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Growing old: better than the alternatives

October 17, 2012

I enjoyed this article in the Wall Street Journal recently entitled “The ‘New’ Old Age is No Way to Live”. In it the author rejects the idea of following his Baby Boomer brethren in continuing to exercise daily, being hugely productive, and just generally being in denial of their age. From the article:

We are advised that an extended life span has given us an unprecedented opportunity. And if we surrender to old age, we are fools or, worse, cowards. Around me I see many of my contemporaries remaining in their prime-of-life vocations, often working harder than ever before, even if they have already achieved a great deal. Some are writing the novels stewing in their heads but never attempted, or enrolling in classes in conversational French, or taking up jogging, or even signing up for cosmetic surgery and youth-enhancing hormone treatments.

The rest of the article is devoted to describing his trip to the Greek island of Hydra to research how to grow old. There are lots of philosophical references as well as counter-intuitive defenses of being set in your ways and how striving is empty-headed. Whatever, it’s his column. Personally, I like changing my mind about things and striving.

The point I want to make is this: there are far too few people coming out and saying that getting old can be a good thing. It can be a fun thing. Our culture is so afraid of getting old, it’s almost as bad as being fat on the list of no-nos.

I don’t get it. Why? Why can’t we be proud of growing old? It allows us, at the very least, to hold forth more, which is my favorite thing to do.

Since I turned 40 I’ve stopped dying my hair, which is going white, and I’ve taken to calling the people around me “honey”, “sugar”, or “baby”. I feel like I can get away with that now, which is fun. Honestly I’m looking forward to the stuff I can say and do when I’m 70, because I’m planning to be one of those outrageous old women full of spice and opinions. I’m going to make big turkey dinners with all the fixings even when it’s just October and invite my neighbors and friends to come over if my kids are too busy with their lives and family. But if they decide to visit, and if they have kids themselves, I’m going to spoil my grandkids rotten, because I’m totally allowed to do that when I’m the grandma.

Instead of lying about my age down, I’ve taken to lying about my age up. I feel like I am getting away with something if I can pass for 50. After all, why would I still want to be 30? I was close to miserable back then, and I’ve learned a ton in the past 10 years.

Update: my friend Cosma just sent me this poem by Jenny Joseph. For the record I’m wearing purple today:


When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

Categories: musing
  1. October 17, 2012 at 10:53 am

    In all honesty we should loosen up on the children too. We’re only young once.


  2. Vince Gay
    October 17, 2012 at 11:36 am

    Since my mid 40’s, I have enjoyed being the demanding and cantankerous older male higher-up with a heart of gold, who scares the bejesus out of younger co-workers who thank me later for what they have learned by putting up with me, and who I’m sure say nothing but the nicest things about me behind my back. They never know when I’m gonna be in demanding mode or heart of gold mode, and that’s half the fun for me. It’s my turn, after all–since some older guys put me through this decades ago, helping to make me into the sterling individual I am today.

    Now that I am 50, I am disappointed that a practice I had looked forward to, that of addressing all males more than ten years younger than oneself as “son”, had fallen out of favor.

    Males over 40 were the only ones ever permitted to engage in this practice, but, by the time I hit the big 4-0, the practice was dead. I had even hoped that, but the time I got to 40, there would be a non-sexist equivalent way for older males to address younger women, but the guys who came before me didn’t bother to develop non-sexist versions of anything. This is the age group that relies on binders full of women, after all.

    These days, it’s rare even for fathers to refer to their own male children as “son”. This cuts off all sorts of the browbeating opportunities, the kind that are so essential to character building when fathers are raising sons.

    And all of this makes it very difficult to engage in especially valuable exchanges like this one from the ancient movie “Raising Arizona”. In the film, this exchange occurs shortly after it’s discovered that one of the infant sons of furniture magnate Nathan Arizona is missing:

    REPORTER: “Sir, it’s been rumored that your son was abducted by UFOs. Would you care to comment?”

    NATHAN ARIZONA: “Now don’t print that, son. If his mama reads that… she’s just gonna lose all hope.”

