How to be old—a poem

Cartoon of old man saying "I'm not older!" and a young girl on a mountain saying, "I'm older!"
Hang on. How do you get to be old?

A late title poem for How To Be Old

Nine months after How To Be Old (the book) was published and this morning I had an urge to write a poem. I didn’t mean to: an urgent-and-important task was calling. The odd thing is, this poem sort of belongs in that book, because, unlike any of the other poems, it does tell you just how to be old. Warning: this poem about old age will change a lot before I’m through. Even so, the poem is kind of fun.

How to be old: a poem

You can’t be old without being young for a very long time.
I’m sorry my dears but that’s how it is.
Old age is your reward but you have to earn it.
You have to put in the hours, you have to learn.

Young, young, young, on and on year after year
then grown up then middle aged
mile after mile, year after year after year.
Mummy, Daddy, when are we going to get there?

You can’t be old without being young for a very long time.

Meanwhile you’re allowed to think you’re old
but not to say so. Where’s the fun in that?
Simmer down. Have a banana.
Enjoy the trip.

Let’s get this straight. Chronological age:
that’s what they mean when they say
“Age is just a number.”
It’s the number of birthdays that you’ve had

and you have to have lots of birthdays to be old.
I know it’s not fair but what can you do?
Blame statins and vaccinations
and sewage pipes for that.

Biological age is something else and it shows
in blood and bones and brains.
That’s what they mean when they say
“You look young (or old) for your age.”

Then there’s a certain attitude to life.
That’s what they mean when they say
“It’s all in the mind.” But attitude
has nothing to do with youth.

It’s true that some old people lose
the ability to enthuse.
They refuse. They recuse.
That’s not being old! That’s being sad. Or grumpy.

You can’t be old without being young for a very long time.

So there it is. If you want to be old one day—
and you do, you know you do—
you want a secret smile, you want serenity
you want their happiness in tiny things

their way of being present
their insolence and honesty
their tolerance and history
their cushion of identity

you want old and loyal friends
you want photographs and knick-knacks
you want long-term insights
you want to be a family tree—

If you want to be old, you can
by staying alive
for years and years and years and years
hanging in there for your reward:
old age.

—Rachel McAlpine 2021 CC BY 2.0

33 thoughts on “How to be old—a poem

  1. Sadje says:

    Love this poem Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So far so good!

      1. Sadje says:

        👍👍👍

    2. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Which lines do you like best, Sadie?

      1. Sadje says:

        The repeating lines.

      2. Rachel McAlpine says:

        Aha, that’s helpful, thanks

      3. Sadje says:

        You’re welcome 😉

  2. This is a delightful poem, read in the middle of the night by one who couldn’t sleep because of pain in the hip. Hooray for getting old! I’m going to hug your poem until I get to sleep again.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I’m so happy with your message, Anne. I’m glad the poem helped.

  3. Love it! This is my favorite stanza:
    It’s true that some old people lose
    the ability to enthuse.
    They refuse. They recuse.
    That’s not being old! That’s being sad. Or grumpy.

    because there’s so much truth in that! I’m going to carry on today trying not to be sad or grumpy.:-)

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Priscilla, you know I’m talking to myself, really. So I understand and am so glad the poem helps.

  4. I could hear you reading this Rachel, even though you weren’t! I think sewage pipes feature quite often in how to be old!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Aha! Maybe I should read this one soon. Yay for sewage pipes!

  5. Now this is perfect. And oh so true.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      “Perfect” is interesting to me; maybe I will stop working on it.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    The refrain is spot on. I remember an old song from long ago “take a long long time to get old.”

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I haven’t heard that one but it is good advice.

  7. "Miss BB" says:

    A delightful way of looking on getting old.

    84 here, and happy to be still “moving about.”

    Gentle hugs,
    “Beside a babbling brook” blog

  8. Liola Lee says:

    That was definitely a fun poem Rachel! Excellent and pretty much true! Lol. Thank you for sharing that!!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Happy you liked it, Liola Lee! And that you appreciate the idea as well.

  9. Rein Zeilstra says:

    It brought to mind the poem “Birthdays” (as per your process of time) by Brian Turner. The lovely process of children and holding them then letting them go and then in the end “supremely, you’re summoned back and they carry you around inside them dangling like a medal beside their hearts”. The great prize of contentment and gratitude then is the end default for such lucky older ones.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Oh, oh, I must find that poem. Thank you Rein.

  10. Mara says:

    My grandma (91 years old) often tells me that she still feels a young lady so I can somehow understand this poem… 🙈⚘ wonderful!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      How beautifullly you knit the poem to your own experience. I love seeing that happen.

      1. Mara says:

        💝💝😊

  11. srbottch says:

    I want to be old enough to hear people say, “my, what wisdom he has”. I don’t want to hear ‘had’. Of course, I never would now, would I. Would I?😉

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Listen carefully from a quiet corner. That’s what they’re saying all over town.

  12. srbottch says:

    One more thought, have you seen the performance by George Burns (you know him) singing, ‘I Wish I Was Eighteen, Again’?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I have now (speeded it up). Not my style but maybe it will make sense to me when I’m 99.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you Lorie for linking. So happy you enjoyed the poem.

  13. You have to get old so the little ones can call you Grampa.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So true!

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