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Redefining the frisky, frail and fragile

A few weeks ago I spent several hours talking with a group of women my age. At least I thought they were. We talked about our life experiences in exceptionally straight-forward terms. I did not know much about any of these gray-headed age peers when the discussion began. When it ended, I knew them well — and myself better.

The woman I thought was the youngest — probably early to mid- 60s is how I had pegged her-- was actually 79. The high-energy, wispy-haired waif of a woman was a death doula.

There was a retired college professor, and a still-working mechanic. These women shared stories that were spirit-lifting. Stoic behaviors in the face of domestic violence, divorce and houselessness. One woman had lived out of her car for over a year. The common denominator seemed to be women helping women.

When the talk is about women (or men) who are aging, the term “older adult” is used a lot. It’s the way to refer to people who aren’t “middle-aged” anymore, but don’t feel comfortable with (or ready for) the other frequently used words. “Senior” doesn’t resonate, and “elder” should not be applied earlier than deserved. When I made that statement as part of the woman-to-woman discussion, I got head-nodding and a little hand-clapping.

Here’s what research says. The “young-old” population is thought of as people age 65-74. Sometimes gerontologists call that group “frisky.” I like that thought. Older adults 75-84 are termed “old-old” and are frequently (but not always) referred to as “frail.” They are much more likely to have chronic conditions such as heart disease or arthritis. Research often states the average 75-year- old has three chronic conditions and takes five prescription medications. Research does not comment as much on the 75- year-olds (at least the ones I know) who may be frail of body but are off-the-charts full of spirit.

The “oldest-old” group (and the fastest-growing population, demographically) are people 85 and older. Some gerontologists term that group of people “fragile.” And in a way it’s true, as half of them may need some assistance with activities of daily living. But half of them don’t. In fact, the majority of people I know who are approaching 85 or older are anything but fragile. There was a 70-something person in my group of women discussants who jet-skied.

Think about this. There’s a 30-year span between, let’s say 65 and 95 years of age. In the same way we would not lump a 5-year-old and a 35-year- old into the same category, we can’t lump the “youngest-old, oldest-old, old-old” into one group.

We need to keep talking — reconsider the roles and responsibilities that go with each of the various later-in-life stages. Can the frisky provide more of the caregiving for the fragile? And can they be better supported, financially and otherwise, in doing that?

Perhaps frail older women can partner with one another in cooperative housing ventures? Better yet, perhaps we can re-invent “frail” and “fragile,” so there’s fewer of both.

Women helping women. We have only just begun. Watch this space.

Sharon Johnson is a retired health educator. Reach her at sharjohn99@gamail.com.