Who’s Old? It’s Only a Number
From Where I SitOpinion

Who’s Old? It’s Only a Number

When Dave looks in the mirror, the changes that come with age are obvious. But to anyone who thinks him old, he has this message: Get off my lawn.

Dave Schechter
Dave Schechter

To the 3-year-old girl next door I am “Mr. Dave” and my wife “Miss Audrey.”

This manner of children addressing adults — a Southern combination of being polite, showing respect and recognizing age — took some getting used to when I became the subject.

I grew up in the Chicago area and my wife in a smaller Illinois city along the Mississippi River. Our three Atlanta-born children, who range in age from 22 to 30, were not raised to use this honorific.

So, when this child says hello to “Mr. Dave,” I find it cute, even though I recognize that, to her, I must appear to be an old man.

While, yes, I carry a card in my wallet that entitles me to begin sentences with the phrase “I remember when,” I do not think of myself as old. That said, too many conversations with friends include mention of this person’s health or that person’s death. I admit that the younger me would kick my behind in the swimming pool or on the tennis court. And with only one haircut in the past year, what has grown longer in the back has continued to retreat from the front. On the other hand, I do think myself a better writer than when my professional life began more than four decades ago.

I still find it a bit unsettling that the people in television ads for pharmaceuticals and Medicare plans appear close to my age. Some of you will understand when I say that Joe Namath was a terrific quarterback and cut quite the dashing figure back in the day, but the next time he appears on my television screen as a pitchman I am going to scream.

In my 20s I became aware of a group called the Gray Panthers, who had little tolerance for television advertising or entertainment programs that depicted people of a certain age as nothing but physically frail and mentally diminished, making them ripe for stereotypes and laugh tracks. I found such depictions offensive then and I do now, even more so. If you wonder what that certain age is, consider that in television the demographic most sought after by advertisers is ages 25 to 54.

The most obvious insight in articles on the subject is that what people consider to be old depends on their own age. In a 2017 study, Millennials pegged old age at 59, Gen Xers said 65, and the Baby Boom and silent generations settled on 73. Then there was the 2018 survey in which American women ages 16 to 34 identified old age for women as 61 years old, while men ages 16 to 34 felt that men were old at 56.

To the latter I say, get off of my lawn.

The Bible tells us: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10). Moses is said to have written those words toward the end of his 120 years. Then again, the Bible also says that Adam lived 930 years and Noah 950.

Sergei Scherbov and Warren Sanderson, demographers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, developed a measurement based on what they called “prospective age.” In their book, “Prospective Longevity: A New Vision of Population Aging,” they wrote that chronological age “tells us [only] how long we’ve lived so far.” In a 2015 article, Scherbov and Sanderson said, “We categorize people as being ‘old’ not at age 65, but when people at their age have an average of 15 more years to live.”

As the number on the odometer climbs, there is a natural desire to think of yourself as younger than your chronological age. You may be told that that age is only a state of mind, though the body has an unwelcome habit of offering physical evidence to the contrary.

The face I see in the mirror is mine, though not exactly the one I remember looking back at me in early adulthood or at half my chronological age. I would like to think that the creases represent wisdom and perspective gained, and not just wear and tear.

The changes that have come with age are obvious to me. But they don’t say that “Mr. Dave” is old.

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