The tornado struck our house in Pennsylvania on a muggy afternoon in July. As I made a sandwich in the kitchen, the dogs pressed against the backs of my legs, perhaps sensing something coming before I did. Then the wind roared through with a freight-train sound, and the trees bowed down outside the window. In an instant the trees had disappeared, obscured by thick gray air flecked with black, like ominous confetti.
In the time it took to assemble lunch, the tornado was, then was not. All that was left was the afterwards. Most of the big trees closest to the house were gone, their root-balls upended into the air, as though the hand of God had wiped the landscape and ordered us to try again. The pond was filled with downed cedars and enormous willow branches. There was no power and no water, but the house was untouched except for a single cracked chimney cap.
I sent all three of the children messages. Chris was at a German heavy metal festival and didn’t get his for days. Quin was in his New York apartment and wrote back immediately, concerned about whether he should come posthaste. But Maria left her summer school class early and called, sobbing.
“I’m just afraid of history repeating itself,” said my daughter, who knows that my own mother died when I was still in college.
And without thinking, I responded, “Oh, honey, I’m too old to die young now.”
Sometimes there are things that pop out of your mouth and amount to an epiphany, even if they sound like bad country-western songs. This was one of them. I am no longer young, and certainly not elderly. I am past the midpoint of my life. I am at a good point in my life. I am almost 60.
Am I old? Define your terms. One afternoon I went a little ballistic when I read a newspaper story that described an “elderly couple” fending off a burglar. The woman involved was 68. “How is that elderly?” I ranted. “That’s not elderly! Sixty-eight is not elderly!”
After the rant, silence, and then one of my children said, “Mom, that’s elderly.”
“It is,” said another.
“Definitely,” said the third.
Nonsense, I thought, and to prove it, I went to various journalism sites and writing stylebooks to nail down the cutoff point for elderly, the precise definition of an old person, or an almost-old one. It seems that oldis a moving target. Some gerontologists divide us into the young-old, ages 55 to 74, and the old-old, 75 and over. In a survey done by the Pew Research Center, most people said old age began at 68. But most over the age of 65 thought it began at 74.
When I searched my own clippings over the course of a long career in journalism for the word elderly, I discovered to my horror that I had used the adjective with casual regularity. There were the elderly women in the beauty parlors of Flatbush, Brooklyn, the elderly men on the boardwalk in Coney Island. And then—here’s the important thing—the number of uses of the word elderly in my copy began to dwindle, then disappear. As I myself aged, elderlyseemed more and more like a pejorative, and my definition of what constituted elderly shifted upward.
In other words, old is wherever you haven’t gotten to yet.
The truth is, I don’t feel old. I certainly feel a good deal younger than the older people of my past. The year I was born, the average life expectancy was 68; today it’s about 80. Our grandmothers at 60, and my friends and I at that same age: We might as well be talking about different species, in the way we dress, talk, work, exercise, plan—in the way we live. When people lived to be 65, 60 wasold. When they live to be 85, 60 is something else. We’re just not sure what yet. A friend told me she thought it was summed up in the message inside a birthday card she got from her mother: “After the middle ages comes the renaissance.”