The Myth of Aging

Who decides how old is "old"?

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On a recent Thursday morning, I listened to talk radio while driving. The show was about urban crime and how some of the old investigative methods are still effective and trustworthy. So far, so good. But then, in a faux aged voice, the announcer referred to “the vulnerability of the old” and proceeded to tell the story of a sixty-two year old man who had been mugged. Sixty-two? Old? I was immediately struck by what seemed like disrespect (his using the Tim Conway little old man voice), and by a profound sense of illogic (his theme, remember, was about how old investigative methods are to be respected and employed).

At what point has sixty-two become “old”? That announcer must have missed the movie Book Club. Is he unfamiliar with Emmy winner Kathryn Joosten (who didn’t even begin acting till she was almost sixty), KFC creator Harlan Sanders (who created his empire when he was in his sixties) or Pulitzer Prize winner Frank McCourt (who didn’t take up writing until he was sixty-five)? Regardless of your politics, remember that our President is seventy-one, and his three foremost challengers for the office in 2020 are Bernie Sanders (seventy-six), Joe Biden (seventy-five) and Elizabeth Warren (sixty-eight). Maybe Mark Twain knew what he was talking about when he wrote that, “Age is an issue of mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

I’m not a racing fan. Having grown up in the south, I should be. Having known the Petty family personally, I really, truly should be. But, I’m not. Even so, whether or not I am a racing fan, I have recently become a serious Hershel McGriff fan. For those not familiar with the name, he is a ninety-year old man who drove a race car at the Tuscon Speedway earlier in May. And he didn’t ease the car around the track with a turn signal continually flashing while listening to Lum and Abner on Sirius Radio. He completed ninety-four laps side-by-side with cars going 120 mph. He confessed that doing so didn’t make him half as nervous as did playing the National Anthem on his trombone before the race began. McGriff is in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He was winning races as a very young man in the 50s. He won his last race at age sixty-one. But he is still driving at ninety.

Ageism is a reality in our nation. 58% of people over sixty report being subjected to “old people jokes,” often told by individuals far too politically sensitive to ever tell a story that would demean people based on gender, color, or sexual orientation. (reported in The Gerontologist, Vol. 41, number 5) That same study reported that 80% of people over sixty have been subjected to assumptions that they were less physically or cognitively competent because of age. Hiring (and, often, firing) practices reflect an inherent ageism in our society, as do glass ceilings based on age in arenas from available roles in Hollywood to advancement opportunities in corporate America.

The bottom line for persons “of a certain age” (a phrase ordinarily employed in a less-than flattering fashion) is to use our muscles despite the fact that too many others assume those muscles have atrophied. Use our intellectual muscles. Use our financial muscles. Use our collective muscles. There are currently 35 million Americans over age sixty-five. By 2030, that number will double (constituting 20% of our nation’s population). Make some noise. Claim your space. Shop with firms that affirm and respect your years, and refuse to buy from others that don’t. And most of all, do not accept the myth that aging is negative or limiting in nature.

In short, dream some new dreams and chase them. Run the marathon. Join a class. Write the book. Begin to paint. Take guitar lessons. Apply for a new job. Organize a local advocacy group that takes on a serious social issue. Dance. Wear purple. Embrace romance. Buy a convertible. Laugh at the word “Shouldn’t.” Laugh even harder at the word “Can’t.” In so doing, we can become world-changers whatever our age may be. And just as importantly, our own personal worlds will grow brighter, better, and bolder in the process. We only get one shot at this life. Never, ever quit too early!

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