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Reacting to the issue of age

Published February 01. 2014 09:00AM

Well, it happened again: Newspaper readers saw for themselves how vastly different we are in our perception of "old age."

A headline in a recent Southwest Florida paper read: "Elderly man injured in motorcycle accident."

The first paragraph of the story told us the "elderly man" was 60 years of age.

I snorted when I saw that, thinking once again that the paper doesn't have a clue about readers' sensitivities.

Of course it would not have been politically correct for me to say anything. I work there as a weekly columnist and I don't want to criticize my colleagues.

But I was happy to see a letter to the editor reacting to the "elderly" headline.

"How old was the person who wrote the story? Twelve?" questioned the reader.

Just for the record, the writer was twenty-something. Perhaps to someone that age, 60 is "elderly."

For the most part, the staffs on many small papers are young. They view the world through lenses that won't be clouded with cataracts for at least a few decades. When that time does come, their perception of "old age" will have been greatly altered.

Just for fun, I interviewed some senior citizens, asking them what age they consider to be "elderly."

Most thought we get to be "elderly" at 80. But those I interviewed who were already 80 weren't ready to concede they were "elderly."

It's interesting the way our concept of old age has changed over the years.

When actress Andrea Martin learned "Pippin" was being revived on Broadway and was going to be staged as a circus, she wanted a part.

But when she was offered the role of Pippin's grandmother, Berthe, she balked.

The role called for her to be "a little old 66-year-old lady" in a wheelchair singing about aging.

"I am the age the character is singing about, and in the 40 years since the show first ran, 66 has changed," she said.

She further argued that it's now common for people to live to be in their 90s - and for many people, 90 today is nothing like it was decades ago.

She made her point well and the role was rewritten for her to be what they called "a granny with attitude." She even gets to do a trapeze act without the benefit of silks or wires.

I agree with her point about 90 being nothing like it once was.

My maternal grandmother died at 90. But to me she was "old" for about three decades before that. Mostly, she sat on the porch on a rocker and chatted with her friends.

Besides cooking, I don't know one other activity she did.

All around me I see today's 90-year-olds enjoying an active life. I keep a photo on the desktop of my computer that shows my friend Ginger in a stunning turquoise cocktail dress dancing with my husband.

Ginger is 93. And her only complaint in life is that all her dancing partners are dying off and she doesn't get to dance every number like she used to.

Ginger still dances like her namesake, Ginger Rogers, and I feel good just watching her.

My friends Ed and Debbie Higgins are terrific kayakers who gladly give their time to teach others to kayak.

What pleases Ed, he says, are the number of 80-year-olds who come to him and ask if they are too old to learn kayaking.

"They get in a kayak and love being on the water. I'm amazed at how many people like that go out and buy kayaks," Ed says. "A whole new world opens up to them."

To help beginner kayakers know where to go kayaking, Ed and Deb just wrote a book called "Paddles in Paradise." It's about the best places to paddle in Southwest Florida.

I love what Ed wrote in the forward of the book:

"Our children and grandchildren think we are down here in Florida growing old. Boy, have we and our friends fooled them," he wrote.

Just for the record, I think Ed is sixty-something but I'm not exactly sure. Age isn't something that normally comes up.

Oh, sure, we make vague jokes about age. We say things like, "What can you expect at our age?"

But truth be told, we all expect quite a lot.

We expect to go dancing several times a week, we expect to go kayaking at least once a week, and we expect to bike at least 20 miles as many times a week as we have time.

Our days are more limited by time constraints than by age.

We do complain about slowing down and the fact that we can't last as long at physical things as we could ten years ago.

My husband, who can kayak four hours without tiring, complains that he can't go for six hours like he used to.

None of us offer him any pity because we're all at the stage where we tire after two hours of paddling in the heat.

Today, as David came in the door from biking 25 miles in the wind, he complained: "I'm getting old. I have to work a lot harder to do this."

I told him he's not getting old.

He's getting older.

We all are.

We get older every day.

But are we "elderly?"

Only to 12-year-old newspaper writers.

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