Dose #10: How Old Do You Feel?
Happy Holidays Everyone! Thank you for your wonderful support throughout the year! I am more grateful than you know. ah
"Do not go gentle into that good night but rage, rage against the dying of the light."
~ Dylan Thomas
I was thirteen the day I saw my mother reach for my grandmother's elbow as we three crossed a busy intersection. My mother was rebuffed, her hand swiftly dislodged by the swing of my grandmother's arm, her uncertainty fueled by the tone of dismissal, "I don't need help."
Another time to someone asking her age, my grandmother, with visible and deliberate impatience, inquired, "Are you writing a book?". She was sharp-witted with little tolerance for assumptions formed in stereotypes. The family was kept guessing until the very end when at her funeral talk of her 'true' age, added confusion to the question of the year to be carved on her stone.
On average, people think of themselves as 13 years younger than their chronological age. The gap between what we are and what we feel, grows shorter in the face of chronic, debilitating illness. Apparently, the closer we 'feel' to our actual age, the closer we are to the end.
Healthy or not, regardless of how we see ourselves, something we all deal with past the age of 60 - the words used by other to suggest we're on the downhill - old, elderly, or - ugh - senior. Not at all benign, these words, laden with meaning - slow, foggy, frail, dull, fading, confused, weak, undesirable, incompetent - directed at us, have the effect of turning us into what they imply.
These days calling a young adult of twenty-five, 'sweetie', might be thought of as inappropriate, even sexist. Using the word when talking to a woman of 65 or beyond, some see as a term of endearment. It isn't. It's annoying. Too personal. Too condescending. Too silly. We're not their sweetie.
When you show up for your annual physical and the doctor asks "Are you still working?" - you take notice, thinking,"What do you mean "still"?" "Why wouldn't I be?".
When you check into the lab to get blood work, the intake clerk asks, "Are you retired?" "No", I say. "I work." I'm tempted to ask if she does too.
The man you have dinner with says something like, "You know, at your age, you should look after your health more closely." "What? What do you mean, "...at your age"?" He's 15 years older than you and doesn't look so well. You stare in silence, thinking, "Really? What's your point?". "What are you trying to say?" It's 11 o'clock on a Saturday and thoughts turn to how quickly he can finish his meal so you can escape to the newsstand for an early edition of the Sunday Times. Surely a newspaper is better company.
No need to elaborate on what it feels like the first time a woman offers you her seat on the train. A woman you calculate to be about ten years your junior. A little stunned, you say a polite, "No thank you", then do all you can to show just how strong and tall you are. In fact, you're so strong, so steady on your feet, you don't even hold the strap. Whew.
We joke about how slow older people are behind the wheel. I think we've got it wrong. It's not always a sign of slowed reflexes. The need to be the fastest, to win, to show others how cool you are, is no longer relevant. For the mature mind, competition has lost its appeal. For me, driving slowly is a way to save a few chipmunks and avoid the horror of deer barreling through the windshield.
And when a man you once loved tells you your body is 'getting old' - Oh my God! I hope it is, it's coming along with me as I age. But, again, is there a point to be made? Will being told this help me improve? No. Absolutely no. It only makes me want to never see that man again. Ever.
These comments seem innocent enough. They're not. They harm in ways you might not expect. They linger, causing the recipient to focus on age when she or he otherwise would not, and see the person offering the 'advice' as embarrassing to themselves. They look smaller than you once thought they were.
There's a rich body of work showing how quickly performance is undermined following exposure to stereotypical assumptions about what it means to be old. Measured before and after subliminally presented negative age perceptions, everything from posture, grip strength, gait, memory, concentration, handwriting, blood pressure and more - worsen in a matter of minutes. Becca Levy, a professor at Yale, reports negative age self-perception can shorten life by as much as 7.5 years.
Exposure to words like 'senile, 'dementia', 'senior', 'frail', have less to do with causing us to feel unattractive, and a lot to do with eroding self-confidence and subsequently, functioning. The minute we begin doubting ourselves our minds slow, concentration is affected, we grow cautious and hesitant. We become what we begin to believe we may be.
When someone tries to explain a complex problem when you're young, if they don't do it well, you think, "...this person isn't clear". When you're older, a similar experience causes you to think, "I'm losing it. I don't grasp things as quickly as I used to." They're younger so the assumption is they're sharper. They may not be.
What we see in the media suggests looking younger is what we're about ...wrinkles and muscle loss our greatest concern. It's not the wrinkle, it's what the wrinkle means. What we value is relevance - a positive sense of personhood - undiminished, visible and with purpose.
Even as a child when I heard people refer to my grandmother as, 'vain', I thought they were wrong. It wasn't holding on to the beauty she'd enjoyed her entire life, it wasn't about being young, it was about extending her time on earth as a respected businesswoman, enjoying the longest and best run possible after years of hard work and accomplishment in what was then, a man's world. The uninformed - in many cases not as bright as she - would raise her fury, with hints of dwindling abilities, based on nothing more than a number and a grey bun.
How old do you feel? Who or what is influencing the way you feel? You? Society? Take charge. Your life depends on it.
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