I listened to the State of the Union address this past week for several reasons. I wanted to see how this new Congress was going to engage with the President, and I wanted to see just how well the oldest President in this Nation’s history would be able to deliver his message.

There are lots of things that are required to give a speech like that. A good speech writer for one, preparation and rehearsal for sure, a grasp of the content, (which, in this case, was incredibly diverse), the ability to use a teleprompter and make it look effortless, and, oh yes, that magical connection with the “audience”.

I think the President did an exceptional job!  Please note, there is no qualifying clause: for an 80 year-old. But I know it was in the back of my mind.

Who Is That in the Mirror?

In my workshop, “No Time Like the Present, we spend time looking at something I know we all experience – that gap between our chronological age and how “old” we feel inside. I suspect Joe Biden has about a 30-year gap – he gave that speech like a 50 year-old!

The President who handed his speech to the Speaker of the House looked old, but his energy levels, stamina, command of the room suggested that he was anything but “old”.

Our culture has long equated negative stereotypes with the words “old” and “aging”. According to Robert N. Butler, MD, founding director of the National Institute of Aging, “In America, childhood is romanticized, youth is idolized, middle age does the work, wields the power and pays the bills, and old age, its days empty of purpose, gets little or nothing of what it has already done. The old are in the way.”  Butler wrote that in 1975. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then.

A Debt of Gratitude

Butler and his colleagues were instrumental in bringing to light the lack of research on aging. In 1975, Butler received the Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Why Survive? Being Old in America”. It was just 10 years after Medicare had come into being and life expectancy for men was 69 and women was 77.

The notion of actually providing a safety-net for aged and disabled Americans has been long-fought by the American Medical Association and insurance companies. One of the high points of President Biden’s speech was his promise to continue to protect Medicare and Social Security, both targets for Republicans who want to see government out of people’s lives.

The current argument suggests that Medicare and Social Security are a drain on the budget, and while it is true that healthcare expenditures come in at $1.6 billion, defense spending is a close second at $1.1 billion. Yet rarely are the two discussed together in terms of managing costs, since it is much easier to shift money away from old folks, who have no power or influence anyway. As Butler pointed out, the old are in the way.

Precise Use of Language: Just What is Old?

How we describe ourselves is a very real issue in a culture that remains incredibly ignorant of what the aging process is, not just biologically, but sociologically, culturally, and psychologically. How we describe ourselves has always been challenging, and rarely has been precise.

When Butler was doing his original research, he divided the aging population into three discrete categories: “young old, old, and oldest old”. Actual chronological ages were parenthetically attached, but they were not set in stone.

As the lifespan has expanded, Butler’s categorizations have continued to be used with minor adjustments. They now include: the young old, old, older old, and oldest old. I can only imagine future iterations:  really old, really, really-old, and OMG I can’t believe you are still alive!

Developmental Models of Aging

Psychology looks at human growth in terms of stages of development, with the majority of research being focused on children. The major developmental theories posit early childhood experiences as formational in who we become as we grow older.

Freud, Piaget, and Erikson each offer detailed descriptions of what is going on pre-verbally until puberty. Interestingly, Freud and Piaget spend little time on development after puberty. Only Erik Erikson ventures to describe the adolescent, adult, and older adult stages.

All of this is to say that we continue to make our way through this incredibly rich, vibrant, and broadening time of life as if there was nothing happening until we die!      

Welcome to Aging in the 21st Century!

In 2004, William H. Thomas, MD published “What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World.”  He established ChangingAging, a wonderful website that is your one-stop shopping for information and resources on what we can do to change how we age in our culture.

In 2019, Louise Aronson, MD published her book, “Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimaging Life”, which challenged all of us to take a closer look at our assumptions about what it means to age, and for medicine to stop treating aging as a chronic disease.

There are groups popping up all over the internet challenging how we talk about growing old, how we confront our own ageism, and how we navigate this new experience of aging that is so different from what has historically been.

Changing the Narrative is an exciting organization that is taking on the language of aging. The American Society on Aging is doing grassroots work on inclusivity and equity. The Centre for Ageing Better in the UK is conducting cutting edge research on what an elder-friendly community would look like in terms of inclusivity, equity, and care.

Mind the Gap

Joe Biden is only 10 years older than I am.

When I was in fifth grade, Joe Biden was studying history and political science at the University of Delaware. Developmentally, we were in different worlds. But now that ten-year gap means little. We share memories of historic events. We remember the words to the same songs. We can recall life before cell phones and social media, and laugh about all of it.

