I have hummed the Paul McCartney tune numerous times since my birthday in July, the ditty describing a funny, fantastical, faraway place that young people think they will never reach. Until they get there.
“When I get older, losing my hair” has become real at 64, except I am losing it in places I had never imagined, both visible (the legs and eyebrows) and unseen. My thumbs ache every morning as I wiggle them back to action on my daily dog walk. My calves and toes cramp after a long day on my feet, especially an arthritic second toe.
So far, unlike some friends, I have escaped any surgical side effects of growing old.
- The woman who hired and trained me to be a fitness instructor when I turned 40 just got knee replacement surgery, after years of downhill skiing and step aerobics.
- My best friend recently fell 7 feet from a ladder while doing yardwork, and the surgeon who replaced her shattered hip commented on the evidence of osteoporosis.
These women are my peers, age 64 or thereabouts. We are the “young-old,” a term variously defined as the entire 60s, ages 65 to 69, and the period of life after paid work and parenting. Ask any of us, however, and we will tell you we don’t feel old — emotionally, intellectually or even physically, on most days.
We see images of healthful aging, the trim, wrinkled people with gray hair and no eyeglasses in Medicare ads, for example. But no one describes what aging will feel like or who we will become. “The stories of our complexity, our wisdom, and our joy are not often told,” writes cultural anthropologist and clinical psychologist Mary Pipher in her latest book, Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age.
If you only complain about old age, you descend into an embittered stereotype. Better to embrace than to deny, to focus on this stage of life as being not better or worse, but different. “Remember the first rule of the wilderness: don’t panic,” writes Pipher, who seeks solace and spiritual growth in nature.
Pipher has been criticized for writing in the plural “we,” making pronouncements on behalf of all aging women, whatever their cultural background or economic circumstances. Still, her well-researched guidebook is a helpful starting point, and her emphasis on maintaining emotional stability — “Let’s aim to become more curious and less worried and more self-aware and less reactive” — is spot-on.
Here is what “when I’m 64” looks and feels like for me, a woman who is white and well off, athletic and adaptive, and who has benefited from having health insurance throughout her life.
How aging looks
Photographs reveal what I don’t notice in the bathroom mirror, the creped skin on my neck, the parentheses of wrinkles that flank my mouth, the indentations beneath my eyes, which look bald without makeup.
“Maybe you should turn the light on in the bathroom,” joked a friend when I described the younger version of me who stares back while I brush my hair or floss my teeth. Extra light wouldn’t matter. Eyebrows raised, face alert, I see what I want to see, the person I think I am, a woman still vibrant and full of life. My face relaxes more in photos, and I look old.
During a long lunch recently with the friend who had made the bathroom joke, I noticed that her face, 13 months younger, is aging in the same ways as mine. I observe that fact calmly as we sip our steaming teas, without the cringing or harsh judgment I heap upon myself. I see her beauty as clearly as when we met in our mid-20s, tempered now by wisdom and experience.
At CorePower, a young person’s yoga studio, I take classes during the workday or on early weekend mornings when I am more likely to be among people my own age. Raised in a competitive era that valued women for their looks, I measure my body against those of my classmates: Your waistline will never be what it is. Your thighs are still trim, though dimpled with age. Why not emulate the body positivity of the older men who bare their sagging breasts and ample bellies without shame?
Next step: Switch on the bathroom light and look myself squarely in the eye while I acknowledge that, indeed, I’m 64.
How aging feels
Anyone who knows me well will cite work, my career, as foundational in my life, a pursuit that has defined and consumed me for almost 40 years.
I took pride in supporting my family while my husband was primary parent to our children, even as I recognized in later years what that role cost me. I have valued the intellectual stimulation of work, always pitching ideas, seeking more responsibility, pushing myself to start graduate school as my mother was dying.
Now, my parents are gone, my children are grown, and I’ve got more time than ever to be a Boomer workaholic. Except my head and heart aren’t in it anymore. Deeper into my 60s, work simply matters less. I no longer feel like my career defines me.
Instead, I am expanding my cooking skills and learning to knit again. I volunteer my time and talents, took up weightlifting during the pandemic and walk, bike or jog every day. I am intentional about maintaining friendships and family relationships.
At 64, I find myself less able to multitask, more prone to caffeine interfering with my sleep and, with retirement on the horizon, less willing to deal with drama and work-related stress. I am starting to yearn for a life less driven by my Outlook calendar and to-do lists. I wonder some days whether I make a difference anymore.
This newfound need for balance sneaked up on me, as surely and subtly as the wrinkles between my eyebrows. “It’s all about change,” intoned the narrator of an AARP online driving seminar that my husband and I took to lower our insurance rates. “Older people slow down.” Physical fragility increases and mental acuity decreases between ages 60 and 64, the seminar taught us (as if we didn’t know).
“You wake up in the morning and something always hurts,” my late father used to say. Humility becomes an unexpected source of strength.
How aging can render you irrelevant
I insist on stating my age to colleagues at the university where I work, almost daring someone to judge me lesser for it. At a time when our society is rightly focusing on the marginalized among us, I consider it something of a calling, even as a privileged white person, to remind people that ageism is a reality, too.
A “climate survey” sponsored by Human Resources provided 12 categories — a dozen boxes we could check — to define our identities and provide more accurate data. The categories ranged from geographic (Minneapolis or St. Paul campus) to options that help delineate sexual orientation, ethnicity and gender. No category asked about age, and yet it is a dominant factor in my evolving perspective about work, life, love, meaning, spirituality and my commitment to social causes.
“I felt my maturing as a journey inward and the beginning of a new kind of freedom,” writes Isabel Allende in her memoir, The Sum of Our Days. How is being heterosexual or working on the St. Paul campus any more relevant than being 64?
You don’t realize, or at least I didn’t, that eventually you will slide into a stereotype. A Boomer, a butt of jokes. I serve on several community councils, often with much younger people, which I think of as mutually beneficial but particularly good for me. Until I hit the predictable wall of resentments against my generation.
During a field trip recently to document neglect in a vital commercial section of our city, one 30-ish man decried the lack of support for telecommuting among the Baby Boomers at his law firm. I told him that after 14 years of a brutally long commute, I vowed never again to work at a job that required me to drive rather than walk or use mass transit or that lacked the flexibility to work from home. He didn’t respond. My experience failed to fit his age-related assumptions.
But I was the one who stayed silent when the conversation turned to the missteps that a young colleague of ours is making on social media, where he represents the organization. I suggested communications coaching, assuming they would seek my advice given my decades in the field. “I think the coaching would have to be from someone closer to his age,” said the young woman in our trio, describing how older women had tried to “mother” her at work.
Irrelevance is more painful than visible wrinkles or aching knees, and we combat it only through vocal protest and courageous action. So, stand up! Speak out! Just organize the activity before 9 p.m. or I’ll be sleeping.