Of course we all grow old differently. But from my perch in a comparatively wealthy and secure country, watching my contemporaries and fellow bloggers, I notice certain patterns. Let’s call them the 4 stages of old age.
In youth, if we ever think of old age we usually lump together several decades of life. We blindly assume that the quality of life over 60 is all a single homogenised condition. As if not-old and old were a binary choice, all or nothing, with gradations happening only in the first half of life. As if we get old in one shot, on a certain date. When in fact we grow old: we continue to change and develop right into our 90s. We may have 40 years to live after 60, and they are not blancmange years: they are vivid and constantly changing, just like the rest of life.
Maybe not a single person in the world fits the arbitrary 4 stages of old age described below. They’re not based on research! I just made them up this minute. But then again, maybe you do recognise the pattern, if not in yourself, in someone you know.
The exceptional 60s
You turn 64, shall we say, using the Beatles benchmark for old age. You think, “So this is old age? Bring it on!” Because it strikes you that you’re hugely active compared with your parents at 64, let alone your grandparents. You’re pretty healthy, you’re about to retire, and capable of far more than mending the odd fuse. Historically, you are genuinely exceptional. You used to dread old age if you dared to think about it at all, but now that changes. You are not like other people! You think that this is how you will be throughout your old age, because you are the exception to the rules of aging. You’re excited. You’re exhilarated. You’re expectant. And that’s excusable!
The expressive 70s
Off you go! Travelling the world, cruising the Mediterranean, motor-homing, teaching English in Zimbabwe, starting a book club, helping at your local school, running a marathon, moving to Florida, selling jewellery on Etsy, taking classes in photography, buying a Harley Davidson, restoring an old tractor, writing a memoir… At last you have the time and energy to discover and express your inner self. You’re exploding, extravagant, exotic.
The exhaling 80s
You are still committed to the new joys of old age but you can’t help noticing certain things are changing. Various body parts annoy you by getting creaky or hurty or weaky or just different. “Why? Why? Why me?” you ask indignantly. At first you expect every little problem to be unique (which it isn’t) and either fixable or temporary (which it often is). You want to be your 60-year-old self again. You are so used to being active and well that at first you are shocked by the arrival of normal (yes, normal!) symptoms of aging. Then you get the hang of it, and life becomes easier. You let yourself off the hook. Finally you become calmer, more tolerant and forgiving even of yourself. You relax. You exhale. You’re an expert. You are still historically exceptional and you are still getting joy out of life.
The extra 90s
When you reach 90, you are astonished. You didn’t expect to live this long. You are acutely aware that every day is an extra, a bonus. You brush off your ailments and inevitable physical decline — why worry, you’re still alive! You appreciate even the tiniest things, the shine on a table, a bird on a roof, the laughter of children passing, a phone call from a friend. Nothing beats the ridiculous fact that you are still alive, still loved. Your terrain may shrink but your mind deepens. You’re expansive. You’re existential.
You’re extinguishable: the very fact that once caused you such horror is now a source of wonder. As Willie Nelson sings, you “woke up still not dead again today.” Major problems are on the horizon, but they all fade in the face of this marvellous fact.Follow Write Into Life