“I can’t believe I’m sixty.” My friend Marlena sits across from me over lunch, my treat, a few days after her somewhat raucous sixtieth birthday party, held in a local art gallery and featuring a DJ and enthusiastic dancing along with the usual delicious food and cake. “I’m not ready to be sixty,” she says in a plaintive voice, shaking her head. “I don’t feel sixty.”
This is not the first time I have heard this phrase, “I don’t feel sixty (sixty-five, seventy, etc.).” I hear it a lot these days, as my friends and contemporaries begin to reach the ages their grandparents were at the dawn of my friends’ childhood memories. I may even have uttered it myself, in a lapse of under-awareness.
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My first, off-the-cuff, somewhat flippant response is, “But of course you feel sixty – exactly. You are sixty. And how do you know what sixty feels like, anyway? You’ve never been sixty before.” Duh. I am biting my tongue, which is so in my cheek – this is disingenuous.
Marlena rolls her eyes at me. “You know that’s not what I mean,” she says.
I nod sheepishly. “I know,” I say. “What you mean is, you don’t feel like you think your grandparents felt like, when they were sixty, or what you imagine those other people feel like at sixty: beginning to lose your vigor and acuity, body starting to ache, losing interest in sex, memory not what it used to be – right?”
She nods. “Yes, that’s what I mean. I don’t feel decrepit. I have plenty of energy; my thinking is flexible and creative. I feel pretty much like I did when I was fifty, or forty.
Even twenty, sometimes. I don’t feel old.”
We all have these notions. We assume, and are assumed into, roles and attitudes based on our chronological age. We know what it is “supposed” to feel like to be sixty, seventy, eighty, and so on. Most of this is negative, but there are some positives too: younger people should defer to us; we are wise with experience and enhanced understanding. “I don’t feel sixty” is a sort of protest, but over time, many of us will succumb to these stereotypes as self-fulfilling prophesies, so that people, when they reach a certain age, begin to feel and act according to their and others’ programmed preconceptions, in part, at least, because of these preconceptions, not any actual physical changes.
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I am not denying that there are physical and metabolic changes that occur with increasing age. But when in a person’s life these manifest and how severe they are is highly individual, depending not only on genetics but also lifestyle and, above all, attitude. And I believe that these stereotypic ideas about aging that we unnecessarily carry around in our heads, age us well ahead of any physical aging.
It is a matter of attitude. I do feel 65, and my 65 feels a lot like my 45 was, and in some ways like my 25. I don’t want to be young (good thing, because I never will be); I don’t mind getting older and even older than that. It’s those associations with being old that I want to dump. I intend to preserve my strength, flexibility, energy, and mental acuity as much as I can and for as long as I can, chronological age be damned!