can be summed up in a single word: choice. The runner chose to enter that grueling race, and Mama and Papa chose to devote themselves to those kids.
But old age is not a choice. It just happens. Sissy or not, live long enough, and you’ll be old. You can whine about your age, you can deplore it, you can curse it or embrace it, but there it is. Old age doesn’t care whether you’re a milquetoast or a braveheart.
But you should care.
When Is Old Age?
The average life expectancy in the United States in 2020 was approximately 77 for men and 82 for women. Given that figure, what constitutes old age? Is it when we reach 65, the traditional time in life for retirement? Does the biblical “three score and ten” apply? All of us, I suspect, know spritely people in their 80s and others bent by hardships and infirmity in their 60s. Which ones do we regard as old?
Clearly, the definitions for old age seem variable and dependent on specific individuals. Consequently, I will use that three-score and ten measure, my own age, as my marker here.
Pains and Sorrows
If you have reached 70 and are in average good health, meaning you’re not bedridden or one of those rare birds who run 5K races and work out daily at the gym, you’re familiar with the little aches and pains of aging. You wake in the morning, and your left shoulder is inexplicably stiff. You buy a plastic mat for the shower after you slipped and nearly fell. The winter weather you once found tolerable is now a trial, with the 30-degree temps and dank chill sinking into your bones no matter what sweaters and coats you wear.
Most of us, I suspect, adapt to these physical alterations brought about by aging. By means of diet, sleep, and exercise, we may fight these changes, knowing all the while that we may win some battles but will ultimately lose the war.
Sorrow, too, is another burden the aged must bear. Contemporaries we have known and people we have loved, even those much younger than ourselves, pass away. With each death, our world shrinks just a little bit more.
In addition, we may look back over the years and feel regret for our wrongs and missteps: the hurt we brought to a spouse or a child, the failure to succeed financially, the different pathways in life we might have taken. Whether by reconciliation or by acceptance, the wise will make their peace with this remorse.
And then there’s loneliness, a boon companion of sorrow. The National Institute on Aging reports that the elderly who feel lonely face greater health risks of such conditions as high blood pressure and cognitive decline. Just as damaging, however, is the psychological harm done by loneliness, which the COVID pandemic only worsened, with nursing home visitations curtailed or forbidden and many among the aged following a self-imposed stay-at-home policy from fear of the virus.
Pleasures and Joys
Despite these challenges, aging also brings many pleasures.
For some, it’s a game of golf played on a weekday morning when they once would have been slogging away at work. For others, it’s a glass of wine shared before supper with friends, knowing that tomorrow they’ll be free to follow any schedule they wish.
As the years sweep us along, we older folks find ourselves with the time to enjoy and appreciate the small pleasures offered us by the day: that first cup of coffee, a special meal, a good book. An elderly man of my acquaintance found great delight in sitting in the rock garden he had built and watching the birds at his feeder. Another woman—she is a few years shy of my marker—is a retired veterinarian who relishes babysitting her grandchildren.
For many of us, removed from such obligations as work and raising children, growing old can whisk us back into childhood. We may find a renewed sense of play in our days, of leisure unencumbered by duty. An example: we may be well past the age where we can jump on a sled and zip down a snow-covered slope, but watching the grandkids do this same thing, shrieking and laughing as they make their downhill run, brings the dual delights of observing them and remembering our own youth.
Caretakers of the Past
We who are old and in good health have been granted the gift of a long life. One way we can show our gratitude for this longevity is by sharing our memories with the generations following us.
The old are treasure houses of such memories, living museums containing all sorts of relics from the past. Most of us remember grandparents and other family members from our youth who left bits of their history with us, what it was like growing up during the Depression or serving in World War II, or what they felt the first time they saw the ocean. If there are young adults and children in our lives, and if we possess a modicum of good sense, we can follow suit and give them our own experiences and knowledge.
We can achieve this legacy by telling our stories, recording them electronically, or by writing them out. We can also listen carefully to the questions of the younger set, and answer them as truthfully as we can.
About 15 years ago, I wrote a sonnet about a girl I’d known in high school who died in an automobile crash. The last two lines remind us to pass our treasures on.
Ora Pro Nobis
The dead die when we living let them die;
We breathing clasp to hearts our breathless dead;
And yes, they call to us from graveyard beds.
In silent rooms they speak our names. They cry
To us: “Remember me! Remember me!”
Ah, Cissy, I remember you. Your eyes
Which last saw light at seventeen still lie
In me like jeweled cuts of sun-cut sea.
I dream your eyes, their baffled quiet grace;
Others forget, but I do not forget;
You prick my prayers, poor altars of regret;
My mind’s sharp eye calls back your sea-sun gaze.
Pray all, I pray, who read these lines of song,
For her whose eyes are gone when I am gone.
Cicero once said, “Old age by nature is rather talkative.”
So let’s talk and give what we know to the next generation. Our words may enrich their lives and will allow us to live beyond the grave.