Growing Old Is Easy: Time Does All the Work

5 min read

I am 83, to my surprise, or 82, can’t remember. Who’s counting? I am past my official, male, Canadian, US, and UK average expiry dates. I am living on borrowed time. Borrowed from whom, I wonder? No. Don’t go there. But definitely a Golden Ager, a Senior Citizen, in a word, Old.

“What’s it like to be so old?” Asked one of my grandsons.
“Just wait, kid. You’ll find out soon enough if you’re lucky and careful.”

But it is a whole new world. At best an adventure and a learning experience, just when you thought you had learned enough to get by; at worst fairly awful with physical and cognitive decline, loneliness, and isolation. And we have to learn to cope.

Sure, it beats the alternative, as some wit once said; but it’s not a total joy all the time. Surviving, though certainly worthwhile, has its problems. Not that I’m complaining, even if I am. It’s like the nightmare song in Iolanthe. “First your bedclothes conspire.” Except it’s not your bedclothes that go—it’s you, well, me, actually. And once it starts, it accelerates. One damn thing after another. I try to take all this degeneration—no, sorry, increasing maturity—lightly, laugh it off, but in fact, it is killing me. I’ll die laughing. Still, it’s better than crying. I’ll leave that to you guys.

First, the eyesight deteriorates and we need glasses, and over time with progressively stronger lenses. Then the knees, which do not recover, and the hair loss and colour change. It’s one thing after another, and accelerating, with extra attention to accidents and bone breaks and fractures, which might make walking difficult.

Worst-case scenarios offer a huge menu of possibilities: hernias, hemorrhoids, tinnitus, shingles, hives, and a host of possible problems (back, stroke, prostate, cardiological, gynecological). Plus, declines or loss of balance, hearing, sight, muscle mass, memory, and even height, and perhaps sexual desire or ability or partner. Not to mention even more additions of wrinkles, wattles, and flab. Yet we weave our ways through trials and tribulations left and right, back and front, up and down.

Knee and hip implants may bring a new lease on life, or a heart transplant, or cosmetic surgery, which is a $16.7 billion industry in the US, as the American Society of Plastic Surgeons noted in its 2023 Report on 2020 data.

Walking distances are further, stairs are steeper to climb and more dangerous to descend, the ground is harder to reach and much harder, and groceries are heavier. And we are colder as well as older, and some say we are stupid and slow.

Then, slowly, looming over the horizon, closer and closer, rise in serried arrays of white, green, or blue gowns, the doctors and nurses, dentists and opticians, x-ray and ultra-sound technicians, surgeons, dermatologists, gynecologists—and many other ologists, chiropractors, and therapists. We keep them all in play and pay. Some we pay directly, some with insurance, and some we have already paid for in advance (lest we forget, for we might be blamed for the increased medical expenses). Still, we meet so many pleasant professionals, that it’s almost worth going to all the clinics and hospitals, almost.

Shakespeare described the last age of life in “As You Like It”:

Last scene of all
That ends this strange, eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Not anymore. We have tooth implants, glasses, contact lenses, salt, and many spices, and possibly everything.

There are compensations, of course, though for the life of me, I cannot think of many. Happiness with one’s children and grandchildren. Some price and fare reductions. Perhaps some courtesies. All is much appreciated. And some knowledge gained, possibly useful to others. Some pensioners in our gerontocracies may be role models, however, they offer widely divergent options.
Putin, 71
Trump, 77
Biden, 80
Pope Francis, 86

But wisdom is not needed by the young; they can Google it. Experience is not valued in the job market. Volunteerism is not particularly respected. Nor are decades of tax-paying.

Yet we old wrinklies and possibly GOGs—Grumpy Old Geezers in Curmudgeons Anonymous have so far avoided or survived the three big killers: strokes, cancer, and heart attacks; and the three big addictions: drink, drugs, and smokes; and the three big preventables: homicide, suicide, and fatal accidents. And two others: the infectious diseases of childhood and the degenerative diseases of old age, including dementia and Alzheimer’s. We are survivors.

The trouble is that to stay in the same healthy survivor state, we must run faster and faster to keep up, like Alice, not simply the exercise, diet, and sleep, but also the knowledge in this rapidly changing world. Those are the two morals of this essay.

The irony is that we did not do these things to ourselves, they were done to us by time, and the only reason for that is we are alive, still. Life is peachy, relatively speaking. And perhaps we can be satisfied with a productive life well-lived and well-loved and well-loving.

Growing old is one thing: easy. Time does all the work. Growing better is quite another, and more difficult.

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