I turned 70 yesterday. In marking the day, I found that I was actually rather ambivalent about the whole thing. I do like receiving cards and being celebrated and I do like going out for meals at special places. But I like those things whether it is my birthday or not.

My 50th birthday was marked by a surprise party and checking off several items on my bucket list. 60 was captured in my diary with an entry, “Very pleasant day doing pretty much what I wanted to.” The only significance of this natal day is that the age odometer changed from odd to even.

Inching my Way Towards Elderhood

This birthday does carry with it added awareness that I am doing more than inching my way toward elderhood. But as a social benchmark, it carries little weight. Certainly not the importance of 65 or the recognition of longevity attained when reaching 80. Actually, 70 now lies on the more youthful edges of what it means to be “old”.

It requires that I “put away my childish things”, while allowing me to regress and hold on to the notion that I am still vital and useful. While I have always been reflective, I am more aware now that I am reflecting on forgiveness and acceptance of my past than striving to achieve some future goal.

Context is Everything

My seventh decade is occurring in the midst of a broader historical recapitulation. Pundits and pulpit-meisters are bemoaning the fact that our social order is collapsing, our government is riddled with activists and addle-brained nitwits, and the economy is faltering. Technology will be the death of us if we don’t watch out. But this is nothing new!

If I had been born in 1853, I would have arrived at my 70th birthday in 1923 having lived through a Civil War, a World War, and a pandemic. I would have had to adapt to new and life-changing technology, all of which threatened to disrupt the ways things had always been. Imagine the changes wrought by railroads criss-crossing the country, telegraphs instantly sending messages over wires, and moving pictures with sound! 

But 70 Does Feel Different

My experience of “70” is different from previous generations for a number of reasons. My social determinants of health are vastly improved over my ancestors. I am economically stable and I enjoy the benefits of having had a solid education, and because of that a great professional career. I have access to quality health care and I live in a safe and beautiful neighborhood. And, most of all, I am blessed with a wonderful social network. I have purpose and meaning in my life, and I believe I have the ability to exercise control and make decisions for myself.

These reasons have little reliance on chronological age. They are dependent on social circumstance and privilege, not to mention DNA! What carries greater impact, however, are the stereotypes so solidly rooted in ageism that we don’t even see them. These are the things that make turning “70” something that many want to avoid, deny, or just plain ignore.

A Short Detour

Here is an interesting test of just how ageism has impacted our perceptions. Take a piece of paper and fold it in half. On one side write down all the adjectives (nouns or verbs are ok, too) you associate with the word “elderly”.

How many did you come up with?  How hard was it to come up with them?  How many of them have a “negative” connotation for you? Positive? 

Now close your eyes and picture someone who is “elderly”. What are they wearing?  What are they doing?  Where are they doing it?

Now, on the other half of the paper, write the word “senior”. Write down all the adjectives (or other word forms) you associate with the word “senior”.

How many did you come up with?  How hard was it to come up with them?  How many of them have a “negative” or “positive” connotation? 

Now close your eyes and picture someone who is a “senior”. What color is their hair?  What are they doing?  Where are they doing it?

Take a new piece of paper and fold it in half. On one side write the words “aging adult” and on the other write the word “elder”. Do the same things noted above. Now just sit with what you have noticed! Maybe jot down an observation or two.

Finally, draw a line from the left margin to the right margin. Mark the ages you associate with the terms “elderly”, “senior”, “aging adult”, and “elder” on that line. Mine looks something like this:

Just How Old Am I?

Well, if I rely solely on the calendar, I am 70-years and one day old. If my arthritis is well-controlled, if I had sufficient sleep, and I haven’t over-indulged, then I would tell you I am 47 or 52. If you look at my weight and challenge me to complete mazes while being timed, I would probably fall in the upper 70’s to lower 80’s range. Today…  That could very well be different tomorrow.

And this is the challenge with identifying with “age-as-a-number”. I can easily think of three or four friends who are sharp as tacks who are in their 80s. And, sadly, I can think of three or four friends who are experiencing grief, chronic pain, and financial stress who are in their 50s. Put them side by side, and I couldn’t tell you who was actually “old”.

Embracing My Elderhood

There is no denying that I have chronologically crossed into a different stage of development. But I most certainly am not “elderly”, and I just hate being called a “senior”. I do identify with being an aging adult, and there are moments when, false modesty aside, I will claim being an elder. But where does that leave me?  Embracing my elderhood.

Roland Merullo writes eloquently about this stage of aging being like turning into the homestretch in a horse race. In the race, the horses don’t slow down. They unleash their reserves and go all out to cross the finish line!  That is the way I intend to embrace my elderhood.

My Birthday Challenge

I have a birthday challenge I think you will find fun and possibly even transformational. As you go through your day, I want you to keep track of how many times you smile. The goal is to count as many smiles as you are old. Then add one more smile for having reached that benchmark.

Let me know how you do!

4 responses to “I Am Not Just Getting Older; I’m Embracing My Elder!”

  1. Elke Matzen Avatar
    Elke Matzen

    Mary, HAPPY BELATED BIRTHDAY! You have made my day this morning! I love your thoughtful and insightful musings on the process of living on planet Earth as it spins around our Sun and always adds another year to our lives. I am also a Cancerian and it is delightful to find out that we share this sign in the Zodiac.

    I became 74 years of age on July 3rd and feel mostly great with good health and continued purpose to live life fully. Two years ago, I became a mentor to a very strong-willed and exceptionally bright girl, now almost 11 years old, whose circumstances living with a single mom who struggles financially, are difficult, plus there are two baby sisters, both adorable and loving! No father figure for any of them. My mentee is very challenging, yet it is a challenge that has allowed me to grow beyond being a mother, a teacher, or even a friend. It is a relationship based soley on Trust…I am the adult in her life; Here to lend support to her development, guide and encourage her as needed, acknowledge her strengths, play games and just be a Life Mentor to this beautiful little human.

    May the year ahead be filled with good Health, Love, Peace, and supportive Friends!!!

    <3 Elke

  2. nan sullivan Avatar
    nan sullivan

    so filled with grace and wisdom; firecracker appears to be the correct title-sparkle on my dear

  3. Karen Langer-Gault Avatar
    Karen Langer-Gault

    Over the years I’ve learned that, no matter what else is happening, we get to decide every day whether to be happy/choose joy/proactive or sad/angry/wallow in self-pity and, while we can’t control all of the events that happen to us or demand our attention, we can to a large extent control our responses to those things and the way we view our own lives; and THAT to a large extent determines the quality of the lives we lead no matter what our circumstances or age. The older we get, the more we have learned, the more we have to offer the world–if we choose to do so. When we are open to sharing, we draw to ourselves those others who are open to both sharing and receiving what we have to share. When we are closed off, our lives become closed off. We each get to choose how it will go…we just need to know we have that choice. Sometimes that simple bit of knowledge/awareness is the biggest lesson we can learn with the biggest impact on our lives. It certainly was for me…

    Love you dear friend. Thanks for all you are doing and adding to the awareness of others.

  4. Geri Avatar

    It is all relative, isn’t it? A dear friend is 64 was diagnosed with early onset dementia, suffered a heart attack, and got covid all in the same year. Another friend is 89. She is still working as a stone sculptor and just traveled internationally solo for the first time in 30 years. I celebrate both of them. And I celebrate you, dear Mary, for your wisdom and strength and talent and ability to make me think. And to make me laugh.

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