One Tuesday in May, I wound up at Bethesda North’s emergency room at 3 a.m. The ER is never a place you want to be, and definitely not at 3 a.m. My lower back and right hip flexor were in excruciating pain, and my right thigh was numb. As for what caused this agony? Gardening. Lifting a pot that was too heavy but wasn’t really that heavy at all.
You’d think the refrain on a loop in my head would have been, I’m in pain, I’m in pain, I’m in pain. Why am I in so much pain? But instead, it was this: I am old, I am old, I am old. How did I get so old?
“Old” is relative. By it, I mean I’m not the Judi who could do all the things she used to do without a second thought, like lifting barely heavy pots and pulling weeds and running up and down stairs with confidence and sitting on a barstool without a back. Where did she go? Did my 40s swallow her, or is it down to having bad luck over a couple of years: broken bones and tendonitis and freaky skin infections and what looks like it might be the start of a bunion on my left foot and heartburn in the middle of the night if I eat before bed and not remembering actors’ names? Are these anomalies, or a picture of my future?
I don’t want to be one of those people who bemoan getting older and refuse to celebrate birthdays. And by those people, I’m referring to my husband. I love the man something fierce, but wow. He really goes on (and on) about how depressing he finds aging to be.
I want to embrace my third act. Fourth act? I’ve lost track of how the acts work and what act I’ll be in next. The point is, I want to love my age no matter what it is. But I can’t get beyond one basic fact that surprises me, gnaws at me, and sits on my chest during heartburn resulting from the terrible decision to eat a bowl of potato chips before bed: I am scared. Scared that the best years are not ahead of me, the way I’ve always assumed they are.
Suddenly, I’m forced to make the case to myself that getting older is a terrific deal, the way one might peddle an older model sedan with “Well-maintained, runs great” written on the windshield. My inner car salesperson knows just what to say: Tell me, Judi, what do I have to do to put you in old age?
Older people are invisible. Not so much individual older people, like those who happen to be President. But as a group.
To be fair, older people have never been invisible to the geriatricians, the anthropologists, the younger people with old souls. But so many of us are like Muggles on Platform 9¾, walking around in oblivion while wizards run full speed with owls in tow. The difference is that the non-magic can’t become magic but, barring premature death, the young always become old. And yet most of us walk along the platform right up until we need reading glasses to see that it says 9¾.
It’s why I’m now intentionally noticing older people. I’m defining “older” by something like age 74 and up, but it’s a look more than a number. Paying better attention is one way to be less ageist and more aware of the needs of older people. My car salesperson alter ego is also searching for potential previews of my elder years. I’m especially observant at the Y, where I go to swim laps and take a strength-training class. I do both in the middle of the day, since I work from home, which means a good many of the people I see working out or swimming alongside me are retired.
That alone makes me happy. You’ll have more time when you’re old! I sell myself hard. More flexibility to do things in the middle of the day!
Except as a person who’s been self-employed for 20 years, I already have flexibility. Which is why I’m there. So perhaps that’s a wash. But wait, there’s more! Older people also seem to know each other. They talk to each other. Catch up on weekend happenings. Community, I think. Friendship.
I turn these ideas around in my mind and start a mental list of what to try to avoid in old age. Don’t become a hermit. Don’t isolate. Don’t find yourself in the middle of a pandemic when you’re 80. What are the chances it would happen again? (I don’t answer that.)
I also find myself paying more attention to the way older people move. Slower, yes. More deliberate, yes. But also with a kind of confidence that comes from living on Earth longer. There are a few women I regularly see swimming laps who I’m guessing are in their late 70s. One has a pink cap, a navy suit, and a smooth breaststroke. She could have been an Olympic swimmer in her day for all I know. So maybe she’s an anomaly. But her attitude catches my eye more than her technique. She dives right in, with no squirming around because the water is too cold.
Persistence. Showing up. Taking a hold of a challenge. I know how to do these things. So how do I safeguard them so that I can become my pink-capped role model?
The other thing I’m doing is talking a lot about death and widowhood. I have a financial services client who hired me to write a series of pieces about how women need to take special care to prepare for retirement and understand financial matters—since research shows that eight out of 10 women will wind up solely responsible for their finances. At first, I thought that was macabre. Then I decided I should understand what this stock market thing is.
That’s all fine for the financial services blogosphere, but it turns out these are not popular topics of conversation with people in their 30s. I have a younger group of friends who are newer friends to me, but I’ve come to cherish them. Our Slack group seemed like the perfect place to start a conversation about preparing for eventual widowhood—financially and emotionally. After all, women have longer life expectancies than men; according to the U.S. Census Bureau, among those who’d ever been married, 54 percent of women over 75 were widows, whereas only 19 percent of men over 75 were.
It only took a few horrified responses to realize that I was inflicting trauma on my millennial girlfriends. Oops, sorry! I said. Well, I’m not really that sorry. But you know millennials, with their participation trophies and insistence on not thinking about dead spouses.
Which brings me to the thing I’m holding up as The Best Part of Being Old. The thing I am banking on being true; if it is, hand over the keys to the old-age sedan! I’m talking, of course, about that unique ability to Just Not Care What Others Think. I don’t mean harming others or making up lies that get people killed, like at least one older person who used to be President is doing with his old age. I mean really and truly accepting and loving who you are and walking around the world with a beautiful “Take it or leave it” confidence.
But I wonder if the confidence comes at the cost of relevance. That it’s only easier to embrace who you are because the world has decided to stop noticing you. Sure, we never stopped noticing Betty White. But she was freaking Betty White. What chances do the unfunny masses of us stand?
Can’t we have both spunk and spotlight? Why does one have to be at the cost of the other? And while we’re at, can I figure out something to do about the osteoporosis lurking in my genetic code?
This is the point at which my inner car salesperson worries she’s losing the sale. She tries to throw in wheel polish and an extended warranty. The concern is misplaced, though, because my buy-in isn’t necessary. The car will get delivered to my driveway one day no matter what I say or do.
But my exercise isn’t for nothing. I have a friend—a fellow creative for hire—who calls the first part of any project, when you’re trying to get to know the client and the scope of the work, “Getting not dumb.” I’m getting not dumb about getting older. Step one: Make young people lift all the heavy pots.