When she was 85, my feisty aunt announced she was planning on having "an eyelid job." I believe my reaction was to spit out the mouthful of the tea she had just served and ask that she please repeat what she said.
"Oh yes," she informed me. "Everyone is doing it." In fact, "everyone" was doing it. She had talked most of her Mah Jongg group and her sister -- my 81-year-old aunt -- into all having it done. They were hoping to make an outing of it and all go together to a plastic surgery factory -- I mean clinic -- near the retirement community where they lived. She was envisioning a girlfriends' day at the spa and I was envisioning an assembly line of octogenarians on guerneys wearing blue paper hospital gowns and shower caps who would all wake up needing to wear sunglasses for a week.
I was also worried about what this said about my aunts' attitude toward aging. The idea of getting an eyelid job may have had some tangential medical validity, but everyone from the doctor to my aunt and her friends understood it for what it really was: A desire to diminish an obvious sign of aging.
I admit that at the end of the eyelid surgery tunnel, both my aunts looked younger with their new firmer eyelids and the bags removed from under their eyes. They loved the results and both of them told me that the surgery left them feeling more energized. I was skeptical until I saw the skip in their step and came to the realization that looking 10 years younger helped them feel 10 years younger. Neither of them could walk past a mirror without doing a double-take and smile at their reflection. If it made them happy, it made me happy. Clearly for my aunts, having eyelid jobs was not about how they looked; it was about how it made them feel.
And the experience was enough to make me edit my mental note that had said "never get eyelid surgery" and at least add a question mark to it. More to the point, I was also reminded that until I walk in someone else's orthopedic shoes, I'm better off not judging them.
Which is where I'm at now. Lately, I've been hearing about how so many more people are living longer -- 100 or better -- and frankly, I don't see the attraction. Forbes just reported that gerontologist Nir Barzilai at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine has been studying why people live into their triple digits. The short answer is that while diet and lifestyle choices play a factor, research shows that it's genetics that determines how long we get to stick around. The genes in my family suggest that I'm here for a good long while -- which I'm not so sure would be my first choice.
I don't think I'm alone in not wanting to be a centenarian. Somewhere along the journey, can't we just say we've had enough? According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the United States has the most known centenarians of any nation -- 53,364 or 1.73 per 10,000 people. Most of them -- 82.8 percent of them -- are women.
I wish the Census also asked those folks whether they are having a high old time or whether when they look in the mirror, they see someone they don't know anymore -- someone who, shall we say, needs eyelid surgery?
I don't want to be in a race for longevity. Before I'd drink from a fountain of youth, I'd want to know what my life would look like. Would I still be able to hike with my dog or will my knee hurt too much? Will I be able to write every day without arthritic fingers cramping up? Will I have the energy to travel, the reflexes to drive, the mental faculties to converse? Will I still be interested in the world around me -- and will the world around me still be interested in me?
Will I still go to work? If the work force can't accommodate the few measly boomers who still have jobs to go to every day, what will it do if millions of us start living to 100? I don't really want to spend 35 years working in the garden or looking for activities to fill my day. I want a life with purpose and meaning, a reason to live besides the fact that I simply can.
The lesson I learned from my aunts' eyelid surgeries was this: I don't really care if my eyelids droop, but I do care if my spirit fails. And there is no surgery to fix that.