How Old Am I?

Remember when our television choices were pretty much ABC, CBS and NBC? In simpler times, the recognized life stages between birth and death were simple too: childhood, adulthood, old age. Each was associated with fairly straight-forward “developmental tasks”.

  • Childhood: to learn from your elders and grow into yourself
  • Adulthood: to establish a family and earn your keep
  • Old Age: to give back what you could to the family and handle your infirmities with grace.

Today’s developmental life stages are as segmented as the number of brands of toothpaste in the supermart (and probably for the same reason-identifiable marketing targets): Infancy, Toddler Stage, Pre-School, Youth, Pre-Teen, Adolescence, Young Adult, Mid-Life Adult. And then…what? Still the same “old age”? Not really.

Stereotype of old age
Stereotype of old age

Have you thought about life after adulthood? I never did. No matter what the mirror tells me, inside I feel like the same person I was in my, well, let’s say in my 40’s.

I definitely never thought about old age having developmental milestones. My image of Old Age was as uniformly grey as my imagined picture of the former U.S.S.R., and about as distant. Monochromatic, without highlights, and involving only deterioration–not an iota of development in the Old Age in my mind. Grey, all grey. Then I began to read.

Aging has its ups and downs. Here are some ideas to get you thinking about where you are on the roller coaster that is your life journey.

Clarity Begins at Home – What life stage are you in?

Official definitions of “old age” – From Wikipedia

“Old age comprises “the later part of life; the period of life after youth and middle age . . . , usually with reference to deterioration.” When old age begins cannot be universally defined because it shifts according to the context. The United Nations has agreed that 60+ years may be usually denoted as old age, and this is the first attempt at an international definition of old age. However, for its study of old age in Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) set 50 as the beginning of old age. At the same time, they recognized that the developing world often defines old age, not by years, but by new roles, loss of previous roles, or inability to make active contribution to society….”

Old age comprises the four dimensions: chronological, biological, psychological, and social. Chronological age may differ considerably from a person’s functional age. In addition to chronological age, people can be considered old because of the other three dimensions of old age. For example, people may be considered old when they become grandparents or when they begin to do less or different work in retirement. So no one really knows when old age begins, partly because our definitions can refer to chronological age, psychological age, or cultural perceptions of age. It’s a shifting target.

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Jonathan Rauch in the December 2014 issue of The Atlantic

…studies show quite strongly that people’s satisfaction with their life increases, on average, from their early 50s on through their 60s and 70s and even beyond—for many until disability and final illness exact their toll toward the very end (at which point it’s hard to generalize). In a 2011 study, for example, the Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and seven colleagues found that “the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade”—a finding that is “often met with disbelief in both the general population and the research community,” despite its strength. Carstensen described to me this pattern in her own life. “Forties were, for me, the worst,” she said. “You’re never good enough professionally. I think you’re coming out of the fog in the 50s.” Now, at 60, she said, “I feel so privileged. I feel it now.” Elaine Wethington, a professor of human development and sociology at Cornell, whose research likewise finds that people become more satisfied and more optimistic later in life, is in her early 60s and reports her own turning point at about age 50. “I feel like I’ve reached a kind of flow in my work and career,” she told me.

No guarantees, of course, but reporting this article (writes Rauch) has led me to think that the upturn I’ve felt in my 50s is likely to continue. As Andrew Oswald exclaimed to me when I mentioned my own post-40s upswing: “Just wait until you’re 60!”

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In The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, Sister Joan Chittister dices the euphemistically named “golden years” into the three stages.

  • YOUNG OLD AGE:      65-74 times around the sun
  • SENIOR OLD AGE:     75-84
  • ELITE OLD AGE:        85 and over

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How old are you chronologically? Psychologically what stage do you consider yourself in? How old do you think the cashier at the supermarket thinks you are? Are you healthier than the number on your birth certificate would imply?

For Chittister, the last phase of life  involves “the capstone years, the time in which a whole new life is in the making again.” Her embrace of this period that many of us want to avoid even thinking about, much less living through, can be a transformative beacon for us all.

 “The gift of these years is not merely being alive — it is the gift of becoming more fully alive than ever.”

Next up: We’ll look at some of the facts of life – in regard to the aging process, that is. And then consider how and where we want to spend our final decades.