Binary thinking about age reinforces our own prejudice and fear. But old age is not a binary choice, all-or-nothing; it’s far more tricky.
We like binary thinking. We use it all the time as a short-cut. It’s so easy, you can’t even call it thinking. Two choices. Zero or one. Black or white. On or off. Yes or no. Male or female. Like or don’t like. And old or young.
I’m already arguing about myself over that paragraph because binary code is powerful stuff. It can represent almost any word, number, idea, or transaction imaginable. I think this is true. Certainly I made fair isle sweaters with a computerised knitting machine in the 1970s. So never mind binary code for now.
Old age is not an absolute. Yet that’s how we’re inclined to see it. Old and young are experienced as opposites. Hence the shock when it strikes us: I’m getting old! I look old! I’m not young anymore! (Exclamation marks are inevitable here.)
Adding middle age to the mix used to help, last century. People in their 40s and 50s had their mythical mid-life crises and their new lives or wives or Lamborghinis. At 65 you retired and after that you might be considered old—and by definition, staid.
Now we see people starting a business at 65, marking retirement with many years of travel-eat-pray-love and running marathons in their 90s. And we see other fit and healthy people clipping their own wings at 40 or 50. Someone physically frail may be creating crosswords in Latin. Someone house-bound may be essential to a community. Healthy people obsess over their health and sick people sing. None of these are exceptions to the rule: there are no rules.
The old stereotypes have exploded. We’re too messy for those pigeon holes. But people are getting used to us. We are getting used to us.
I’m tempted by other ways to think about old age. A range of old people? I grew to despise that corporate weasel word. (Whaddya mean? A variety? More than one?) A spectrum? OK, but only if it is three dimensional. Fluid thinking? Fine in theory, except that my mind at 81 slithers all over the place and I am hungry for structure.
Binary thinking is under-thinking. Overthinking is my besetting cognitive sin these days; added to a dwindling short term memory, this will wreck my writing if I let it. I love a good spreadsheet… until it sprouts multiple work sheets and the connections grow dense and dark.
So let’s keep it simple. Notice when we slip into binary thinking about age. Drop the steel dichotomy of old and young. See ourselves and others as wonderfully complex and subtle, each with a unique history and way of being. Whatever our age.
And maybe differentiate between old and frail old.