Friday, September 23, 2005


Existential Friday: What kind of old person do you plan to be?

I've suggested that the key to mid-life crisis is the true dawning realization of mortality. Related to this is another dividing line: those who really understand that they will grow old, and those who don't.

Rest assured: you will become an old person -- if you don't die first, that is. Yes, on some abstract level everybody realizes this, but do they understand what it means?

Our culture indulges itself in a somewhat repulsive amount of disrespect for the elderly. A lot of that manifests itself in comparatively benign behaviors (benign compared to elder abuse, that is) -- mockery, impatience, etc. -- showing a lack of empathy for the maladies and behaviors of aging.

Even those of us who are more understanding often engage in a form of denial in the way we envision ourselves as old people. We will not become the kind of old person who can't walk, who suffers from mild dementia, who rambles and repeats himself all the time. Many of us choose an "old person role model" -- a beloved grandmother, a long-lived philospher, an elder statesman, who is physically spry and mentally sharp as a tack. I've heard tell that 85 year old liberal Supreme Court Justice, John Paul Stevens is in this kind of shape: actively engaged in important work at age 85, impressing his 26 year old law clerks with his keen legal insights.

Basically, we tell ourselves that we will engage in "power aging" (the baby boomer's marketing term for it), and become that spry sharp old person by careful diet and exercise, and doing lots of crossword puzzles or whatever to keep the mind sharp. We'll all become our "old person role models."

But that can't possibly be true, can it? What percentage of old people are role models? 1 in 20? 1 in 50? Whatever the actual percentage, it is a far cry from all or even most of us. Most of us will be infirm. And the brain ages and becomes rigid in its thought patterns, hindered by tiny strokes that basically close off more and more neural pathways. In my case, I will have these set piece anecdotes or witticisms that strike me as continually fresh, but are corny and repetitive. I will say things like "don't talk to me like I'm an old person" and believe I come across as witty and vigorous, when in reality I sound like an old man trying to be funny.

And guess what -- that'll be you too, in all likelihood. We can't all be John Paul Stevens.

Isn't it more that we retain optimism about life, including our own? When we falter and become different (less spry) than what we have envisioned for ourselves -- so be it. Live with it, pull the plug, whatever. But why plan for that? Why worry and anticipate it? Isn't life wonderful in that it doesn't deliver the last pages until you, well, get to the last pages?
Come on, Oscar, aim high. Do the diet and exercise thing and if it fails, you'll have plenty of years to contemplate the whys and whereofs. And if you've retained your wits like Stevens, you may even write a book about it and become rich. At 85.
I've actually thought a lot about being old, and I'm looking forward to it. You can say whatever you want when you're old, and who's going to say anything to you? I fully plan to take advantage of the fact that undergrad classes are free to senior citizens. And when I'm no longer senile enough to understand them, I'll spend my days on a rocker on my front porch, mumbling to myself and yelling at children to get off my damn lawn. It's going to be great.
I feel somehow responsible for the subject of this post (sorry about that). I'm not even living up to my "middle age" role models (they are all thin, healthy and very active), so there are certainly times when I'm concerned about what my dotage is going to be like. I've already got mornings where I'm too stiff to move and I'm not even 50 yet.

I don't know how much genetics plays into what you're like as an old person, and now much environment has to play (and I'm not convinced the health professionals do, either, considering how one month they tell us "Take more Vitamin E!" and then next month they say: "Vitamin E: Bad for you!")

But if genetics DOES play a role, I suggest you start collecting stamps pretty soon, and maybe start a side business selling them. I think that daily mental exercize kept Gradpa's brain spry till he was about 100.

I am not convinced my reciting of Monty Python script elements is going to continue to amuse people when I'm 80. (seeing as it's annoying to some people even now). So I'd better find some other things to talk about...
Oh, one last thing about Grandpa and his longevity and mental acuity: Maybe it was the diet of boiled chicken legs, peas and carrots every single day that did it...
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