Friday, March 21, 2008

We're never really old: just older!

3/19/08 Chatterbox Betty Kaiser Hanging on my bulletin board is a button that says, “I remember when I thought people my age were old.” Isn’t that the truth? I can remember when I was 19 that I thought a 30-year old was ancient. When it comes to aging, we humans are strange creatures. We’re never satisfied with the status quo. Think about it. On our birthdays don’t most of us wish that we were either younger or older? Youngsters under the age of 10 or 11 are usually pretty content. But when hormones start kicking in around 12 years of age, look out! Kids start feeling their oats and longing for change. If you’re a girl, the conflict usually begins over lipstick. Mom says to wait until next year when you’re no longer a ‘tween-ager.’ That year drags on forever. The driving gene kicks in for boys at about fifteen. They can sit for hours behind the steering wheel of dad’s car and imagine themselves zooming down the road, free from all restraints and restrictions. But they must wait until that magical 16th birthday to turn from a frog into a prince. Twenty-one is another long awaited milestone. One truly feels grown-up at 21 years of age. By the age of 21, one can vote, serve in the military, smoke, drink, and be responsible for one’s debts. Yea! Birthdays in the thirty, forty and fifty-year age group tend to roll by rather uneventfully. Then, you’re really an adult. Responsibility has become your middle name. A spouse, children, mortgage, car payment, job worries and saving for retirement pretty much consume your time. Oh, to be 15 again! Suddenly, before you know it, you’re 60. Egad! How did that happen? And who is that old person in the mirror anyway? That wrinkled face, sagging body and gray hair surely belong to someone else. About that time we look at our kids and wonder…when did they get to be so old? Golly, they’d better start using moisturizer and working out before it’s too late and they look like me! After six decades of looking forward to birthdays, that 60th birthday is a startling reality check. We all pretend that we don’t feel our age but we really do. And yes, we really would live the fifties all over again if we could but we’re not given that option. And before long we’ll be looking back fondly at the youthful sixty-year mark. Although many of my friends and I are in the senior citizen bracket none of us think of ourselves as old. “Old” is always about 10 years older than our current age. We may look like geezers to the rest of the world, but we don’t see ourselves that way. Generally, I think that most of us think of ourselves as forever middle-aged. So how old is old, anyway? Well, in 1900 the average life expectancy of both sexes was 47.3 years. Fifty short years later, it had increased dramatically to 68.2 years. A century later, in the year 2000, the average age was 76.9, according to But remember, these are averages. Some live less and some live longer. Today, one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S. is centenarians — individuals who have reached the age of 100 years or more. Suddenly, centenarians are no longer boring, old news; they’re a hot topic and for a good reason. In 1950 there were only 2300 centenarians. In 2000 they numbered 50,454. Recent reports put that population at nearly 80,000. Until now, most of us have believed that attaining the age of 100 is a remarkable, Herculean feat. I mean, think about it. One hundred years is a lot of history and life-changing transitions: the automobile, electricity, paved roads, indoor plumbing, radio, television, iPods, computers, world wars, life saving medicines and medial procedures. Not to mention fashion and hairstyles! The list is endless. Obviously one must be mentally flexible as well as healthy to be 100. I have interviewed many new centenarians. Usually, they’re fairly reticent individuals who are a bit bewildered by all the attention. They don’t feel like they’re living history or a particularly fascinating person. Getting them to answer questions (as my dad used to say) is like “getting blood out of a turnip.” At the end of an interview, their lives are usually distilled down to this one question: “To what do you attribute your longevity?” Their response is usually a little sigh and an embarrassed shake of the head. “Well,” they’ll say, “I really don’t know.” When gently coaxed, they’ll gamely offer a few ideas to help us youngsters down the path they’ve been on. Most attribute their longevity to good genes. Others cite a spiritual outlook, a positive attitude or a healthy lifestyle. Many eat simple foods, keep active physically and stay current with the news. Laughter was a common recommendation and a few even keep up with technology and get on the Internet. Still others believe it was that shot of whiskey they consumed every night or the occasional cigar that boosted their spirits! Now, all of this talk about aging got me to thinking. There is a distinct possibility that some of us are going to live a lot longer than we ever dreamed. Perhaps we’d better start appreciating these current birthdays like we did in the good old days. Recently there has even been talk of mankind’s life span increasing to 150 years. Yikes! You know, Methuselah lived to be 969 years old. Personally, I think that’s a bit much. However, some of us might reach that century mark. But if some young whippersnapper reporter comes calling to uncover my longevity secret? I’ll probably be asleep in my recliner and dreaming of the year I was ‘only’ 99 years young! Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart. Read her weekly columns in the Cottage Grove Sentinel.

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