By Jack Cumming
This three-part series seeks to narrate aging for those who don’t yet feel old.
My age is no secret. I’m 86, and I was born late in the depression; spent much of elementary school during World War II; came of age in Andy Griffith’s America; voted for JFK; lived the promise and chaos of the 1960s. That’s my history. It’s not who I am.
Today, it’s politically correct to decry “ageism.” For this article, let’s call that movement “anti-ageism.” The popular view is that we shouldn’t make fun of the decrepitude or bewilderment of old age. That political movement, which is strongest among those who are not yet old, views older people as victims.
We’re not victims. At least not for merely being old. Old age is a naturally occurring human condition. Not everyone is blessed to live long enough to experience that stage of life. Moreover, the anti-ageism movement depicts old people as different. “We” shouldn’t mock “them.”
Many among us old people are different but not in our humanity or in our aspirations. Some older people retain reasonably full physical and mental capacity to age 100 or even beyond. Thus, the generalization of ageism is wrong, but so is the anti-ageism generalization that old people are no different from younger people.
What deserves to be dismissed is the stereotyping of people by factors over which they have no control, such as race, ethnicity, or birth year. Just as there are young people with varying degrees of insight and discernment, there are individual variations among the old.
The story not told by the movement to denounce “ageism” is how liberating it is to be old. Ageism and anti-ageism both take a biased negative view of all old people. Those who oppose “ageism” tend to view older people with pity or compassion, imagining that old age is in and of itself distressing and pitiable.
But, there are many joys to aging. Most of us no longer have to kowtow to a boss we dislike because we fear losing our health insurance. We have Medicare, and when we burn through our resources enjoying our freedom, we have Medicaid, which is often more comprehensive and less costly than Medicare. We’re no longer chained by healthcare to a job.
There are other joys as well. I often see my younger friends out exercising many hours a day to try to prolong their lives. At age 86, my life has already been prolonged. I expected to die suddenly of heart failure at age 72 as my male forbears did. It didn’t happen, so I’ve already enjoyed that longevity bonus. Everything else, after now, is just icing on the cake. I’ll take all the time I can gain because there is still so much to get done and so little time.
Plus, I want to see how America weathers this national crisis of our fundamental values that we’re caught up in. Will we keep our American republic, as Benjamin Franklin urged us to do, or will we lose it, as Benjamin Franklin also feared we might? The unfolding story of our nation’s history is so fascinating that I would hate to miss a moment of it. My only fear is that a stroke or brain plaques or Lewy bodies (whatever they are) might take my mind away. No one should have to endure a vegetative existence. But, while vitality triumphs, let’s continue the dance.