3 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.

Quandary One: How Much Physical Capability Do Elders Maintain?

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.

Quandary Two: Is Life Meaningful In “Old Age”?

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.

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