How Old Do You Think You Are?

How old do you feel? No, I’m not asking how old you are. I want to know how old you feel. It seems that studies show that in most cultures in the western world people have their real age and an age in their heads that they think they are. In general people have a vision of themselves being twenty percent younger than they are. Depending on how one views this phenomenon it can be either a good thing or a bad thing. 

First consider cultures that treasure aging rather than desiring to turn back the clock. In Japan growing old is generally accepted and respected. People there let their grey hair show forth and revel in those wrinkles that are a sign of wisdom and living. They tend not to fight the passage of time but rather to revel in it. They don’t just lay down and die, but they also seem to be more willing to be who they really are as they age rather than attempting to hide the signs that the years are passing. They stay active while also slowly changing how they do things as the signs of life guide them. In many ways they are more mentally and physically healthy than their counterparts who fight to appear younger than they actually are.

I was reminded of my Grandpa Little as I read about the phenomenon of real age versus the age that one feels. I know that I have often viewed myself as being younger than I really am. In fact I seem to fall right in line with the twenty percent deduction of my actual age that researchers have found to be the case over and over again. Because I am still quite active both mentally and physically I see myself as a version of my younger self, so when someone treats me as though I really am my actual age I feel a bit shocked.

As we traveled through London a few years ago I was constantly being deferred to because of my age. Young men immediately surrendered their seats to me on the crowded Tube. Clerks in stores called me “Mum” and smiled at me the way they might do with a grandmother. At first I found the behavior to be off putting because I did not feel like someone old enough to need a seat or deserve an extra smile. Once I thought about it, I felt foolish, because in truth I am that older grandmother whether I think of myself that way or not. 

There is a vast difference between admitting to one’s age and its limitations and acting old. The truly wise person begins to understand that he or she can no longer safely do everything that was once so much part of life, but nonetheless remain active and joyful. I saw this kind of behavior in my grandfather. Nobody had to hide the keys to his car when driving became dangerous to himself and others. While he was still a safe driver he understood that his reflexes and vision were not what they needed to be and so he gave away his car and never drove again. He was still making repairs on the house where he lived when he was over one hundred years old, but he no longer climbed on a ladder because he realized the danger in doing so. He was cautious but not totally inactive. His mind and body continued to function well but he accepted that he had to curb some of the activities that he once did or possibly endanger himself or those around him. He celebrated his actual age with aplomb.

I suppose that there is another phenomenon of aging that has not been considered too often. It is the tendency of aging parents to insist on seeing their offspring as children. They demand to always be in charge, refusing to admit that the younger generations have indeed developed enough wisdom and independence to take care of the world. I remember my mother calling her eighty something year old nephews, “Boys.” My own father-in-law sees himself as the only member of the family with enough sense to make good decisions even though his son is in his seventies and his granddaughters are in their fifties and late forties. We are still children in his eyes just as my older cousins were still the “boys” that my mother had once watched as their babysitter. For some older folks it is difficult to let go of the reins and allow the younger people to take over the decision making. 

I still recall a conversation with a very frustrated friend whose husband was attempting to care for his ailing mother. The older woman lived in Detroit while her son was residing and working in Houston. He realized that his mom was no longer able to live alone in her home and made arrangements to move her to Houston where he had found a lovely assisted living site for her to spend the remainder of her days. She, however, was adamant that her son and his wife needed to uproot their lives and move to Detroit instead. She was unmoved by his arguments that he could not leave his job. In the end he had to force her to be where he was and their relationship was tense for the rest of her life. 

I’d like to think that I am growing older gracefully, but I know that I sometimes flinch a bit when I someone figures out how old I must be and then treats me accordingly. I like to think that the person in my mind is not the same as the person in the mirror that I sometimes do not recognize. I want to be like my grandfather and be so logical and helpful and accepting of my stages in life that I never cause any anxiety for my children and grandchildren. I want to be the kind of person who enjoys each phase without demanding power over the people around me. 

For now I can still do hard labor, but for only about half the time that I once did. My mind is good enough to write blogs and teach mathematics. My driving is okay but I don’t really enjoy being on a crowded highway anymore. I’ll be seventy five this year and that’s not just okay, it’s a good thing. I hope to enjoy watching the young people take charge of the world because I have every confidence that they will do well. Still, inside I think that I am still in my fifties and that is probably okay as long as I don’t act like a fool. How old do you think you are?