There is no question, the subject of age is mystifying and fascinating, and the older I get, the more it intrigues me.
Whatever age we are, it never seems like the right one at the time. I remember desperately wanting to be a teen ager, when I was 11 or l2. Teenagers got to do EVERYTHING!!!! They were cool. They were free. They were practically grown up….until I reached l3, and nothing much had changed (except for a few pimples). As it turned out, 13 was actually not cool. I was disappointed by that piece of news. I then decided that l4, l5, or 16 would do it, but that didn’t do the trick either. EIGHTEEN!!!! 18 would really do it, and just to be sure, I got married then—-and guess what, even married I wasn’t grown up really at 18. By then, I was sure that 21 was the key. At 21, you can do anything, even drink legally. And I watch my kids today go through the same cycles, with the same illusions. They expect l3, l6, l8, and then 21 to be magical, and are disappointed when they aren’t. Life goes on, very little changed from the day before. Although 21 is obviously cooler than 11. At 25, today, one seems to hang between youth and adulthood, it’s a hard time full of confusing forks in the road, and hard decisions, and the pressure we put on ourselves to succeed. And then sometime between 25 and 30, something weird happens. At 25, you’re young, right? And at 30, everyone starts whining about being ‘old’. No one wants to turn 30. So the high point in the rainbow seems to sneak in there somewhere, one day everyone wants to be older, but then in the blink of an eye, they suddenly feel ‘too old’. How old is too old? It’s a good question. The decade marks after 30 don’t get easier, and each decade birthday, 40, 50, 60 brings even louder complaints about how old we are. Sheesh, what a lot of work worrying about how old we are, if we’re not old enough or too old. I think there were about 5 minutes in there somewhere when I wasn’t worried about being not old enough (in college at 15, married at 17, and a mother at 19), or too old (damn near every year ever since). Worrying about it is a lot of work!!!
What intrigues me are the people I have met who are ageless, whom time seems to have ignored. Or is it that they ignored time, and are too busy, too engaged, too interested and too interesting to be bothered with the notion of age? I have known 5 such people in my lifetime, all of them remarkable people. One is an extraordinary woman who must be now well into her 90’s, still beautiful in many ways, perfectly put together, at the forefront of fashion and every trend. Every time I ran into her in the past 20 years, she was going somewhere, to Venice to take courses on Italian art, to live with a family in France (in her 80’s) to learn French—-and not a ‘cool’ family or old friends, a family she had never met before, in a tiny house, where the entire family shared one bathroom. She actually learned the language, after 3 months of bad food and standing on line for the bathroom, and she doesn’t live that way at home. What does she have that we don’t? I’m not sure. Courage, excitement about life, interest, she constantly wants to learn and do new things, and she looks fabulous. She is even bold in the way she dresses and it looks great on her. Truly, a remarkable woman. The first of these timeless people I met was the grandfather of my first husband. I met him when he was 97, and he lived to be l03. He went to his office every day until he was l0l, and he could have continued thereafter, but decided not to and finally just let himself wear down, he was tired at l03. Until then, he read several books a week, knew everything happening in the world, had all his faculties and remarkable health. He looked 30 years younger than he was during all the years I knew him. Knowing him was a great gift. He was a wonderful man. Another of these remarkable people was the mother of a dear friend, who also lived to be l03. She sparkled, she was alive and vivacious and also interested and aware of everything, until a cold over a long weekend claimed her in the end. I am inherently lazy, and will drive anywhere that I could walk. I once drove by her chugging up a steep hill in San Francisco on foot, and asked if she’d like a ride. She was 97 then. She looked at me and laughed, said of course not, and trotted up that hill. She took care of herself, her family, and cleaned her own house until she died at l03. She was a happy, joyful person, who clearly enjoyed life and made it a pleasure for everyone around her. I know of two other such women right now. One is turning 99, the other l0l. The 99 year old thinks, speaks and acts like a 45 year old. She drives, cleans house, reads voraciously, meets new people, lives on her own, travels alone, and goes dancing. Talking to her is like talking to a contemporary, and I’m always embarrassed by what I haven’t read, done, and don’t know in comparison to her. She is totally connected to and part of real life, and not sitting on the sidelines yet. And the last of these people also lives alone, and last year at 100, shocked her family by deciding to move into assisted living and giving up her home. She said she was tired of cleaning house. A year later, she has new friends, is going to concerts, operas and ballets, and she’s just as busy. What do these people do or know that we don’t? How did Father Time forget them? Or did they forget Father Time, and are too busy to even think about him.
Clearly, luck is a big factor here. All of these people enjoy good health, but I’m sure that they must have some aches and pains, after all, all their moving parts are a century old. They can’t feel great all the time, no one does, but I’ve never heard them complain, and they truly seem to be enjoying life.
It shocks me now when I meet my contemporaries, and it happens to people who go to school reunions. A handful of people look great, or even younger than their age, and a whole other bunch look so old and over the hill that it’s scary. You don’t even recognize them when you see them, and you run home and look in the mirror, panicked and wondering if you look as ancient as they do. Why do some people stay so young, and others seem to fall right off the cliff, let themselves go, get beaten down, and look 20 years older than they are, and don’t seem to care about much anymore.
I cant help wondering if much of this (other than good health) is about attitude, about keeping busy, about learning new things, meeting new people, and staying connected to life. It’s so much easier not to, to just slide into a chair at night and stare at the TV, to not learn something new, or hang out with the same old people. I’m guilty of that too. I’m not learning new languages, new sports, and I’m so busy working that I go for months sometimes without reading a new book (by someone else!!). But seeing these remarkable older people really reminds me that staying connected and in the mainstream really matters, and makes a huge difference in the quality of one’s life in the long run. These people even look better than much younger people who are doing nothing with their lives, and barely have a life.
Obviously, there are times when all of us are beaten down by life, and it shows. When I lost my son, overnight I felt l00 years old, and looked awful. It took me a long time to climb out of the pit. The hard blows in life age us, tire us, wear us out and make us look older. But surely those people who are l00 years old have had their share of hard blows too. They survived them. The gentleman I mentioned who lives to be l03 outlived all of his children, a tragic circumstance, but he enjoyed his grandchildren and their children, and enjoyed meeting young people and engaging with them. When I was 20 and he was 97, I stayed with him for several months in his home, and I had a great time with him, and learned a great deal from him.
I am beginning to think it’s essential that if we want to remain interesting alive people, we need to stay plugged in to life, connected, adventuresome and brave. We can’t just settle into an easy chair and let life pass us by. I think the correct answer to new experiences is ‘why not?’ Why not do something new, meet a new person, try something new, learn something new. It takes effort, but when you look at these remarkable really old people who are more exciting than we are, at half their age, it really makes me realize that we need to put some effort into this process. I’ve never been to a school reunion, because French schools don’t have them, but if I ever go to one, I don’t want to be the oldest, dullest, most out of the loop boring person there. And if luck is with us, and we live a long time, I sure don’t want to get there, whining all the way, focusing on my aches and pains, and wailing about how old I am….I’d rather be the person that younger people look at with admiration and say “Wow!! I want to be like her one day!!”. As long as we’re here, for however long we’re here, why not enjoy it? Why not say ‘yes’ to the new experiences in life?…..at least I’d like to try and do that…..why not?