10/03/2011 12:11 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2011

It's True: You're Not Old (But How About Your Mom?)

Sixty is the new 40 -- isn't it? If you have any doubts, just pick up a copy of any aging magazine and you'll be bombarded with offers to go zip-lining in the Amazonian Rain Forest as soon as your pension kicks in.

Or take a gander at Susan Lucci, who played Erica Kane on All My Children. (Fess up everybody -- we all know you were cutting class in junior high in order to watch her antics.) Forty years have passed, and she doesn't look a day older than she did when I watched her as a teen. How on earth does she do it?

But someone in your life is old -- actually old, and needs help. She probably can't afford as much assistance as she needs because she's living eight to ten years longer than anyone imagined. And she's isolated and vulnerable -- especially when you head out of town for your adventure travel getaway in Belize.

Believe me, as soon as my kids are off to college, I'm hitting every extreme travel spot I can find. One of my friends ends all of her emails to me, "Bali in 2018, baby." Indeed.

But in 2018, my mom will be 91 -- and likely looking at 10 more years of a life far more limited than anything she'd like to live.

Hence the term, the "old old."

Being "old old" is not a lot of fun. You start to be less able to do the things you used to do easily. The outside world, driven by dizzyingly fast advancements in technology, moves so quickly that you feel hopelessly behind. Every time you make a phone call, you're re-directed to an audio phone tree with 17 choices, none of which address your particular concern, and you're pretty sure it's your fault that you don't know how to get a friendly voice on the other end of the phone.

Your friends sicken and die. You feel uncomfortable driving at night. Your social life grinds to a halt. You become increasingly isolated, and the cycle goes downward. You feel like an idiot. Less and less makes sense. You start to stop trying, but all the Coumadin and Lipitor and Omega 3s you've put through your body are keeping you alive.

Very few people are focused on the "old old" because it's much more fun to focus on the young old. Susan Jacoby's op-ed in the New York Times calls out our shared societal fantasy -- that since doctors have made 60 feel like 40, they'll probably figure out how to make 90 feel like 50 by the time we get there.

Unlikely, as she learned starkly when she took her grandmother out of her nursing home for an afternoon just before her 100th birthday. "'It's good to be among the living again,' Gran said, in a tone conveying not self-pity but her own realistic assessment that she had lived too long to live well."

Jacoby quotes Robert Butler, the first head of the National Institute on Aging: "The trouble with expecting 90 to become the new 50 is it can stop rational discussion -- on a societal as well as individual level -- about how to make 90 a better 90. This fantasy is a lot like waiting for Prince Charming, in that it doesn't distinguish between hope and reasonable expectation."

So how do we make 90 a better 90 for our parents and aunts and uncles as we're a mere 60? Sometimes I think it's that we see our own vulnerabilities in them -- noticing my mother's aging makes me acutely aware that I'm going to be next. Not what I want.

But more importantly, we need to be realistic, not only about our own futures as we grow old, but now, today, about the realities of what our parents and their contemporaries need at a time when our society and health care system are ill-equipped to support people who live longer than they'd like.

The boomers have had a pretty smooth ride compared to most generations in our history. This is the great challenge of the generation -- not just planning for our retirements, but caring for our parents who will live well into our retirements, and supporting each other as we all embark on our unique caregiving journeys.

Fortunately, we're feeling fabulous at 50, so we can take on the task.