As is often the case with people of advanced age, with each departed birthday I find myself more frequently contemplating my mortality than when I was in my thirties, forties, fifties and even (gulp) sixties. When you have passed— make that surpassed— all of those milestone decades, you can’t help thinking about how much time you have left.
Colorful and interesting people disguised in white hair and wrinkles have enriched my life when they could have easily passed unnoticed. Most are gone now, but I was honored as a reporter to share their stories and wisdom.
As for me, I was able tell my own stories, give my personal opinions, to the amusement, annoyance and occasional enragement of readers, on a weekly basis for more than four decades now. I’ve enjoyed a unique forum and there isn’t much more I can tell about myself. So, like most old guys, I just repeat myself and hope nobody notices.
I’m not afraid to say it. I’m old, and yet I find comfort in knowing there are many more of my vintage and beyond out there. I remember, earlier in life, when people much older than me would offer the following advice: “Don’t ever get old.” All I can say is I tried, but one day I was there. You see, the sole alternative to not getting old is, well, not living. So I’m still around, knowing that all is relative when it comes to aging. A couple of weeks ago, a fellow in his mid-eighties struggling across a parking lot with a walker, looked at me, shrugged and barked, “Don’t ever get old!”
In my teens and twenties, I guiltily confess to joining with my peers in calling my elders geezers, codgers, coots and fogies. I should have known better and feel terrible, as a geezer myself, for having been so insensitive about something over which we have little control— getting old. I was brought up to respect my elders and had the good fortune, over the years, to enjoy the company of people decades beyond my age.
I’ve written a goodly number of feature articles about people with fascinating stories about life experiences that occurred years before I was born. There were plenty of the now-vanishing World War II veterans to write about at one time. There was Howard Kerr surviving carnage, feigning lifelessness beneath dead bodies in a foxhole, after his platoon of Marines had been massacred by a horde of Japanese soldiers. Then there was Tom Fairchild, Sr.’s experience as a German POW after his plane was shot down. A fellow named Homer Baker, the U.S. national half-mile champion in 1913-14, was an Olympic hopeful touring Europe just before the outbreak of World War I crushed his hopes of competing in the scratched 1916 Olympics. He was in his eighties living in a room at the Williamsport YMCA when I happened upon him in 1976.
We usually have to tiptoe around calling people old, relying on euphemisms to somehow coddle the codgers among us. Hey, age is relative, but old and aging aren’t so bad for cheese, bourbon and wine. So why deny what we are? You’re only at your best, your peak, for a brief portion of your life. For some it may be old age.
I’ve noticed that some journalists seem genuinely astonished that old people are actually capable of the most fundamental functions. They write and say things like “Wes Skillings, still active and mentally alert at the age of 72…” That’s right, we’re old and yet our minds and most parts of our bodies still work. Then again, some don’t.
There are flattering adjectives for the old among us like “venerable,” which means that you have earned respect by virtue of your age and experience. Some like to refer to us as mature, though I’ve seldom been accused of that, but I see mature as being the last stage before overripe and, from there, it becomes rot and decay.
The problem is that there aren’t very many flattering synonyms for old or elderly. Forget about “senior,” as in “I’m having a senior moment,” which seems to be the go-to choice nowadays. Many of the agencies claiming to be our advocates seem to prefer the word “aging,” which is a condition that applies to people of all ages. Nevertheless, we see the following: American Society on Aging, Administration on Aging, National Council on Aging, National Institute on Aging and on and on.
We’ve seen all the euphemisms come and go: senior citizens, young at heart, golden-agers, the geriatric set and the always reliable “of a certain age.” We’re characterized as “years young” instead of “years old,” which is downright silly.
At the top of the list of the words you might not want to use in describing us is “senile,” which is a disease or condition more common among the elderly, though not necessarily a prerequisite. Gradual loss of cognitive function is part of advanced aging, so words and names are more likely to escape you beyond the age of, say, 65. I, while writing this column, could not think of the word “euphemism” for an uncomfortable period of time, but it eventually came to me.
In the meantime, from the purview of a septuagenarian it seems to me that continuing to have birthdays is usually better than the alternative.