Why is this important? Because at this stage of our lives, there is more that is shared between us than is different.

Replacing the Visuals

We have been taught to think of the lifespan as an arc, with old age inevitably being seen as decline. A better image to use is a river. At the end of its journey to the sea, it forms a delta. Having carried all sorts of bits and bobs from its headwaters and where it has meandered along the way, it fans out, slows down, and finally spills into the ocean.

How Should We Transform Our Shared Vision of Aging?

Take a moment to think about what words describe you at your stage of life. Try them out with others. And, if you are moved to do so, let me know how you would like to be called!

If you need some inspiration, check out this blog by friend and fellow writer, Fran Braga Meininger, on the ChangingAging website. She encourages us to teach without criticizing, be an example to others, offer support when it matters, mindfully embrace the role of elder. Good advice!

4 responses to “The Young Old, the Old, the Older Old and the Oldest Old”

  1. Berkeley F. Fuller-Lewis Avatar
    Berkeley F. Fuller-Lewis

    Mary! This is one of your best ever blogs! First, regarding President Biden’s speech? Anyone having a brain witnessed “age, experience and a touch of sly treachery — smilingly outsmarting so-called “youth”— in this case embodying ignorance, tribal conformity and nutty ideological rigidity! Or as one late-night guy said: “We watched ‘Sly Grandpa’ come out to play.” HA! (So, if this is “Biden being too old,” then I’m Shirley Temple!)

    Secondly, your graphic on “Stages of Psychological Development” is one of the best I’ve ever seen, combining so much data in one illustration.

    Finally, all too many people never overcome the neglect, abandonment, betrayals (sometimes very subtle yet constant) or even outright abuse during their all-important, formative childhoods. Most don’t even know that they CAN overcome the adult impacts of such early disappointment! Thus, if we do not KNOW we have such a huge Choice, we are unable to make it and thus remain unable to truly “take the reins of our own life.”

    Through late middle age, many people CAN “work around” such inner damage — creating a facade to mask the hidden “demons” they carry. But then, when remaining “youthful” (constitutional) energy wanes, and also, as such people lose the “helpful” distractions of WORK — the grief, anger or fear they still have inside comes to the surface. What does that result in? A trembling, frustrated, helpless, grief-stricken and/or “confused” / “weak” — so-called — “OLD” PERSON. (This is not to deny natural aging, but most aging if far from “natural”).

    Much so-called “aging” reflects crucial emotional healing never done . . . . now “coming home to roost.”

    In case anyone thinks the above is an overstatement, just look at two quotes from famous American thinkers: Ben Franklin (attributed to): “Many people die at 25 but just don’t get buried until they’re 70.” And, Henry David Thoreau: “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” (Read that, ‘most PEOPLE’).

    And then, our youth-philic, death-phobic American culture (driven by the Advertising “industry” and the lure of celebrity culture) BOMBARDS us all with ITS ugly “definition” of Old Age, furthering adding Societal Agreement, hopelessness, and conformity (and profit!!!) on top of the above, individualized tragedies! I’m 75, my spouse 82 . . . and we are in no way “old” . . . in any of those pathetic ways we are “supposed to be.”

    Anyway thank you for a SUPERB blog.

  2. Sterling Fuller-Lewis Avatar
    Sterling Fuller-Lewis

    Mary: Maybe the real question is, What does “old” mean? Isn’t it just a concept, or a rather negative label? I am closing in on my 83rd birthday in a couple of months [Aries]. I have been fitted with a pacemaker, thanks to some virus that attacked my heart. The good news is that I still have all my marbles, and I take great pleasure in writing, listening to Opera, enjoying the good meals my husband prepares, and so on. So yeah, I have a lot of years on me, and the heart episode didn’t help my looks any. Nevertheless, but I do not consider myself “old”, and long ago I learned to never believe in a Concept. Negative Belief Systems are the real killers, so if you believe you are “old”, well, you will be.

  3. Carol Mikoda Avatar
    Carol Mikoda

    thanks for the references! I loved the TEDx talk that Dr. Bill Thomas gave. I’ve signed up for the ChangingAging newsletter (their office is in Ithaca!). I’m embracing my role as an elder in the making.

  4.  Avatar

    Wonderful woven overview of where the “aging” discussion was, is, and where it may be going. Your blog encouraged me to dig deeper into the “old” continuum you opened the talk with, I came across some discussion on the “Scaffolding Theory of Aging and Cognition”. Is this tributary of thought hold value in overall discussion of aging or is it just an academic creek looking for a large river? Thanks Dr. Mary.

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