The bottom line: “old” is subjective, a moving target.
That’s why David Rubenstein, 69, the board chairman of both the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Smithsonian Institution and co-founder and co-executive chairman of the Carlyle Group, can claim he’s not old, while my poet friend, a year younger than he is, refers to herself as old. Recently, because of problems getting around, she had to bring in a home health aide for assistance, only deepening her increased dependence on others. Indeed, as Dr. Scherbov discovered, loss of independence and mobility are among the characteristics that define “old.”
For his book “Healthy Aging,” Dr. Andrew Weil, now 76, asked people to list attributes associated with “old.” Among those most frequently cited: ancient, antiquated, dated, dried up, frail, passé, shriveled, used up, useless and withered, worthless and wrinkled. Nice stereotypes, huh?
“Negative ageist attitudes toward older people are widespread,” a 2015 analysis by the World Health Organization confirmed in a survey. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents, 83,000 people of all ages in 57 countries, did not respect older people, with the lowest levels of respect reported in high-income countries like the United States. Even more damning: These views adversely “affect older people’s physical and mental health.”
The good news is that those views can be altered. “Like sexism and racism, changing social norms is possible,” wrote John Beard, WHO’s director of aging and life course. “It is time to stop defining people by their age.”
Am I old yet? I say “no,” emphatically. I have every intention of staying active and engaged at least into my 70s, 80s and I hope longer. But my good intentions could be derailed. I have cardiovascular disease and suffer from depression, and cancer runs like a river through my family. My “go get ’em” attitude could change with a single CT scan, car crash or loosened plaque in my arteries. Which means I may always be only a step or two away from crossing the threshold to old. All the more reason to pick up the pace now.
Steven Petrow (@stevenpetrow), a regular contributor to Well, lives in Hillsborough, N.C.