In my sixties, I wrote a book called Getting Old, about my experience of aging. I knew I wasn’t very old yet, but I wanted to get a head start on facing up to it. After the book came out, I received lots of invitations to talk about the subject. Without meaning to, I became a professional oldster. I had to take a break from it.
Now, I’ve come back to the topic. I have no choice really—if you keep breathing, you keep getting older. This is not necessarily bad—especially when you consider the alternative—but it’s oddly surprising; the relentlessness of time passing. You can take a break from thinking about getting old, but you can’t take a break from actually doing it.
The days keep going by, marking their passage on your body. You’re continually stepping forward into the next piece of your life, going through gate after gate. The best advice is to stay curious about what’s happening. This is my one and only chance, in this lifetime, to find out what it’s like to be 71.
“Age may wrinkle the face, but lack of enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.”
You’re alive until you’re dead. Each day is another chance. Think of yourself as an explorer. You are going further and deeper. You’ve never been through this next gate—it’s not just more of the same. What will it be?
You don’t have a choice about making this journey. You can’t go back. It’s like those metal barbs they put in parking lot gates—you can’t back up without ruining your tires.
I had a double knee replacement last year. In the rehab center, I found myself in a tangle of pain and helplessness—a tangle often experienced by the frail elderly, though unlike them, I could expect to get better, not worse. This could be a rehearsal, I thought. And, there were nurses—Zoraya, Chizoba, Khadriya—who took care of my most intimate and desperate needs. Take Zoraya, for example. She wasn’t afraid of my body in pain, as I collapsed over my walker at 3 a.m., in the hell realm of constipation. She came close. I won’t tell you how close.
I got curious and asked them about their lives. They told me their amazing stories that took me beyond myself. They came all the way from Honduras, Tanzania, Afghanistan, and now they were washing my back.
I’m 71. I’m practicing saying how old I am because there’s a taboo against it. But people in their 90s are likely to boast of their age. They deserve credit for just being alive. What does it feel like to be really old?
That’s the blunt question I asked Nancy, a good friend’s mother, who is 93. She said she just started thinking of herself as old. “But a couple of months ago I was still taking the bus all over New York, and walking over to the Metropolitan Museum, my home away from home.” From Nancy’s point of view, when she was 92, she wasn’t old yet.
I asked Nancy how she sustains herself. She said she has a lust for life. She’s a devoted New Yorker, and she reads the New York Times every day—without glasses! She’s an artist. “When I’m in the studio, it’s the only time I completely lose myself.”
Most of all, she’s curious. She loves to learn about people and their interesting lives. She makes new friends all the time—the doorman, store clerk, or physical therapist. “At my age, when you’re losing a lot of people, it’s important to make new friends. Human beings’ stories are endlessly fascinating.”
My friend Frieda is another example of someone with a great attitude. She’s 74, on her own, with no family in the U.S. She has Parkinson’s Disease and other health problems. She’s retired and lives alone in a small house that isn’t paid off. She’ll soon have to make a change, but she doesn’t yet know where she’ll live or what she’ll live on.
Does she mope around? No! She took me along with her to a New Year’s Eve party. She dressed up, with makeup, an iridescent scarf, sequins, bangles, and dangly earrings. When I was younger, I used to like to dance at parties, but now I feel stiff in body as well as mind, so I left early. Not Frieda. She told me the next day that she danced until midnight—with her two artificial hips and one artificial knee. She’s interested in life.
Old age can be a good time to look back on one’s life and review the narrative, but I have a bad habit of dwelling on past mistakes, and so for me, retrospection is dangerously mixed with regret. The older you get the more things you have to regret, if that’s your bent. And bent is the word for it.
Recently, while meditating, I had a powerful vision of myself bent under the weight of the chains of regret, slowing me down. One chain is inscribed with the name of Mr. X, one chain is a terrible thing I said to my child, another is the friend I neglected.
“As I started getting older, I realized, I’m so happy! I didn’t expect this! I wasn’t happy when I was young.”
I felt the weight of these chains, how they cut into my hands and dug into my shoulders, how my back was bowed and my legs were bent. Suddenly I said to myself, “Drop the chains of regret! You don’t have to bring them with you.” And I saw myself standing tall and walking forward into the next piece of my life. I’ve been taller since that day.
I was recently complaining to Frieda, the one who still loves to dance, about the fact that my children and grandchildren live so far away. “I would be so much happier if they lived nearby,” I said.
Her response shocked me. “Happiness is overrated. You can’t always be happy, and that’s okay. That’s life. Just live your life. You’ve been unhappy sometimes in the past. Do you regret those parts of your life? Do you regret the experiences that made you unhappy?” To let go of measuring happiness—what a relief!
People do try to measure it, though. I read a study that says happiness picks up significantly at 60, and that after 70, people get really happy. People in their 70s and 80s are happier than at any other time of life. When I turned 70 over a year ago, I missed the fact that I was crossing a big threshold of happiness, but I’m glad I read about this study, because now I know how happy I am!
What is it, really, that makes old people happier? A friend of mine and her first love re-met, after not seeing each other for 50 years. They fell in love again in their late 60s. She let go of her old life in California, her habits, her home and her job, and she moved to Germany to live with him. Now they are married, and they live half the year in Germany, and half the year in California. They are happy. How is this possible? It has to do with going for what’s most important. Letting go of constraints and being curious about what’s going to happen next.
Theirs is a remarkable story, but for all of us, getting old is about letting go. Of regrets, of unachieved ambitions, of self-centeredness. My ego doesn’t whine as much as it used to, and this makes it easier to hear what other people are saying. I can’t claim to be completely free of self-concern, but it’s getting boring after all these years. And no matter what you have to let go of, no matter what you lose—your hearing, your vision, your memory, your mobility—you don’t lose the ability to love. You might even get better at it.
The letting go includes letting go of always wanting to be happy. The more I put happiness aside, the more easily I can settle with what is. The more I let go of being happy, the happier I am.
It doesn’t matter how old you are. The numbers don’t describe the person. I have a lot of other traits besides being 71. When you taste your first cup of tea or coffee in the morning, you are neither old nor young.
When you walk in the wetlands with a friend and a group of swans take flight, and you hear the amazing clatter of their wings, you are neither old nor young. You are alive. When you are making something—red lentil soup, a valentine for your granddaughter— you a “114 isn’t as old as it re neither old nor young.