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Reconsidering Today's Older Generation

I now consider mid-70s as "prime of life." Women in their 70s take brisk walks in cute yoga pants, work out at gyms, and go zip-lining in the Amazonian Rain Forest.
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Apparently the elderly are everywhere -- at least that's what all my friends now tell me. So why am I not seeing them?

First of all, as I reflected on the "old ladies" of my youth (with the exception of Mrs. Slade, who I maintain vehemently was not a day under 102), the others, I think, were not that old. Certainly not "old old," as we say these days. I now consider mid-70s as "prime of life," and in particular women in their 70s take brisk walks in cute yoga pants, work out at gyms, and go zip-lining in the Amazonian Rain Forest. Believe me, Mrs. Henderson would have done no such thing. Gone are the days of the black lace-up "granny shoes," the gray hair in an intimidating bun, the glasses at the end of the nose, and the rigid purses held in the crook of an arm, rendering it unable to carry groceries.

My dear friend's 87-year-old father has finally reduced his daily outdoor bicycle workout (in Rhode Island) to 10 miles from 20. My 83-year-old, white-haired mother was offended last month as she marched briskly through the airport carrying a bag on each shoulder (and boy, does she walk briskly), when a flight attendant stopped her and asked if she needed a wheelchair. "How old did she think I was?" my mother asked. Probably 83, I thought.

But on a more serious note, when I attended a concert at the Baltimore Symphony last week, instead of getting lost in my own rush-around schedule, I took a moment to look around. Three quarters of the audience had white hair. At least half of the ads in the playbill were for aging facilities of one kind or another. The orchestra performs regularly at a gorgeous new, state-of-the-art concert hall in an affluent suburb in Maryland, and the filled-to-overflowing aging communities that abound nearby send buses of their residents to the concerts.

Similarly, my friends who are churchgoers reported in that their congregations are filled with older adults, a trend they worry about because the younger generation isn't embracing religious organizations with the same regularity that their parents did. Another friend reminded me that they're at the post office every day when it opens -- email, faxes, texts and electronic bill pay aren't so much a part of their consciousness. And, of course, they don't have UPS pickup at their offices where they can just deposit the reject shoes to be returned to Zappos.

But I still notice that while older people are "around," they're not woven into the everyday life of most of us under age 60. There's an "us" and "them" tone in how we talk about older people these days. People remark on older adults' ubiquity the same way they talk about how deer have overpopulated suburban parks -- as if they're a different species that co-exists, but doesn't mesh with our over-scheduled, tech-dependent lives. I know dozens of older people -- former teachers, elite athletes, successful executives -- who have offered to provide their time to their communities for free -- coaching, tutoring, mentoring -- and have been told either that they're services don't "fit" into any existing program, or that they can only participate by filling out a web form and being willing to receive texts for updates on schedules. Not terribly welcoming.

In a talk he delivered at TED about super agers, Dan Buettner identifies a few "Blue Zones," communities where elders routinely live to 100 or older, leading an active and healthy life. While diet and exercise (and, no doubt, genetics) play a critical role in achieving such rewarding longevity, he found that perhaps the most critical element was inclusion in and respect from the multigenerational community that surrounded them. Rather than becoming "other than" or "unable to," the elderly are the aspirational model, the wise, omniscient arbiter of good judgment and pragmatic thinking. They are at the center, not at the margin.

Maybe what I'm missing is intergenerational friendship. I didn't care that Mrs. Hewitt was ancient, and she didn't care that I was 12. We loved hundreds of things in common and we took care of each other. At a time when I needed to forget pre-teen angst and get lost in an idea, and she needed to forget that she was old and blind and scared, we joined up. I don't think I'm kidding myself by believing that she valued the friendship as much as I did. And I deeply hope that when I'm old and blind and still have stories to tell, that a 12-year-old will come share hers with me as well.

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