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'We are all old people in training'

My parents are long deceased. Throughout their lives, they never had a lot of money, but they definitely had a lot of friends.

People of all ages initiated relationships with them that lasted decades. Many of those long-held friends and their adult children and grandchildren still stay in touch — with me. Our mailbox is always full of newsy cards and letters during the holidays.

Yesterday, I received a correspondence on a blaze-orange piece of paper with a tiny graphic of autumn leaves embedded in one corner. It was from my mother’s dear friend Vernice Lindquist. She was sending out earlier-than-usual holiday greetings to announce she had moved and offered up her new address to ensure her holiday mailbox would be full this year.

She called her relocation a “big move,” indicating “the new apartment is about the same size as my old one, except there’s no kitchen.” She was clearly pleased with the fact that she could “just walk out the front door and the coffee pot is on ”

She never referred to her changed location as “assisted living,” and the organized clarity of her letter suggested she did not need much assistance. She reported she had celebrated her “last double-digit birthday,” and her 100th birthday was in February of 2020. A birthday card “would be welcome.”

It was a delightful letter to receive and it carried an “older is better” message that resonated with me. The word “old” can often be a negative descriptor. It is ironic to me that we start being called “old” between the ages of 60 and 70. And that is a point in our lives where we will likely live 30 to 40 more productive years. We are, in fact, going to be older much longer than we were younger.

There’s a frequently cited story of the professor who asked his 20-something first-year medical students to write down words that came to mind when they thought of someone “old.” He did that every year and always got the same responses, “wrinkled, bent-over, slow-moving, bald etc.” Interestingly, when he asked them to do the same thing with the word “elder,” the responses were “wisdom,” “respect,” “power” and “knowledge.”

I draw the above illustrations from a book I’m reading titled, “Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life” by a Harvard-based geriatrician, Louise Aronson. It is full of stories about aging optimally — and not.

There’s one story that stood out for me. It is about the author’s dog Byron, who at age 14 was “half-blind, partially deaf, with dementia, arthritis and an enlarged prostate.” The decision she faced was whether to “put Byron to sleep.” Their vet counseled them on the “50 percent rule.” The veterinarian questioned — “Were at least half of Byron’s days good ones, or was it two bad days for every good?”

The author took pause at that counsel for two reasons. First: Maybe 50 percent was just fine for Byron — who knew? Second: Recalling her own patients, those who were “the oldest, frailest and sickest” of elders were often “quite satisfied with their lives.”

I am not sure this book has enough answers, but it raises the right questions. Most importantly, as the author reminds us, “We are all old people in training.”

Sharon Johnson is a retired health educator. Reach her at sharon@rbtrv.org.