In a few days I will be 78. I honestly don’t know how that happened. I was 50 just a few weeks ago!
According to the media, the medical establishment, and general opinion, I am OLD!
Or am I an “Elder?” Or perhaps a “Senior?”
It used to be I was a “Fuddy Duddy.” Worse, an “Old Bag.”
More poetically, a “Crone” or a “Hag.”
I could go on. You probably have heard worse.
But what does that mean, 78?
It’s a mathematical expression for how many times I have experienced the sun rising and setting. The number of years I have been on the Earth. The box I check when asked on certain forms the group I am in.
Lately, I find myself questioning the concept of “age.” It depends.
On the few days when my myriad of health issues take a back seat to a joyful feeling of “I am so lucky to be alive,” I am vibrant and looking
forward to the future. I get dressed, brush my teeth, comb my hair, look in the mirror and say “Hello, Carole. Isn’t it a beautiful day?” I am ageless.
More often than not, though, I drag myself out of bed, dreading the day, the pain and medications, doctor visits, and loneliness. I look in the mirror and turn quickly away, barely recognizing the reflection.
I am ancient.
A few months ago, after my near death heart failure and hospitalization, I woke up to see that my hair had turned white. Not a few strands. Not grey, white!
Who was this old woman?
My doctor told me that in her 31 years of practice she had seen this happen only one other time!
My first impulse was to order a box of hair color and proceed to return to “normal.”
I was a red head, originally naturally, and later, from the magic of Clairol.
I looked carefully in the mirror, trying to control my emotions and meet this stranger calmly. It was not easy. It was not pleasant. I could not decide how I felt about her. What I knew was that overnight, I had become “old”. My face was lined as before, my
eyes were still green. But I had “aged.” Time and health issues dictated my appearance. White hair was the final step. I took a few deep breaths and decided to give myself some time. A strange expression since I am running out of it.
It is now a few months later and my hair is still white. I have decided to keep it that way. Along the way, I have had to face some hard truths, some preconceived notions and some ageist remarks. I could never have imagined how the color of my hair could provide me with such life lessons!
I remember fondly my first real encounter with the concept of age. I was a student teacher, only 19 (I was on an accelerated college program that would allow me to graduate in 3 years) and teaching
summer school English in one of the toughest schools in the city. They were high school students, seniors with one last chance to graduate, and many of them as old as me. It was Eddie – tall, dark, handsome and a gang leader with a love of reading that he hid so as not to hurt his fierce
image, who was my instructor. One afternoon as the class filed out of the room he remained behind. He stood in front of me, respectfully, and quietly and seriously asked “Hey, teacher, want to go out to lunch with me and take a ride? I have a really nice car. Or we could go to a movie later.” I was caught off guard and tried quickly to calculate how best to handle this awkward situation. “Thank you, Eddie. What a nice offer, I said. But I am your teacher and it would not be appropriate.”
He looked back at me, puzzled. “Why not?” he replied. “If it’s about your age, age ain’t nothing but a number, baby.”
I will never forget that moment! I took a breath and did my best to say “no” without making him feel foolish or hurt. But his response still rings in my ears and has become a mantra of sorts for me over the years whenever I question my decision to do something because of my age.
Seventy-eight. It’s daunting! Almost unimaginable! And in my case, perhaps my last year. What do I do with it?
If things had gone as I had planned, I would be traveling the world. Perhaps taking a van and leisurely going across the country with Lovebug, my sweet cat, as my companion. I would write and photograph the people I met and places I had seen. It would be the adventure I had always dreamed of.
But it is not to be.
Instead, I find myself in poor health, limited in my ability to walk or get around, and tired long before the day is over.
I tell myself I am old. I have already outlived my friends. It is time to “age gracefully” and be careful to conserve what energy and physical ability I have left. Rewrite the expectations about the final chapter of my life. Accept my limitations and do the best I can with what I have. It is not a pretty picture or a good story.
Or I can tell myself “age ain’t nothing but a number.” I still have an active imagination, a good mind, a thirst to learn more. A desire to see
the things I planned to see and meet new people. And, with modern technology I can do that. My computer can take me on trips around the world, virtually. I can take classes and attend seminars online on anything that interests me. I can chat and Zoom with new friends I have made on line and through my posts. And I can write.
My mind is not old! It is ageless. And for as long as it stays that way, my spirit is ageless too.
Carole Leskin is a retired Director of Global Human Resources. Embarking on a second career as a writer and photographer concentrating on her personal accounts of aging, her essays and poetry, frequently accompanied by her photos, are published in Jewish Sacred Aging, Jewish Women of Words, Starts At 60, Navigating Aging ( a Kaiser Health publication), Women’s Older Wisdom, Time Goes By and Next Avenue. Her poems, “Father Time” and “Carole’s Debate” were selected for inclusion in the 2019 anthologies of poetry, New Jersey Bards. Her photos have been featured in Mart R Porter Nature Forum.
I am very grateful to Rabbi Fred Natkin for leading us to this site, and your post.
Perfect timing! I will turn 74 next month. In the past 8 months, I have had a hip replacement due to a nasty fall, and in February I had a Mastectomy. I know you understand. Your courage has given me the strength to look at my life differently. THANK YOU, and Thanks to the young man who taught you that “age is just a number”. May you Live and Be Well!!
Your comment means the world to me! I often find it hard to submit posts that deal with the more difficult parts of growing old. They can be sad and frightening. But I think if we deal with them openly and honestly they become a bit easier to deal with and we don’t feel so lonely. Thank you!!
Thank you so much for this piece. I am turning 67 soon, and and was forced to retire several years ago due to chronic pain’s “interference “. I have definitely struggled with these issues, especially wondering about my purpose. Changing my mindset has become first priority, planning baby steps now.
I am so glad you posted this comment! Changing your mindset is not an easy thing to do. It takes courage! But hopefully your baby steps will lead you to a more satisfying time of life and a new sense of purpose. Best Wishes.
Dear Carole, I am dealing with many of the same issues. It’s hard to be less healthy! I’m 74. Thanks for this essay – I plan to follow your blog. I’ve found a Village group that helps aging people stay in their homes. It’s been a great help. https://www.vtvnetwork.org/
Contact me any time, I would love to chat.