You aren’t old until you really believe you are. If you use age as an excuse for not doing things you don’t want to do, the day will come when you are too old to do anything. You’re thinking you’ve paid your dues. Now it’s time to let those whippersnappers in their forties, fifties and sixties do it. The problem is that if you give in to accepting that you are too old, you are already there. You are surrendering to elderdom. Worse yet, elderdoom.
Satchel Paige, the ageless ballplayer through the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties of the previous century, said it best: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” Paige played professional baseball (in the Negro Leagues and Major Leagues) until the eve of his sixtieth birthday. He was celebrated as the “ageless wonder” of baseball because he played like he didn’t know how old he was. That is, until he retired from baseball. From there, he lived only fifteen additional years, dying at a very average age of 75. Did the man celebrated for being ageless as an athlete finally surrender to being old after he was able to do what he did best?
In a way, that applies to many of our lives. We’re young and doing well at what we like to do. The years speed by, and like passengers on an accelerating train, we barely get to enjoy the passing scenery. Retirement comes and you’re still healthy, a young retiree with maybe a medical issue here and there, but life is still fulfilling. At some point, you realize you can’t do some of the things you used to be able to do physically, and the people you used to work and play with aren’t around much anymore. Some have passed on. Others have moved to more healthful climes or ensconced in elderdom themselves. You realize you don’t have an active social life anymore. Moreover, you don’t feel you want one much of the time. Your children and their children are off living their own lives and contact with them is sporadic, mostly on holidays. People start treating you differently or ignoring you. You realize that when you go to a restaurant or grocery story, you barely know anyone in the outside world anymore. Other times, faces are familiar, but you can’t recall the names. You’re not being invited to wedding receptions, parties and other social events anymore, because the movers and shakers are no longer in your generation. You seem to be suffering from an energy deficit and don’t enjoy the pastimes and activities you used to. You dwell on the ailments that come with aging, and all you can think about is it’s going to get worse. You start thinking your time has passed and, like Satchel Paige, you surrender to being old.
I don’t feel that way myself, but I do have to occasional glimpses of my own surrender. Sometimes the too-old claim gets you out of doing stuff you used to have to do. I know people younger than me who have sort of dropped out of life as if waiting for the end to come. Their minds are still sharp, with the typical forgetfulness of aging, but they’ve come to rely on a sedentary lifestyle. Perhaps a walker or cane is needed on those rare occasions when you do have to venture out into the outside world. That just makes you feel older. Everybody out there seems so young and energetic.
We let others decide we’re old. Others try to classify us by how old we are; sometimes necessarily. In the case of COVID, scientists and gerontologists decided everyone in their sixties and beyond needed special protection due to our frail and faltering immune systems. Now I’m not going to shun a shot as a declaration against aging— or to play what cards I have left in life’s game with the anti-vax crowd — so I’ll take the jabs they say I need.
I don’t want my headstone to read:
—Here lies Wes Skillings, beloved husband and father, who left us too soon because the imbecile wouldn’t admit he was old.—
You can’t stop others from deciding when THEY think you’re old. You know, waitresses, bank tellers and that Red Cross volunteer collecting your aging blood, calling you Sweetie in that feel-sorry-for-you tone. You stumble out from the bloodletting, disdaining the gratis snacks that aren’t good for either your blood sugar or blood pressure, vowing, “They’ll miss me when I’m gone!”
Maybe it’s not so much aging as running out of room to store stuff in my diminishing brain. I’ve gone through enough to accumulate the vaunted wisdom of old age. I was born when most people had radios instead of televisions in their living rooms. As a kid — and a significant part of my adult life— I had to stick my finger (usually the right pointer) into a little hole and rotate the dial clockwise until it stopped moving. Then I’d release and put the favored finger in another hole (or possibly the same if the number is repeated) and continue this process at least seven and as many as eleven times. I was anchored by a cord which allowed a radius of perhaps two feet of mobility from the phone. Oh, yes, and when I was real young, I might pick up the phone and hear my elderly neighbor talking to someone else. I had to carefully replace the phone in the cradle (aptly named for a sleeping object) or the neighbor might yell at my mother for listening in on a private conversation. Believe me, I never heard anything worth listening in on. It was known as a party line, and it was the poorest choice for a name ever. No party. Not a line worth remembering. If someone was calling you, you had to go by the number of consecutive rings with party lines consisting of two, three, even four households. This required dialing skills and keeping track of rings.
Just more stuff I don’t need stored in my memory bank that leave little room for important new deposits.
The party-line era didn’t last long for me, but telephones and televisions kept changing, adding more stuff to my increasingly crowded brain. Phones are always with us now and can be used as teeny television screens. You even get questions answered by the voice in your phone. Important ones like, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” and, “How do I download this stupid app? Or is it an upload?”
But we know all of that. My point is you mustn’t get caught up in how primitive life was when you were younger and compare it to today. It can be overwhelming, which explains why so many in my age range are walking around looking bewildered, seemingly incapable of remembering anyone’s name or where the gas tank is located on their car. We who have lived so long have to be ever vigilant about words we use — like saying waitress, as I did previously, when we should say server. We certainly don’t want to give away whether the person we’re talking about is a man, woman, transgender or sans gender.
There’s nothing wrong or unnatural about being old. The problem comes when you start thinking of yourself as too old.
Update: In my last blog, I ruminated on how words we choose age us, rendering us as uncool. I stated that it is still cool to informally call a mixed group of people “guys,” but I received an interesting comment from a person who I’ll call Angela, mainly because that’s her name. She’s seeing a trend among professionals in higher education, as well as in the corporate world, away from “guys” to, of all appellations, “folks.”
As someone who doesn’t get out much, I suspect she’s right, because none of these nouns that hint at gender seem to be surviving #MeToo and the potential for sexual harassment.
I know folks applies to all possible genders, but the word seems a bit too, well, folksy. For one thing, the words “old” and “folks” seem to go together as in the old folks’ home or even the old folks at home. Even the popularity of folk music tends to increase proportionally with advanced age. Folks are primarily defined as “common people,” and I guess that applies to even the uncommon among us. Will it be adopted by all races and genders? I suspect blacks and Hispanics will refrain from calling each other folks or that there will ever be a music genre called Folk Hip Hop.