I’m reading a murder mystery in which the 60-year-old sleuth, who owns a tea shop, is described as “a little old Chinese lady.” The author, I learn, is in her mid-30s and looks younger, besides being unfairly gorgeous and displaying a disturbing level of ageism.
Since when does being 60 make you a little old lady? The 60-ish people in my life are on the younger side of my friendship group, and none of us identifies in that ghastly category of “senior citizen.” I recently bought a birthday card for an elegant, 70-something friend that reads, “I don’t understand how we can be the same age as old people.”
But then I think about the fact that I’m heading for my 50th college reunion next month. My seventh decade has crept up on me with the stealth of a stalking leopard and is now barreling down on me like a downhill semi with failed brakes.
With a few hardy exceptions — among them my mother, who died in January at 92 — my generation of Baby Boomers is now the oldest living age cohort. Disturbingly, in the last few years I’ve lost a number of dear friends, some younger than me.
Like it or not, we’re getting old. But we don’t feel old; in our minds, we’re still in our 30s at the most. “How terribly strange to be 70,” sang Simon and Garfunkel in 1972, in a song about “Old Friends.” Simon and Garfunkel are now both 82.
When we were in our 20s and 30s, a lot of people older than 60 were in nursing homes and other forms of elder care. Advances in health care as well as societal and attitudinal changes have raised the age at which people can really be classified as “elderly” (one of the more despicable euphemisms ever coined).
In Montpelier, 42% of us are over 50, the age at which AARP enrolls you, voluntarily or not, as a card-carrying member (granted, the senior discounts come in handy). At live events at Kellogg-Hubbard Library or the Vermont Humanities Council, most of the heads in the room are gray. Performing arts venues lament the “graying” and, by implication, the dying-off, of audiences for live productions. The younger ones, presumably, are home staring at their phone screens.
A good deal of our time in the last three years has been occupied in supporting — and in various ways, taking care of — close friends who’ve been stricken with Parkinson’s disease, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, lung failure, heart failure, early onset Alzheimer’s, neurological diseases, and other examples of what Hamlet aptly dubbed “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”
It’s the age group, people tell us. Get used to it. But it feels too soon, and we seem to have had an unusually concentrated spell of dealing with sick and dying friends. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, the amount of morbidity and mortality in our circle seems “considerably above the proper average that statistics have laid down for our guidance.”
My beloved and I are in excellent health at present, with a few of the predictable manifestations of our vintage: trouble with name retrieval, a craving for afternoon naps, an increasing preference for staying home and sitting by the fire with a good book.
But inside we feel much like the teenage and 20- and 30-somethings we used to be, convinced we’re still cool, singing along with the Stones on classic rock radio, wearing blue jeans and fleeces and L. L. Bean work shirts (white orthopedic sneakers are right out). We have contemporaries who still power up mountains, go on treks to Nepal, and bike everywhere, though they’re more and more of a minority.
My husband and his posse of near-octogenarians keep the North Branch Nature Center in new benches, Adirondack chairs, paint jobs, and various repairs. But conversation at dinners with friends increasingly turns to comparisons of how the knee and hip replacements and cataract surgeries have gone, and which doc in the area is the go-to person for superior results.
If I’m hosting, I try to nip such conversations in the bud, especially if younger people are present. It’s boring. They could be forgiven for echoing The Who in their famous anthem “My Generation”: “Hope I die before I get old.”
My generation — and The Who’s — was famous (or infamous) for disrespecting our elders. “Don’t trust anybody over 30,” said Jack Weinberg, an activist in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, who’s now 83.
But our collective activism eventually stopped the Vietnam War and advanced civil rights for people of color and reproductive rights for women. From the generations south of us, I hope for this: look past the gray hair. Understand that we don’t feel (or, we hope, act) as old as we look. As far as we’re concerned, we’re not too old for rock’n’roll, but we are too young to die. Don’t let our age determine who you think we are. Someday you’ll understand.
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