Am I elderly yet?

‘When will you be elderly?’  enquired my 5-year old grandson the other day, as we were walking back from school.  Hmm, a good question.   I’m verging on 73.  Is that elderly? 

I replied that I may be elderly already, as I have some of the visible hallmarks of elderliness – liver spots on the  backs of my hands, grey hair, wrinkles around my eyes – the types of thing that foster solicitude on public transport.  I’m frequently offered a seat by someone sitting on the tube or bus, and often am asked if I need help carrying my bag up any public staircases.  I always accept gratefully and gracefully.  I think it is unnecessary to be indignant about this as some of my (same age) friends are.  They don’t like acknowledging they are looking older than some others.  I think it’s fine. 

I’ve long enjoyed Jenny Joseph’s poem, Warning, which opens:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.

And goes on with some suitably outrageous actions she will take when she is ‘old’.  But when is ‘old’  – I think somewhere after 60, or maybe 70, 80 or 90 – and is seeing yourself as old a different age or decade that others seeing you as old?   And is ‘old’  a synonym for ‘elderly’? 

This last question is a muddy water of differing views, facts, etymological explanations, and perspectives.  An article on NPR paints a (rather amusing) picture of the difficulties in defining elderly and/or old.   Here’s an extract.

“When a 20-year-old girl referred to a 40-year-old man as “elderly” in a Washington Post story,readers reacted. The paper published the executive editor’s advice to his staff about usage of the word. “A lot of us old folks in our 50s do not like to be called elderly,” the editor opined. “When you are a great deal older than you are now, you will discover that the time a man becomes elderly is exactly like the place where the earth and sky meet.”

He added, “When you are 16 you wonder how an old man of 30 manages to drag himself around. When you get to be 30 you feel that 60 is as old as Methuselah. When you get to be 60 you will think that the ‘aged’ are those in their 90s.”  (The piece doesn’t record what readers opined on a 20 year-old being called ‘a girl’).

I know my age perfectly well, but I feel I can’t be the age I am.  In my head I am younger than my (middle-aged) daughters.   I think that’s a fairly common feeling as one ages – astonishment at  reaching a chronological age point when other people (and policies) count people over (55, 60, 65, etc) as in a different category from young, or even middle-aged people.

Yesterday, my grandson, watched someone climb down the steps into the swimming pool and observed, ‘That man is very old’.   Indeed, to me he did look old – skimpy white hair, thinning wrinkly skin, missing teeth,  skinny legs and portly stomach.  But there he was enjoying a swim – I wonder how old he feels he is (I didn’t ask).  He could be like Father William in the Lewis Carroll poem – incessantly standing on his head or turning back-somersaults in at the door, when he isn’t in the swimming pool alongside a much younger person (his grandson?).

The NPR article – unable to be categoric (good) on either the difference between old and elderly, or when someone can be classified as such, opines: ‘In the end, “elderly” may be more a state of being — or feeling — than a certain age. And the question may not be whether someone else thinks of you as elderly, but whether you think of yourself as elderly.’

That I agree with.  But then there’s the link between the feeling of elderliness and the actuality of physical aging.    I wonder how far they are connected.  Biological aging has multiple hallmarks – beyond the visible ones. 

I discover a new (to me) research field – geroscience.  ‘Geroscience seeks to understand the genetic, molecular, and cellular mechanisms that make aging a major risk factor and driver of common chronic conditions and diseases of older people.’   These conditions and diseases include ‘cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, as well as debilitating conditions like arthritis, fatigue, and frailty. These ailments rob us of our quality of life. The geroscience question is: How does the aging process affect the disease process and susceptibility—and vice versa?’

More muddy water:  ‘One of the difficulties in identifying biomarkers of aging is that there is no consensus about an operational definition of biological aging.’  Nevertheless, these researchers have a go, and come up with 9:  Genomic instability, telomere attrition, epigenetic alterations, loss of proteostasis, deregulated nutrient sensing, mitochondrial dysfunction, cellular senescence, stem cell exhaustion and altered intercellular communication. 

Oh dear – is this all going on in my body without my having any real knowledge of it?  Am I heading for illness and chronic infirmity?   I’m clear that my hearing and eyesight are fading.  Yesterday, for the first time and with my glasses on, I had to dredge out a magnifying glass to look at the directions on a packet.  These are directions that I’m sure I would have been able to read clearly a few weeks ago without an additional aid.   

When I can’t hear what one of my grandchildren is saying, they crossly enquire whether I have my hearing aids in.  {Though the 3-year old is a little confused, thinking that ear-rings have the magic function of improving hearing, and tells me to put on my ear-rings). We had a berserko a few months ago, at the traffic lights when I didn’t hear the name Elsa (as in Frozen),  indeed I hadn’t at that stage heard of ‘Frozen’ – which may say something about declining cognition. 

Fortunately, in the middle of the melt-down, a bus bearing the advert for Frozen something, went passed and the less furious child was able to point at it, ‘See Elsa, there’.  (Remember Look John Look?) and when we got back to their house their Mum gave me a Frozen lesson.  I can now sing along with ‘Let it Go’ – no, my voice is not quavery yet, nor is my handwriting.

 The question still remains, when will I be elderly?  I have some of the visible biological signs of aging. But I don’t feel elderly yet.  Maybe I’ll never feel elderly only look older and older to others.  Maybe when I go in search of something purple to wear I’ll know I’ve reached elderly (or perhaps, old)?


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