Memoir: Aging Gratefully

Why is it that so many of us are decidedly happier now than we were decades ago? A progress report from the near side of 60

by Anna Quindlen
anna quindlen image
Anna Quindlen at home in New York City, 2011. Her country housecame through a catastrophic storm with flying colors—and so did she
Photograph: Joyce Ravid

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.”

First published in the May 2012 issue

What’s your reaction?

Comments

Patricia Wilson08.05.2012

I read Ms. Quindlen's article with interest. It had been forwarded to me by my dear granddaughter who is now grown up with teenagers of her own. She wondered how I viewed the article. Here's my take: At 50 I thought 65 was getting close to elderly. At 65 I decided it must be 70, because I didn't "feel elderly" yet. Around that time, I decided not to be concerned about when I would get old. I was, and am, in good health, active and enjoying a busy lifestyle. Several years ago I decided to take each day as it came, and not to spend time analyzing what point I have reached in the aging process. At 81 my mindset is still the same. I don't worry about how others perceive me. I just do what I do, and welcome each day I'm given. There are ups and downs, but there always have been, and always will be. Today is sufficient for me. I love the life I've been given, and thank God for the gift of every new day and whatever it holds for me. Relax, Ms.Quinlan, and enjoy the ride. :-)


Thank you. Quindlen articulates what I've been thinking about for some time now. I am 61 and life is good. And, I like it that way. I don't think I'm old. I don't feel old. So, thank you. I'm definitely sharing this with others, like me, who know what's happening, but weren't able to really describe it. It's been done very well here.

Maricia Johns05.17.2012

Loved it! I have always admired women who aged gracefully--not trying to be someone or something else. Please take a look at "thisisyourbestyear". It is a blog for women of a certain age, and our journey.

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