What does it mean to be an old person in America?
The mainstream media’s answer to this question borders on the absurd: To look and act as young as you can for as long as you can. America is a young country, and young is promoted as the only way to be. Diet, exercise, wrinkle creams and
vitamins are advised for all, not to mention chemical peels and puffed-up, teeny-bopper lips. I see on television that Jane Fonda, once my esteemed exercise goddess, has managed, via expert surgery, to avoid looking anything like her age. Although nearly as old as I am — she’s about to turn 77 — she could easily pass for 30 if some of us didn’t remember her as Barbarella in the 1968 movie of the same name and if her eyes didn’t tell a more experienced story.
In America, I have found being old and admitting it a challenge. Recently, as I was leaving a class at the YMCA, a father with a stroller in tow held the front door open for me. Allowing I was no longer agile and young, I cheerfully thanked him. “No, no,” he said, appalled, “you’re not old,” trying to drum up some other reason for his courtesy, therefore denying my age, who I am and the weight and meaning of 80-some years.
This is the face I grew into, the face that I earned, a face of character and feeling, the face of time — my time. Of course, it is not the face I had at 18. I didn’t much care for my face then. We didn’t seem well acquainted. No matter how I felt, I looked fine. I remember suffering from a splitting headache and finding no change in the bathroom mirror. I realized no one would believe my complaint and decided I would have to go to work. Sometimes I would cry in frustration and my tears, when dry, would leave no trace. I had the classic poker face: Emotionless, unresponsive and unrevealing. I suspect it cloaked an equally under-developed heart.
Now I have the face of felt experience. My face and feelings mesh; I look the way I feel. I am pleased with my looks and wish others were as well. I would like to be accepted wearing this face without having others express remorse or pity or being metaphorically patted on the head. I particularly want to be acknowledged as a person of value and, at the same time, as old. Not old by mistake, misadventure, neglect or criminal activity; old as a result of some things I know about aging. Post-60, the marionette body, our quite familiar transport of blood and brain, begins slowing up and winding down. My recollection of names has grown a bit iffy; the multi-tasking that was such fun before can now generate serious mistakes. My softer body parts shift in the down direction, and the fineness of my senses, eyes, ears, taste, begin to dim. Yet, for reasons unknown, my heart, mind and essence still feel rather young and ageless. What can account for this failure to match? What, if anything, does it mean?
Until I was 60, I paid very little attention to my physical being and identified with my mind. Now that I am old and my future more limited, I am more aware of what my body can and cannot do. Familiarity has bred appreciation and even an affectionate concern for all my magically moving parts. Until I have no choice in the matter, I don’t want to be catalogued among the handicapped. I don’t mind old; I am old. Not old and crotchety. Not old and super sexy, hyper-energetic and competitive. Not old and irrelevant.
Instead, old, white-haired, a bit wrinkly and wise, and happily engrossed in the life I have lived and am still living.