I saw a saying on a tee shirt that made me laugh: It’s weird being the same age as old people. Because . . . oh, how true that is!
So often now when a character in a book is described as old, the character’s acquaintances go on and on about being worried about the old person, or the character’s children wonder how they are going to take care of their aged parent, or the detectives discount what an old witness might have seen because of the unreliability of an elderly person’s eyesight or hearing. I find myself nodding in agreement, because elderly people can be frail, fraught with ailments, have the beginnings of age-related dementia, or any number of issues.
Then, like a static electricity shock directly to my brain, it hits me that I’m the same age or even older than the character. When did “elderly” characters in books get so young? Or maybe they have always been young. (At least from the point of view of someone my age.) For example, although Miss Marple’s age is never stated in any of Agatha Christie’s stories, various clues make her out to be in her mid-seventies, so that’s the age she’s generally portrayed in movies. But Agatha Christie’s great-grandson thinks the “elderly spinster” was meant to be much younger — perhaps in her 60s.
Either way, these “elderly” characters are a lot younger than I imagine them to be, so perhaps a better question than “when did elderly characters get so young?” is “when did I get so old?” Either way, it really is weird being the same age as old people.
Although I have often written about getting older and have mentioned some of my age-related debilities, such as my wonky knees, for the most part, I don’t see myself as old. I don’t see myself as young, either. I’m just . . . me. Admittedly, I do worry about growing old alone, but even that shows my age ambiguity — “getting old,” you see, rather than “being old.” I have a hunch if Jeff and I were still together, age wouldn’t be a factor at all — we’d continue to deal with whatever life hands us without putting labels on it, but since I’m alone, and have only myself to rely on, it’s important for me to prepare now as much as possible for whatever old age might bring.
And it’s not just me. Other people in my situation — women who lost their mates and have been left to live alone — also think about the same things. One friend told me she had to be careful because what if she fell and knocked herself out and no one knew? This happened to one woman I know, but luckily for her, it was her cleaning lady’s day to work. I try not to think about such things, because there’s not much I can do about it but be as careful as I can (and I do have a neighbor who pays attention to my window shades and gets concerned if I don’t raise them each morning, so that’s a comfort) but this is simply concern for the coming elderliness, not for now. Still, if I were a character in a book, I’d be worried.
In real life, though, I don’t have to worry about being elderly. From what I’ve been able to gather, most of us consider an elderly person to be anyone who is ten or more years older than we are, so from that standpoint, none of us is ever really elderly until there’s no one that much older than us left alive.
So perhaps it’s not being the same age as old people that’s weird. Maybe it’s just age in general that’s weird.
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.