“Don’t you want to live to 100?” younger travelers asked me on our recent trip to Japan. They seemed astonished that one might not want to live forever. I wasn’t sure how to answer their question.
“If I am of reasonably good health—mentally and physically. If I don’t outlive my friends. If I don’t run out of money. If I don’t become a burden on my children. If I don’t outlive them. If my grandchildren don’t end up having to care for me.”
I am as prepared as one can be to live to advanced old age. Two grandparents made it into their 90s, while my dad’s grandfather, mother and sister all lived past 100. I was surrounded by elderly great-aunts and -uncles for much of my life, and Lev’s mother and her sisters lived well into their 80s. I have seen old age close up; and as Lev’s longtime partner and friend-like-a-brother Ralph Storm said, “Growing old isn’t for sissies.”
Judging from articles I read on boomer sites like Next Avenue and Huffington Post 50, entering the 60s is a frightening proposition. Really, the 60s are terrific. The children are grown, and many boomers find themselves with more discretionary time and money than they have ever had. Life is good. 70 is the new 50. Supposedly.
So what defines elderly today? My friends and I—even those who are in their early 80s—don’t think of ourselves as old. I think of old as 85+, but it’s probably always a moving target, 10 years out there. I googled elderly and learned the word describes those who qualify for Social Security and Medicare. Oops! That’s me.
Recently I read that we are not old until we have less than 15 years of life expectancy. I am old by that standard too. In 2014, 65-year-old women had a life expectancy of 20.5 years; men, 17.9. I have slowed down, and most of my friends admit the same. Another widowed friend—with more energy than I—and I discuss it sometimes.
Every day is a gift. We need to practice gratitude, to be thankful for reasonably sound minds and bodies, for financial security and for a strong support network of caring friends and family. We can’t procrastinate, because we don’t know how many tomorrows we have. We need to live life to the fullest as long as we can.
We all fear declining health, memory loss, dependency, being a burden. Please, God. May I die suddenly and unexpectedly in my sleep? No one has complete control over her health; and despite medical advances, our bodies age. But healthy lifestyles make a huge difference. In a previous fitness phase about 20 years ago, I spent a week in a Cooper Clinic wellness program. I will never forget what Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who developed the concept of aerobics, told us: The average person experiences about six years of declining health. Those who reach old age with excellent health and fitness tend to “fall off a cliff” at the end of their lives—six months or so of rapid decline and death.
It’s not about length of life. It’s about quality of life.
If I live to the age of my aunt, I have 31 years still to go. That is a long time. 31 years ago, I was 44. My children will be 80 and 77. My grandchildren will be in their 50s.
So…. Do I want to live to 100? It depends.
How do you feel about old age and longevity?
Photos: left, my grandmother on Canal Street, New Orleans, 1940; right, me in Glacier Bay, Alaska, 2006.