    But we need not lose all hope. Now, if we want to play certain mind games with the young’uns, we just have push ourselves to go to the trouble of taking our kids to an athletic field or dance studio, where the browbeating opportunities come naturally, as God intended.


    • October 17, 2012 at 1:27 pm

      Black guys still use the term, but mainly with peers.



    • N-Sphere Thingy
      October 17, 2012 at 9:47 pm

      See this is what I don’t like.

      I don’t like that older guys (especially managers at investment banks, mind you) are so mercurial and fussy. Primarily because they’ve suffered the same thing at a younger age from their past superiors and so they (1) think younger people bearing their unpredictable rage and undeserved verbal assaults is normal and (2) want to make up for what they went through.

      And so the young people they do that to end up wanting to “get their fair shot” when they are old -> they end up acting like that as well.

      It’s a vicious cycle. Isn’t it more productive to just be good to people, as much as the vagaries of life permit, rather than unpredictably lambasting them (sometimes just because they happen to be the most physically proximate human being) in order to exercise social power and satisfy the behavioral urges that past superiors imposed on you?

      And by you I don’t mean “you”. Just the generic manager that many of us have had to deal with.


      • October 17, 2012 at 10:04 pm

        No, I’m definitely not that mercurial figure, and actually would not want to be…And I think that, mostly, most of us are not latent sociopaths waiting to get our old-age “wreak whatever havoc we want” hall passes. I also hope we’re not all holding off until our later decades to engage in the good kind of spontaneity…Even though I’m a sweetheart, though, it is weird to be on the opposite side of the dynamic of those young people who are uncontrollably intimidated and a bit too eager to please, when encountering those more seasoned than themselves. And, past a certain point, efforts to make the young go-getters more comfortable are futile: only time and a more sure sense of themselves will cure them of being too quick to become overly impressed…And, occasionally, the goal is not to make people comfy, but to challenge, to get people to stretch and find out what they’re capable of. It’s not something to impose on people for perverse thrills, but it does sometimes end up involving a shift from fear to eventual appreciation. –BR/Vince


  3. mathematrucker
    October 17, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Getting old has its pluses and minuses. Physically, let’s be real: it’s mostly a minus. What’s probably fundamental to our culture’s misunderstanding of growing old, is its fixation on things physical to the exclusion of things mental.

    Mentally, growing old is GREAT! In my age-53 opinion, the mental (i.e., knowledge) benefits of growing old far outweigh its physical downsides.


  4. N-Sphere Thingy
    October 17, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    So old age is like a bacchanalia for all the wrong things people want when they’re young and can’t have?

    Something about that seems wrong.

    The idea seems to be to repress various urges (spitting, stealing neighbors’ flowers, gobbling up samples in shops) when you are young, stewing quietly for several decades because the lizard brain really wants to do it but can’t, then abdicate responsibility and reveal one’s true, gross, reckless self when you are old.

    What does that really say about us and our society?

    That we basically live off 20-60 year olds who have to repress their urges to blow money on summer gloves because they need to be responsible so that the 0-20 and 60-80 year olds can go irresponsibly crazy and threaten the social codes that the 20-60 year olds are sweating to patch together when the others blow holes in them?

    I donno. Maybe. Maybe that’s right. Maybe not. I am not criticizing, I am just trying to… Well. Whatever. Discuss.


    • mathematrucker
      October 18, 2012 at 1:19 pm

      I find the 60+ part of your comment the most interesting and curious. There’s no question that many in the 60+ crowd do seem to think their age implies they have license to be rude (or worse) to those quite a bit younger than themselves – especially if they’re related.


  5. October 22, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Nice post, Cathy, and nice, open-minded commentary. Being older is no excuse for being rude, but it does confer a number of social and psychological benefits, as those who are not in a fetal position at the prospect discover. I like to think of it as being an “old person in training.” I’ve been writing about how ageism — which is what fuels the fear — obscures all but the negative aspects of what late life has in store at http://www.stayingvertical.com/ and http://yoisthisageist.com/, which you might enjoy. I’m a friend of Peter Woit’s.


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