As years pass, age re­ally only a num­ber

Post Tribune (Sunday) - - Front Page - Jerry Davich

The cu­ri­ous third-grade stu­dent raised his hand as high as it would reach. His ques­tion couldn’t wait an­other sec­ond.

“How old are you?” he said, his head tilted to one side.

I al­ready had been asked dozens of ques­tions by other third­graders at Longfel­low Ele­men­tary School in Gary. Ev­ery­thing from, “How much money do you make?” to “Why did you leave Gary?” (Lit­tle kids will ask ab­so­lutely any­thing on their mind, with no con­cern of po­lite­ness or tact­ful­ness, which I ab­so­lutely en­joy.)

Rose Phe­lan, a third-grade teacher, in­vited me to speak to her class about a project on fam­ily tra­di­tions, along with tips for in­ter­view­ing se­nior cit­i­zens at a lo­cal cen­ter.

“It would be a great mo­ti­va­tor to have a pro­fes­sional writer dis­cuss the in­ter­view­ing and writ­ing process with our stu­dents,” she told me be­fore­hand.

I fig­ured hav­ing those young, in­quis­i­tive stu­dents ask me ques­tions in class might help them ask the se­niors ap­pro­pri­ate ques­tions in the cen­ter. Maybe I fig­ured wrong.

“How old are you?” the boy in­no­cently said.

“Well, I’m 56,” I replied, look­ing around to see the kids’ re­sponse.

They gasped. They ac­tu­ally gasped. All 40 of them.

I could only chuckle at their shocked faces.

One girl was kind enough to

tell me I looked 36, but not be­fore I got the point from the class. I am old, at least to kids of that age, and likely any­one un­der the age of, oh, 40.

How old is “old” th­ese days? And how old is too old in our youth-lov­ing so­ci­ety?

A Har­ris Poll, com­mis­sioned and re­leased last week by TD Amer­i­trade, sug­gests that Amer­i­can’s per­cep­tions and as­pi­ra­tions about ag­ing may be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a ma­jor shift. Ag­ing time­lines are length­en­ing, with the av­er­age age clas­si­fy­ing some­one as “old” is now 74, up from 68 in 2009.

Part of this shift is due to our ex­pec­ta­tions for longevity, now an av­er­age of 84 years, ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey, de­spite life ex­pectancy at 79 in the U.S.

Yes, we are liv­ing longer and it is stretch­ing our per­cep­tion of old age.

“Our sur­vey shows that peo­ple see ag­ing as a time to pur­sue new goals and pas­sions, re­flect­ing that they in­tend to live ac­tive, ful­fill­ing lives deeper into re­tire­ment,” Matt Sad­owsky, TD Amer­i­trade’s di­rec­tor of re­tire­ment and an­nu­ities said in a state­ment. “A more ac­tive life­style at older ages con­trib­utes to the shift in our per­cep­tion of old age.”

The sur­vey’s find­ings hint that mil­len­ni­als and boomers alike are gen­er­ally up­beat about the op­por­tu­ni­ties that come with ag­ing, Sad­owsky said.

We are more likely to as­so­ciate ag­ing with wis­dom and ex­pe­ri­ence than with be­com­ing a bur­den or alling out of touch, with such op­ti­mism ex­tend­ing across all gen­er­a­tions, the sur­vey says. How­ever, I won­der if this is true for most peo­ple my age.

Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. cen­sus, the growth of those 65 and older ex­ceeds that of our to­tal pop­u­la­tion and the pop­u­la­tion un­der 65. Why? Lower birth rates and increased longevity, re­searchers say. Is 65 the new 45? Or is this sim­ply wish­ful think­ing for any­one 65 or close to it?

For me, my mind feels 36, but my knees feel 66. My cu­rios­ity feels 16, but my pa­tience feels 76. Age is only a num­ber, right? Not for all of us. And not for Emile Ratel­band, a 69year-old Dutch busi­ness­man who is ask­ing the courts to for­mally roll back his age 20 years. He said he didn’t feel com­fort­able with his official date of birth, March 11, 1949, and wanted it changed to March 11, 1969.

He’s suf­fered age dis­crim­i­na­tion for be­ing 69, Ratel­band said.

“When I’m 69, I am lim­ited,” he told The Guardian. “If I’m 49, then I can buy a new house, drive a dif­fer­ent car. I can take up more work.”

He has a point, but would his le­gal bat­tle set a prece­dent for oth­ers to roll back their le­gal age? I don’t want my age for­mally rolled back to, say, 46. Then again, I’m only 56. I say “only” be­cause age is all about con­text.

I re­cently in­ter­viewed an older cou­ple for a col­umn. Both the hus­band and wife were 89.

“Oh my, you’re so young,” the wife told me.

I po­litely smiled, know- ing she was right, but only be­cause of her wrin­kled per­spec­tive.

When I chat with peo­ple sev­eral years older than me, I in­evitably ask the same ques­tion: How did they get to be that old? Luck? Ge­net­ics? Healthy life­style choices? I’ve heard all those re­sponses and many more from older folks.

Con­trary to what I’ve al­ways be­lieved, ge­net­ics play only a small part in our longevity, ac­cord­ing to a new study in­volv­ing 400 mil­lion peo­ple, pub­lished in the jour­nal Ge­net­ics. In­stead, our life­style choices and out­comes play a much larger role in how long we live.

“Genes load the gun. En­vi­ron­ment pulls the trig­ger,” says Dr. Ja­cob Rosen­stein, au­thor of the new book, “Defy Ag­ing: Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life.”

With­out yet read­ing this book, its hope­ful ti­tle prompts me to ask: Do you be­lieve the rest of your life will be the best of your life? It de­pends on your age, doesn’t it?

Some peo­ple age much faster, and more no­tice­ably, than oth­ers. If you doubt it, you haven’t yet at­tended your 30-year high school re­union. When I first walked into mine, an old friend leaned in and whis­pered, “Ev­ery­one looks so old here.”

All of us there were about the same age. You couldn’t tell, though.

I wanted to tell share this re­al­iza­tion with those third-graders. In­stead, I joked with them that some­day they, too, might live to the ripe old age of 56.

“If you’re lucky!” I said.

ROLAND HEITINK/GETTY-AFP

Dutch­man Emile Ratel­band, 69, wants his official age to be ad­justed to 49, his “emo­tional age.” He says he’s been dis­crim­i­nated against be­cause of his age.

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