Three Quandaries of Getting Really Old

In the college classes I teach, students are concerned about what happens in what they call “old age.” Of course the best answer is, “It surely beats the alternative.” But often, that’s not enough. Some students actually express the desire to die relatively young — as young as 50! (Which will seem old to them — until they get close to it.)

But perhaps that’s because in today’s youth-obsessed culture, many people don’t know the truth about aging. Like all health research, things are not exactly as they seem.


On the subway, courteous young people get up to give me, a 77-year-old, a seat. I always refuse; it’s no favor to be considered less able than they. But I notice that many older folk not only accept, they crowd ahead in order to get a seat.

So who’s right? Both. I’m able to stand, sometimes more comfortably than the youth who offered me the seat. But some older people really can barely stand, and the subway often lurches, with brakes being slammed on or with sudden acceleration. That’s the way it is with many questions about aging: They can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

Developmental psychology textbooks disagree on definitions of old age. The late Erik Erikson, who coined the phrase identity crisis, originally defined old age as over 60 years, and defined its “crisis” as “ego integrity versus despair.” Some textbooks posit three periods of aging: “young old” (ages 60 through 76); “old old” (76 through 85); and “oldest old” (86 and up).

In August, I joined the “old old” crowd, but, like many older people, I “feel” young emotionally. I even am young in my sleeping dreams. In the mirror I see that I look old, but younger people often tell me, “Oh, age is just a state of mind.” I surely disagree: We have more illnesses and think more slowly — but fortunately more creatively — than we did at age 30, and are closer to death than we were at any earlier age.

No one can escape those eventualities, but they can take place at radically different ages. I’m still teaching college classes, writing, and doing a little volunteer work as an “old old” man.

Some of the people who live long are healthy and think clearly past age 100. A film I show to my classes features a 110-year-old blind woman. She says, “I had 100 years of sight, and few people have that much.” More often, the “oldest old” stay fairly healthy and intelligent into their 90s, then get ill and quickly die.


That question haunts many of us. Erik Erikson originally believed it depended mostly on how you dealt with each stage of life. One stage presupposes success in the one before. Finally, in old age — age 60 and older — the developmental crisis is ego integrity versus despair. Later he spoke of new challenges and further development in his 90s that he hadn’t experienced in his 60s.

After Erik Erikson’s death, his widow, Joan Erikson, alert and productive in her 90s, completed work on his evolving views that they had worked on together. She spoke of a stage that surmounted crises and developmental tasks; she borrowed the term gerotranscendence to describe a time of inner quiet and calm, coupled with spiritual values and pursuit of the common good.

Erikson was right, but transcendence can happen at any age. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl noted, in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” that prisoners who tried to make sense of their suffering and their loved ones’ executions were more likely to survive. But the meaning wasn’t simply a trivial “God knows best”; it might be planning a way to tell the world the awful truth so as to avoid future holocausts, or, as in Frankl’s case, it might be the formation of a philosophy of life.

Or consider Buddhist monks and others who exhibit transcendence at an early age. Even in the midst of the Vietnamese war, Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh developed serenity as he watched fellow monks die. He also constructed a powerful philosophy that saw us all as part of one another. His poem, “Please Call Me By My True Names,” noted how we are one with flowers and animals.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

Some predict the future will be one of conscious aging, where meditation changes values, enhances performance, and generates serenity for multitudes. This is the idea of “functional age” versus “actual age.” (Don’t carry the idea too far, and fail to take care of real problems that are not “just in the mind”; as one psychologist said, “That’s a good way to end up [earlier than necessary] on a slab.”)


A problem often interferes in our search for meaning: When we’re very old, we no longer seem to be able to serve. My surviving older brother, age 88, and his lady friend, age 92, both told me, in essence, I’m ready for the Lord to call me home to heaven, because I’m not able to do anything useful. I have no mission in life.

When I visited him this past summer, it was my privilege to remind him that he’s highly respected among all the people in the retirement home where he lives and can help others with their boredom and loss of connections with loved ones. He still can care for himself, eats with others in the common dining room, worships with them in the chapel and smiles beautifully as he talks with them. He helps make their lives a little easier and a little more joyful.

Moreover, both he and his 92-year-old lady friend make each other happy, after suffering the deaths of their spouses some years ago. It’s touching to hear them tease each other, and then sometimes ask, “Do you still love me?” They clearly experience love and caring. That’s a meaningful “oldest old” age!

Consider the words of Florida Scott Maxwell, in “The Measure of My Days“: “Old age is truly a time of heroic helplessness … Another day to be filled, to be lived silently, watching the sky and the lights on the wall … I have no duties except to myself. That is not true. I have a duty to all who care for me — not to be a problem, not to be a burden. I must carry my age lightly, for all our sakes, and thank God I can.”


When I ask biologists that question, they almost always say, “No, our brain isn’t programmed that way,” or “The process of senescence is inevitable; the body simply has limits.”

But Aubrey de Grey of Cambridge University says, “Aging is a physical phenomenon … so … as medicine becomes more and more powerful, we will inevitably be able to address [aging] just as effectively as we address many diseases today.” Each generation lives longer, he notes.

Stem cell research is progressing even without government funding since a recent court ruling, but as a generation younger — in real terms — begins to control government, the aid will be forthcoming. And indeed, such research is funded by governments in other countries already. It may one day be possible to cure many now incurable diseases. Dr. de Grey comments: “I think the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already.”

It has cheered me to hear people of all ages say, “I love my life,” without implying narcissism or selfishness. Maybe one friend’s statement is best: “Life is good.” May it be so for each of us.

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