4 stages of old age

Old black and white photo of a cheerful clergyman holding a baby, mutually interested. He looks old but was probably in his 40s.
A grandfather in 1936: was he in his 40s?

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.

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17 thoughts on “4 stages of old age

  1. This is fun and interesting. My John only made it to 80, but the last years were very rich.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s so good to hear about the richness of his final years

  2. I’ll be 80 this Sunday. I never thought I’d get to be this old, but here I am. Your description of the 80s is perfect and gives me hope to carry on.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That makes me happy!

  3. Age is a state of mind, but often, also, a state of creaky, hurty, and weaky (as you so cleverly, and accurately put it). Put up your hand all those who want to be young again. Sorry, I can’t raise my hand above shoulder height!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That could be dangerous sometimes

  4. I have a lot of pictures of my grandparents and in them, they look very old. When I did the math, I realized that they weren’t old at all. It seems that we age very differently nowadays, thank goodness.

  5. DAP says:

    I agree, age is a state on mind. There are days where I think I can keep up with any 30 year old …… and the next I think I could easily be shame by a centenarian. <3

    I prefer to think I'm younger that I actually am ….. but I'm also realistic!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thinking two parallel thoughts is classic!

  6. judithhb says:

    Realistically, growing older just happens to each and everyone. I was having a facial yesterday and the very young and beautiful beautician seemed shocked when I told her how old I was. And the other day when I was buying new towels I was asked by the assistant did I still drive. So while we are growing older and accepting the changes in our lives and our bodies, the young still seem to think that getting old means no longer being able to do the things that we’ve always done.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Their time will come 🙂 Meanwhile, you are helping them get used to other possibilities in old age.

  7. Wow, is that what I should be doing? I better get on it:)

  8. Rachel McAlpine says:

    It’s never too early and it’s never too late. Isn’t that convenient?

  9. Ally Bean says:

    I find it somewhat overwhelming to realize I might live 40 years after my 60th birthday. My parents died in their 70s but times are different now. Food for thought, and encouragement, in this post. Thanks

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thanks Ally for your thoughtful comments. I’m glad you are encouraged.

  10. Lois Roelofs says:

    Your stages. Are right on. At 80, I can identify.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      How interesting! Thank you, Lois

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