Numbers are important in our lives. Or at least, we’ve made them important. Today seems a significant day, a rare Twosday — not only is it a day of twos (2/22/22), but it’s also Tuesday.
Dates are important to us; if nothing else, the numbers on the calendar make it easier for us to navigate our complicated lives. More than that, we give some numbers on the calendar a special significance. For example, we make a big deal about New Year’s Day (1/1) even though it has no real significance other than a change of calendars. In fact, the new year in other cultures starts on a different day.
Temperature numbers are especially significant to us. This morning when I got up, it was 7 degrees. I don’t really need the number to tell me that it is cold — a brief step outside would fulfill the same function — but somehow, knowing the number makes it official.
And yet, when it comes to age, especially an elder age, any concern a person might have about growing older is met with a dismissive, “Age is just a number.”
Age is not just a number. It tells us the time on our biological clock. We only hear about “biological clocks” when it comes to childless women nearing the end of their reproductive years, and yet time is ticking for all of us. We might not know the end, but we do know the end is coming, and the older we are, the more the end looms.
A friend who was about to turn seventy was really freaking out about her age, and she was embarrassed about her reaction to the birthday, but to me, her reaction was totally understandable and nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, seventy is a significant birthday and worth freaking out over.
All through their sixties, people can convince themselves they are still middle-aged — late middle age, perhaps, but still solidly in the middle years. Then comes seventy, and any pretense of still being young are gone. Especially now, with the pandemic and all, seventy-year-olds are stigmatized as “elderly.” True, they are elderly, but not as eld as they will become. That dang clock is clicking louder and louder as it counts down the last years of life. Oh, sure, they might still have two or even three decades left, but changes will be coming more rapidly.
There is not a significant physical change between the ages of forty and fifty. Nor between fifty and sixty. Or even sixty and seventy. But there is a huge difference between seventy (with the blush of middle age still on one’s cheeks) and eighty (which by anyone’s definition — except perhaps an eighty-year-old’s — really is old). An informal poll tells me that seventy-five is when most people notice a substantial change, but still, at seventy, there are signs of decrepitude. Mentally, people may feel the same, but physically, by seventy, most people are slowing down. Joints hurt. Doctor visits are more frequent. Medications aren’t just a quick cure but are a permanent fixture. The possibility of a frail old age, once unthinkable, becomes . . . thinkable.
When you’re young, old age is for other people. Youth is eternal. Until it’s not. And suddenly, there you are, wondering who the old person is looking back at you in the mirror.
It’s not really a surprise, then, that people want to believe that age is just a number. To think beyond the number is to accept truths that people might not want to accept. Still, when you’re at peace, when the aches and pains are momentarily absent, when the ticking clock silently recedes into the background of your mind, then you feel like . . . you.
When my sister was 35, she asked my mother, who was then in her seventies, how old she felt, and my mother said she thought of herself as thirty-five. My sister thought it wonderful that she and our mother were the same age. I don’t know how much longer after that my mother continued to think of herself as thirty-five. It’s not the sort of thing she and I ever talked about. But no matter how she felt, she did start having health issues, and she definitely showed her age. Then, a few years later, after my brother died, she suddenly grew old and ill and died within the year.
So, yes. Age is just a number, and yet it’s not.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.