I'm of two minds when it comes to dealing with people older than me. On one hand I am a little wary of them, and on the other hand they incite envy and inspiration. Allow me to explain.
The emotional and physical impact of aging has been well documented in both the scientific literature and the lay press. Occasionally I have offered my own observations about aging in these columns and on my blog. The accumulation of years, for which we should be grateful, brings about many changes, most of which are well known to all of us, some good, some not so good, and some simply bad. There is one issue that I find particularly irksome that has not been given the attention it deserves, and that is "the person older than you." We all know one or more of these people; they can be found in your own family, your church, or the work place; they are everywhere. They come in as many guises as you can imagine: cheerful, grumpy, kind, nasty, a few years older, a lot older, and stoic or whiney. Sometimes they can be immediately recognized, but just as often they go undetected.
So what is it about some of these folks that irks me so? (The key word here is "some.") It's their "been there, done that" attitude. I freely admit that I like to ruminate and pontificate about aging; it is a friendly subject for me. At least until I run into someone older than me. When that happens I immediately feel stymied. I have no business going on about my age to someone who has been there before me. The result is I feel denied the pleasure of expressing myself, which leaves me frustrated and unfulfilled. How can I profess to illuminate someone on the experience of aging, or simply whine and complain about getting old, in the presence of someone older than me? It doesn't feel right, especially if they are the type who take pleasure in reminding me how much older than me they are. An obvious option is to restrict my comments to those who are younger than me, and in need of my timely, sage advice. Unfortunately one can never be sure there are no "older than me" folks in the room. On my 70th birthday my wife gave me a hat that said "Old Fart." I wore it for several days, until one day someone asked how old I was. When I told him my age he laughed and said I was a kid. He was 79. I have not worn it since.
Like many of my contemporaries I take unwarranted pride in my age. I am 79 years old through no fault of my own, and referring to this "accomplishment" with someone older than me is not as much fun as it is with a younger person…just being honest here.
A funny thing about getting old -- we don't want to be old, but we don't want to be denied the opportunity to become old. Let's face it; youth is what we wish for, especially after living long enough to realize how we wasted our own. Some people my age make a serious effort to "hang out" with younger folks, thinking that somehow their youth will rub off on them. But we all know that is not going to happen. On the other hand, there may be something we can learn from associating with those who have successfully navigated life into their late 80s and 90s. I cannot be 40 again, but perhaps I could make 85 or 90. I have some dear friends and many acquaintances older than me. I enjoy their company, and am inspired by them.
Jerry is 93 and still travels extensively and pursues his interest in painting. The last time I saw him at a large social affair I couldn't keep up with him. Gwen, my new old friend in her 90s, reads and comments on my columns, and shares her own writing with me. She is feisty and witty and inspires emulation. We had a most enjoyable lunch date recently, in spite of the fact than we both had a problem hearing one another, or perhaps because of it. And I can't forget Ken, who led me on a walk around a path somewhere in the county on one of the coldest days of the year while I struggled to keep up with him. These are just three of many "older than me" friends that come to mind when I find myself feeling I'm too old to plan some new and ambitious project.
Of course I too am one of those "older than you" people, and I keep this in mind when some young whippersnapper tries to tell me about the struggles of aging. Instead of responding with an "I've been there, done that" remark, or saying "wait 'til you're my age," I just nod my head sympathetically, reminding myself I'm also a young whippersnapper to someone.