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When Are You Old? Perspectives on Aging and Old Age

Jeff Anderson
By Jeff AndersonJuly 24, 2013

“To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.” — Bernard Baruch

Old AgeAre you old? No matter what your age, chances are you will say “no.” American seniors are feeling better than ever. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that only 21% of Americans aged 65 to 74 say that they feel old. Even among people over 75, only 35% call themselves old. In another study, Harvard University researchers surveyed Americans aged between 55 and 74 and found that the average person in this age group feels 12 years younger than their age.

Older people also indicate that they are significantly happier than their middle-aged selves according to a surprising study that was reported about in The Economist. The researchers found that when you look across a person’s whole lifespan, their overall happiness tends to have U-bend trajectory, with young people and older people tending to be happiest and middle-age often being a lower point. Interestingly, the researchers said that this type of pattern can be observed across cultures, throughout the world. A separate study that we blogged about recently seems to add credence to claims that seniors are among the happiest age groups.

Growing Old in an Ageist Society

While today’s seniors are arguably happier and healthier than ever before, they are still subject to prejudice and stereotyping. Unfortunately, some younger people perceive anyone with wrinkled skin or gray hair as old. According to the aforementioned Harvard study, if you, for example, ask a college student whether someone is old, the answer is likely to be a resounding “yes” if that person is over 60: “More than half of those under 30 say the average person becomes old before 60.”

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The disparity between how one feels and how one is perceived can be problematic, and it could be attributed to ageism in a society that is frequently called “youth obsessed.”

In an amusing online journal titled Am I Elderly?, a travel enthusiast named Ann reflects on her 68th birthday. She mulls over what it means to be in that fuzzy space between middle age and old age.

“Today is my 68th birthday. It isn’t a special milestone, per se, but as I lounged in bed this morning, I was thinking about it. I don’t feel 68, although some of my parts are creaky and are definitely showing some wear and tear. But mentally, I don’t feel 68. I feel as young as I did many years ago.”

Ann goes on to outline the subtle changes in the way she’s treated that make her feel old:

“What makes me feel old?  First, waitresses and grocery store bag boys now call me ‘hon’ or “sweetie’, whereas in my younger days (40’s and 50’s), they called me ‘ma’am’, which I also hated. Imagine some young, good looking guy calling you ‘hon’, just like he would call his grandma. Ugh.”

She also points to the media’s role in ageism. As an example, she points to newspapers, which are in the ridiculous habit of referring to any accident or crime victim over 60 as “elderly”:

“Second, stories in the newspaper or on the evening news frequently feature events involving someone they refer to as ‘elderly’, as in: ‘Today, an elderly woman, age 62, was run over by a Schwann’s truck’. Elderly? At what age exactly does one become elderly? Did she get run over because her creaky knees couldn’t get her across the street fast enough?”

Ann’s attitude toward her own age shows that aging is a gradual process rather than a clear line in the sand.

When Are Your Parents Old?

What about your parent, or parents? New research suggests grown children with older parents, largely Baby Boomers, consider their parents “old” based on their consumer habits rather than their actual abilities. The study concludes that “consumption activities, which can range from buying groceries to attending medical appointments, serve as a means of identifying someone as old.”

Baby Boomers like to think they have an enlightened and open-minded outlook on aging, so it’s especially surprising they would decide when someone is “old” based solely off consumer habits. Author of the study, Michelle Barnhart worries that this means Boomers may unconsciously pass on ageist attitudes to their children: “Unless we change the way we view old age, the generation younger than the Boomers will treat them the same way as soon as they show a few more wrinkles, or seem a bit shaky on their feet.”

When seniors disagree with loved ones about their abilities and level of independence, it often creates conflict. Frequently it is older parents who are in denial about their needs, but occasionally grown sons or daughters perceive that their parents need help or assistance when actually they do not. When this happens, the senior can feel belittled and disrespected.

Old as You Feel or as Old as You’re Told?

Treating your parent as old can be self-fulfilling according to research by Dr. Catherine Haslam of the University of Exeter. She described the results of a study, saying “We now have evidence that people primed to think of themselves as older perform worse on tests of mental and physical ability.” In other words, if you tell someone they are old, they will begin to act old.

This research suggests that, to a degree, the cliche that “you’re only as old as you feel” is true. So be realistic about your parent’s needs, but also don’t treat them like helpless codgers when they aren’t.

Historic Perspectives on Aging

When examining a universal human experience such as aging, it can be both interesting and helpful to see how people in other and places and times approached the issue. In his fascinating book A History of Old Age, editor and author Pat Thane clears up the misconception that historic societies must have considered people in their 30s and 40s to be elderly because life expectancy was very short during these periods.

Thane points out that scientists have enough information to estimate the life expectancy in Ancient Rome, and believe that it was approximately 25 years. But this low figure is largely due to a very high infant mortality rate. It’s true that very few people in ancient societies survived into their 30s or 40s, but those who did had a good likelihood of surviving into their 70s and perhaps later. Thane writes an estimated 6% to 8% of the population of the Roman Empire was over age 60.

Furthermore, many ancient texts demarcate old age as the period of life occurring after six or seven decades, which generally puts them in agreement with our modern perspective: “It emerges that in antiquity ideas about old age in purely chronological terms were no different from our own today.”

In addition to the many extant Ancient Greek and Roman writings that indicate old age begins in one’s 60s or 70s, the 20th chapter of the Book of Psalms (which predated Ancient Greece and Rome by hundreds of years), seems to clearly indicate a natural life expectancy of 70-80 years:

The days of our lives are seventy years;
And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,
Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow;
For it is soon cut off, and we fly away. [KJV]

And in Buddhist tradition, Buddha dies at 80 years of age, which is obviously in line with the Psalm mentioned above.

Archaeological evidence suggests that even in non-Western and pre-agrarian societies of the past, a small but significant portion of the population lived into their sixth or seventh decades despite having the odds stacked against them.

Do you feel as old as you are? Do you consider yourself a senior citizen? Is there a particular age that you associate with the start of old age? Have you noticed people treating you differently as you’ve grown older? We welcome your comments below.

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