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Second Wind: The stages of age

Mel Walsh

Life stages are no longer a simple line-up: childhood, young adulthood, middle age, hot flashes and old age. People live so long now that demographers had to come up with even more stages, piling on new phases for us to go through as our hair turns silver.

Now maybe you thought you were finished with life’s stages after the predictable mid-life crisis, that time when you fantasized about sports cars and affairs with buff tennis instructors. And you probably thought things were going to quiet down after your mate forgave you.

Sorry, but you aren’t done with life passages. Here’s my take on the current line-up of ages and stages. Pick your spot:

The Young Olds, 60-70

This is Demographic Wonderland, the place where the Boomers are moving – all 78 million of them. The first Boomers, Young-Oldies now, were born in 1946 and are 61 this year, though they can’t believe it. (They thought listening to Keith Richards would protect them from aging, but it didn’t work. Just look at Keith Richards.)

The Young Olds can now get the cheap seats at movies and will occasionally pick up the AARP magazine that they’ve ignored since they were 50. Also, the Young Olds have to face the big decision – whether to grab a Social Security check now or wait until later and get more money over a shorter period of time.

I’ve read dozens of articles that try to answer this Social Security question intelligently, but I have concluded that getting your pet chimp to toss a coin is as good a way as any when trying to guess how long you will live – which is the question you have to answer before you can decide whether to take the money now or run with it later.

Other characteristics of this phase: Young Old women cheer themselves by noticing that they can still put on their bras with their arms behind their backs – no front closures required. Also, many of their men are discovering that Medicare will pay for Viagra and its perky prescription brothers.

The Middle Olds, 70-80

This is the age where it is delusional to pretend you are still in mid-life because there are as yet no people 140 to 160 years of age. The Middle Olds also know by now that some day the jig will be up when it comes to breathing and that they will not be granted immortality with a special dispensation from heaven. This realization can put the Middle Olds in a mood that feels much like the college panic of senior year, the year when you realize you have no idea what you want to be when you grow up and that everyone else is hooked up romantically except you.

But for the Middle Olds, the panic sounds like this: Have I done what I wanted to do? Have I fulfilled my destiny? The answer to both questions is usually no – of course not, dummy, who has? – which keeps us Middle Olds busy and off the street, too engrossed in fulfilling ourselves to notice that we are coming up on the next stage:

The Old Olds, 80 and up

I’m not there yet, so my knowledge comes from overlong gerontology books, from working as an ombudsman for the elderly in long-term care and from my friends who have passed the 80 mark and are still ticking. Chronic physical conditions are piling up by now, but the Old Olds I know handle these with grace and common sense – unless they are men, in which case all bets are off. Some things never change. Men will go to a doctor when wheeled in on a gurney. That’s one phase that lasts.

Me, I think of the Old Olds as Velveteen Rabbits. Do you know that children’s tale about how toys become real? Toys – in this case a velveteen rabbit – become real by being well-used and well-loved. In the story, the toy rabbit was a bit worn and less than perfect to behold because his little owner did love him. In fact, his whiskers were loved right off. But that is what made him real.

And that’s how I think about the Old Old. Their whiskers are loved off. That’s what makes them real.


The author of four non-fiction books, gerontologist Mel Walsh has a new book of advice for the 50+ woman: Hot Granny, published by Chronicle Books. Write melwalsh@melwalsh.com. More info at http://www.melwalsh.com.

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