Old Age is a Disease

People are more interesting when they are seventeen or twenty seven than when they are seventy seven, which is the age I have just achieved. At seventeen, they wonder about what kind of person they will be and what kind of occupation they will hold when they grow up; at twenty seven they think about whether they are good husbands and wives and whether they are any good at what they do for a living. People are concerned at twenty seven with whatever project they have taken on in life, whether that is a career goal or simply a way to provide support for the family they now hold up as the dearest thing in the world to them. But at seventy seven, as I just found out at my high school’s sixtieth reunion, people want to talk about their grandchildren, as do I, and what diseases are knocking off the people you and your interlocutor may know. It is not that the younger person is still not there, deep inside, but the self has become sufficiently polished so that only externals show.

What are those externals? Aging skin is wrinkled and the fat is redistributed under the facial skin in ways that are unattractive. People lumber about or exhibit their tics. Breasts and behinds sag. People don’t hear too well and have memory lapses. People have to attend to their pills and hearing aids and their tender digestion. People who are old have slowed down bodily processes. You need to pause to catch your breath; your heat regulation mechanism is not as good and so you are colder when it is cold and warmer when it is warm; your autoimmune system is more dicey and so you are more likely to come down with cancer. Like tooth decay, which is also normal, aging is a disease that shows itself in a set of symptoms. Girlish ankles disappear into stumps. Feet and toes get distended from the years of weight they have had to carry. Minds tire long before the night is out. Paunches solidify. Sexual desire is a recalled emotion rather than an urgent need.

That does not mean that nothing remains constant. If you have ever seen in a person what the contemporary novelist Jennifer Egan calls people’s secret selves, by which she means the emotions and the character structure lurking behind and perhaps in contradiction to what people present themselves as being, then that secret self is still there, unchanged. One person keeps their own counsel, however affable they may be.  Another flurries about with social niceties so as to complement and also to hide an iron will. But they are also what they appear to be, old, and so not just themselves, however much their personalities do sustain themselves, and so they are their old selves within their new shells.

Years and years ago, as a young man, I taught gerontology, which I mostly learned about from books, many of which were quite good at describing what it is like to be old. I remember one that instructed that as people get older, their hearing worsens and that might be incorrectly confused with thinking a person’s mental processes have slowed down. I can now attest to the truth of that remark. There were also polemical books, however, including one entitled “You Don’t Die of Old Age” which had the good hearted intention of instructing its audience that old people suffer from a number of illnesses that are treatable rather than from a disease state known as old age. Well, the author was wrong in the sense that I have described some of the symptoms of a disease which has a wide variety of symptoms that eventually mark a person’s passage to a body that just can no longer sustain itself, and that there is no getting around that, however many may be the medical advances which lower the number of broken hips and bed sores and cancer, though we are not doing so well, at the moment, with Alzheimer’s.  “Everyman” is a late novel by Philip Roth that is chilling because it so matter of factly records the physical decline of his protagonist.

Old people catch your attention because of these artifacts more than because of their mental lapses, which are not as apparent and are easily managed unless one has Alzheimer's. So I don’t like to meet, for the first time, people who are old. Their presence puts me off of them, as I am sure my presence puts them off me. That is why I didn’t like meeting the friends my late wife made in her retirement years when she played bridge at the 92nd Street Y. It was quite courageous of her, I thought, to construct a new life for herself in retirement, but all these new people were so old, and their bodies showed it! I don’t mind meeting old people I have known for many years because they have become ageless to me, essentially the same people I knew when we were in graduate school together, even though I may occasionally notice that there is a new wrinkle or that a cheek is more sunken than it was forty years ago. I see through them to their idealized and permanent selves. Only newly met old people seem to be on the brink of the grave, just as am I.

But, however important cosmetic changes may be, they are other issues at stake for those who are seventy seven. When I first retired, it was something of a relief. I was not required to be anywhere. I could organize my time and interests as I saw fit. Retirement was (and remains) a long vacation. The downside of this freedom, however, is a lack of responsibility. What I do now does not have to be done, while what I did when I was employed was to engage in a set of responsibilities. I had to meet my classes and grade my papers and show up at my office hours. That meant that when I arrived on campus, I could go on automatic until the end of the day, observing myself going through with the activities that made up my job. The time passed quickly because people counted on me to do what I did. I had a sense of importance. That is different from now, when what I do counts mainly as hobbies, things I could dispense with doing with few people worse off for having been spared my prose or my conversation. Luncheon dates are voluntary rather than obligatory, although doctor appointments seem less voluntary because they are taken on because you are meeting obligations to your health, and showing yourself to be a responsible oldster who at least tries to take care of himself. It would be nice to be engaged in life in a way where people counted on you. I do know someone my own age who runs a meals on wheels program at least some of the time and that is a bit of an obligation, however much he could be replaced in his responsibility by another oldster-- or else see the program closed down as not so essential as to require permanently paid staff.

But why am I bellyaching? I have, at least for a while more, my health, my mind, my interests, a warm place in which to live, friends, and so on. I suppose it is because of the shock of that reunion. It wasn’t just that all the people there were old; they were uniformly old-- all just my age. That was very different from the following night when my son took me out to dinner and a concert for my birthday. The concert audience veered on the elderly side, but with oldsters of a variety of ages. There were people in their fifties and sixties and seventies and even their eighties. Age seemed to be a distributed characteristic rather than a uniform, as it had the day before. You don’t qualify for going to a concert by being a certain age, but you do for going to a reunion. That, I suppose, is yet another reason to avoid the age segregation of retirement communities. Treat age as an incidental factor of life rather than its essential factor as long as you can help it. Isn’t that what freedom means?