Do we really know what it means to be old?

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Do we really know what it means to be old?

What I’m about to tell you is true.  When you were younger, you dressed yourself.  You went wherever you wanted to go.  But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands.  Someone else will dress you.  Someone else will lead you where you do not want to go.—John 21:18, New International Reader’s Version (NIV)

We all know someone “old.”  It might be a grandparent, a neighbor, or maybe the person behind the counter at the grocery store.  Last week a friend sent me a cartoon making the internet rounds.  It makes me laugh out loud each time I think of it.  It’s titled “Why No One Will Hire Seniors.”  In the picture, a well-coiffed, well-dressed 65 year old lady (we were taught to be well dressed with “good” hair and other grooming before appearing at work) is sitting in front of the computer monitor.  With her Microsoft Word document clearly showing, she is meticulously applying liquid white-out to the monitor screen!

In the Old Testament there is a scary story about 42 young guys laughing at the prophet of God.  A bear came out of the woods and mauled them until they were dead.  A horrible story and yet sometimes people are so cruel to the elderly that one might wish for a well-timed bear.  (Just kidding.  Please don’t write the editor!)  In addition to laughing at them, people frequently try to scam them and separate them from their life savings. 

In some cultures, elders are treated as repositories of wisdom and knowledge.  They are respected as valuable teachers of the generations who will follow them.  I don’t know if it’s too late for our own culture to consider and learn that approach.  Such a widespread attitude toward elders would add to everyone’s sense of well-being, not just the well-being of elders. 

However, do we really know what it means to be “old?”  Do we know what older people are concern about, how they can get the most out of the rest of their lives, and what normal aging really is?  With rampaging Alzheimer’s/dementia diagnoses attaching us on every front, it sometimes becomes extremely challenging to figure out what “normal” aging should look like.  A wonderful booklet, What’s your aging IQ?, is published by the National Institute on Aging and provides a wealth of information on this issue. 

In the booklet, there are several very short stories, each followed by a few related questions.  Luckily, the answers are in the back of the book, just as in our school days.  The sample question is “Which of the following age groups is one of the fastest growing segments of the American population?”  Choice A is babies and children under age 5.  Choice B is children ages 15 to 19 and Choice C is people over age 85.    

            The answer?  Choice C.  Today there are more than 4 million Americans 85 and older.  That number is expected to grow almost 5 times larger by the year 2050, when the youngest baby boomers turn 86.  Some researchers predict that death rates at older ages will decline more rapidly than is reflected in the U. S. Census Bureau’s projections, which could lead to even faster growth of this population.

            Another interesting question reads like this:  Harry is 80 and seems depressed lately.  His wife has noticed a change in his mood around the house and is concerned.  He has always loved to drive his car.  But, lately, he’s worried when he gets behind the wheel.  His vision seems to be changing.  The eye doctors say he has a cataract in one eye and requires surgery.  Question A:  Is cataract surgery really likely to help Harry see better – yes or no?  Question B:  Will Harry still have to stop driving his car anyway, since he is 80?  Yes or no.  Question C:  Is depression “normal” at Harry’s age?  Yes or no?

            Answers are as follows:  Question A:  Yes.  More than half of people over age 65 lose some eyesight because a cataract is clouding the lens of an eye.  Cataract surgery is very successful at restoring sight.  More than 90 percent of people say they can see better after cataract surgery and seeing better might make Harry a better driver. Question B:  No.l  It is not possible to pick an age at which everyone is too old to drive.  In general, older drivers (over 65) are very safe drivers.  They drive fewer miles, avoid risky behaviors like speeding, drinking and driving, and tend not to drive in heavy traffic, such as rush hour.  Still, changes in vision and disease affecting the eyes, ears, brain and body may make certain driving tasks more troublesome for an older person behind the wheel. 

            Older drivers like Harry might feel more secure about driving if they take refresher training to improve their driving skills.  Lucky Us!  Such a class is offered from AARP and taught at the Bowie Senior Center on Health Center Drive.  Call them for information and availability.  301-809-2300.

            Visit, a senior-friendly website.  This website features popular health topics for older adults.  It has large type and a talking function that reads the text out loud.

            Thanks for reading.  Stay well.  See you next week

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