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Being Old Is Full of Beautiful Surprises

The author at 70 catalogs how she’s acting her age


It seems as though everyone I know is talking about death. We are also talking about how, to our surprise, death seems more like the houseguest who won’t leave than the grim reaper. That’s the big difference about being over 70. Death is more of a presence — an active presence — and less of a threat than it was when we were 60. As my friend Robin puts it, when time is running out, we are blessed with the “gift of urgency.”

The bromide that “you are as young as you feel” has passed its use-by date for us. We are old — literally. That is not a judgment, just a fact. If someone who is 12 or 20 is young, someone who is 70 or 80 is old. Put it this way: If I died tomorrow, no one reading my obituary would think I had died before my time. The mantra for this stage is “as long as you have your health.”

‘Every Day is a Gift’

Being old is full of surprises. I never expected that when my glass was half full chronologically, it would feel so full emotionally. I am happier than I have ever been — or can remember.

This stage of life is as frightening and confusing as I anticipated, but I didn’t expect the serenity and gratitude that come with it.

Science confirms this. Studies are showing that people over 60 or 70 report being happy more of the time than those in their 20s or 30s. One explanation is that we have achieved a ‘What, Me Worry?’ outlook — we don’t sweat the (bad) small stuff; at the same time we are paying more attention to the (good) small stuff. Gratitude for what we’ve got today and awareness of what tomorrow may hold concentrates our attention on the moment. The message on my favorite coffee mug is “Every day is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”

The Perks of Being 70

If our thinking has changed, does our behavior show it? Here are some signs that I am acting my age:

Hypotheticals that used to be premised on “if” now begin with “when.”

I take a seat when offered. I take a nap because I can.

“Still” becomes an operative word — are you still working? Can I still ski? But I am still here.

I am ready to wear a bathing suit again. I have nothing to hide anymore.

I hold onto handrails.

I smile when I am by myself.

I have become unpredictable. I blurt out “yes,” “sure” or “why not?” to suggestions I would have said “no way” or “out of the question” to when I was in my 50s. And vice versa.

I can only do one thing at a time. Doing one thing at a time is a refreshing change from multitasking; I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.

I admit to being a crazy cat lady.

I have lost interest in tending to resentments, false pride, unfulfilled dreams and expectations, responsibilities that are outdated or never really mattered as much as I thought they did back then. I just don’t have time for stale emotional clutter.

I’ve become fiendish about getting rid of stuff. Not because I have become the housekeeper I never was, but because I the process reveals the gold amidst the dross — what I will need going forward. Keepsakes are only as valuable as memories I still cherish. Things are only as important as the new experiences they can serve.

I know who my friends are. And that they are a priority.

I am more tolerant of human failings, including my own. The great advantage of this outlook is that I can take criticism — which used to throw me off for days — with a shrug. My mantra: “That’s who I am, and I’m not going to change now that I am 70.”

I have a better sense of how the world works. “Most people are neither for you nor against you; they are thinking about themselves,” civic leader John Gardner pointed out. “You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then quite relaxing.”

Much about getting old is like that — “troubling at first” then “relaxing.” This stage of life is just as dangerous, frightening and confusing as I anticipated, but what I didn’t expect is the serenity, confidence and gratitude that come with it.

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