I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about what it actually means to get old. No, not just older, but "old." We all get older. That's a good thing. But when are we actually considered old? And just who defines it, anyway? I've heard it said that you truly start to get old when you stop learning and growing. If that's the case, I'm in my late-twenties.
We have plenty of euphemisms and adjectives attached to getting old. We are considered elderly. We are aging. In Canada, we are ageing, with an "e." We are called geezers. We are viewed as ancient, curmudgeonly, frail, forgetful, slow of gait, etc., etc. Our hair turns gray, then white, then poof it's gone. Our breasts sag, our eyes droop, our ears get bigger, our bones get brittle, our hearing goes, our eyesight falters, our tummies bulge, our memory fades, no, wait. Those are stereotypical attributes that cannot possibly be used generically. Can they?
And what about this phenomenon around anti-aging? We have anti-aging face creams, skin creams, foods, medicines, supplements, pills, diets, hormones, and even anti-aging systems (whatever that is). My favorites of course, are the age-defying products. Like gravity, let's defy age. Don't believe these things exist? Google it. They are all there. Why are we trying to fight the aging process? Why do we think that aging is a bad thing? Why do we want to hide it? Is it because we view it as some sort of disease? Is it?
Maybe it's because I work in an organization dedicated to supporting older Americans or maybe it's because I am now in my sixties and surrounded by so many young people on my staff who may view me as old. Yes, I am older than they are, but dammit, I'm not old, or at least I don't feel like it. Or am I? And if I am, what's so bad about that? It's not like I have some sort of disease or something...
I've got all these questions about this, but the only ones that I can ask the questions of are people who are my age or older. Why? If I ask the younger folks, they are still convinced it's not going to happen to them, and when they look at me confused, well then I really feel old. And there I go again. What does it mean to feel old? Why does it matter?
My mother once told me that when the President of the United States is younger than you are, you are old. In her case, it was when she realized that John F. Kennedy was so much younger than she was. She loved Ronald Reagan being an "older gentleman." We never talked politics; only age. But now here I am with a very young man in the White House. He's way younger than I am. I'm heartened, however, because his hair is beginning to "show signs of aging." Yep, his hair is turning white. But, it's not because he is aging so dramatically. It's because the stress that comes with that job is showing its effects. So, maybe, just maybe the outward signs of aging are totally insignificant. Maybe we ought to realize that it really is what is inside that matters. The wisdom thing may, in fact, be important. But I digress.
And where am I going with all these musings? Well I think we really ought to give more thought to an issue that we are trying to sweep under the rug. We have a population that is getting older and older. I'm looking at a workforce that is getting smaller and smaller paying into a retirement pool that is getting shallower and shallower. Those people who are 65 and older numbered 39.6 million in 2009. And those who will reach 65 over the next two decades, increased by 26 percent during this decade alone.
While I think a great deal about the whimsical nature of getting older, I am at once brought back to Earth by the policy and social implications of an aging population. Over one in every eight persons or 12.9 percent of the population of the United States is an older American. Older women outnumber older men by quite some margin. And interestingly enough, older men were much more likely to be married than older women -- 72 percent of men vs. 42 percent of women. Almost half of all older women age 75 and older actually live alone. Almost half a million grandparents who are 65 and older have the primary responsibility for raising their grandchildren. Just this week we were informed that the Census numbers for seniors living in poverty were wrong. In fact, the numbers are higher than we were led to believe. The fact is that the poverty rates among seniors are rising to 13.8 percent from 9 percent.
So there you have it. While I have been spending a lot of time thinking about getting old, too many of those who need to spend time thinking about these issues, don't.
Our policymakers need to look at the implications of a society that is changing and changing dramatically. According to U.N. estimates and if fertility continues to decline, in 2050 for the first time in our history, there will be more old than young. What are the potential economic, social and health impacts of this fast approaching transition? Where do my Meals On Wheels programs fit into an aging paradigm that is not going to resemble what we see today? What does the future hold for the millions and millions of us who are getting older and are officially considered "old"?
I've certainly posed more questions than answers here. Maybe that means I'm still young? In any case, I'm rushing out to the store right now to stock up on the anti-aging creams and lotions that will make me at least think I'm looking younger.
*well-known refrain from the famous Beatles song, "When I'm Sixty Four."
Enid Borden is the President and CEO of Meals On Wheels Association of America.
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