Listener Essay - On Turning 80

Mar 19, 2015

  Elisabeth Grace, an almost-retired Clinical Social Worker, a writer, birder and gardener, has lived in the United States since 1972 but has deep roots in England and Scotland. She now shares her Columbia County home Molly, a polite blue-eyed cat. 

On Turning Eighty

On a certain day in April 2014 I was still seventy-nine years old. A look at the calendar confirmed that the very next day, I would turn eighty. It seemed kind of exciting-- a new decade, a nice round number divisible by four, a neat and tidy figure. Thinking about it even gave me a slight sense of achievement; not everyone is lucky enough to arrive safely at that destination, and I was active in many fields, healthy and for the most part comfortable with my station in life. Of course, I had suffered my share of losses: my life-partner, family members and beloved friends, animal companions, several teeth and most of my hearing. I had weathered the C's and M's of late middle age, the cataract surgeries and colonoscopies, the Medicare choices and memory lapses. I slept less and read more. Some of the A's of old age might lie in wait for me, arthritis and the grim prospect of Alzheimer's, but I nevertheless felt very fortunate. I remembered with a smug smile the gloomy remark of an acquaintance twenty years before: “It's all downhill after sixty.” “Not so!” I'd thought then, and I said it to myself again on the 364th day of my 80th year.

I had gone on-line a few weeks before, wondering who else might share my birth-year, and made a list of the celebrities who had already turned, or were about to turn, eighty. I was pleased to share a 2014 anniversary with Judi Dench, Bill Moyers, Alan Bennett, Barrie Humphries, Madhur Jaffrey, Oliver Sacks, Marilyn Horne, Gloria Steinem, Shirley McLaine and others whose names were less familiar to me. I was particularly happy that my compatriot Jane Goodall would have her eightieth birthday a couple of weeks before mine, and I had even sent her on-line greetings like hundreds, perhaps thousands, of her other admirers. To join such an impressive list of active octogenarians made my imminent move into another decade seem more challenging than troubling.

A few more hours passed on the day in question, and suddenly I was eighty. I was on vacation in New Mexico, which somehow added to the feeling of unreality I experienced when I awoke in my room in the Santa Fe Inn, dressed and went down to breakfast, to be serenaded with a round of “Happy Birthdays!”, a greeting, spoken and sung, which would be repeated throughout the day. Never comfortable with being the center of attention, I filled my plate, poured myself some coffee and slunk into my seat, glad when conversation turned to the group's plans for the day.

Since that day at the end of April, I have had time to reflect on what it feels like to be eighty, and have observed that I now view that milestone a little differently. How could the passage of 24 hours have changed my perception, and will I recover the 79-year-old's optimism? I remember how often in the past, while canceling a plan or ruling out a possibility, I have thought or said, “There's always next year.” Now I feel inclined to add, “I hope!” when I postpone something. How many more “next years” will I have?

A few weeks into my 80-year-old life, I sat on the porch steps at dusk as I have done many times each spring, watching for the bats which arrive almost without fail as the sky pales, and criss-cross the space high above my head, hawking for insects. I was reassured when two appeared; the onslaught of the fatal white-nose syndrome has decimated bat colonies across much of the United States. I count on the constancy of certain things like the nightly arrival of the bats, while noting that many things in my environment have changed. There is a spruce tree close to the house which will be cut down soon, having grown from 12 feet tall to a threatening 30 feet over the past 40 years. The house itself now stands centered in an amphitheater of tall trees; even twenty years ago we could look westward over their crowns and across the valley to fields full of grazing cows. Now the view, the cows, and the farm itself are gone. Of course, the changes did not occur all at once, but at a rate so reassuringly slow that I only gradually became aware of them. A year or two ago, considering a move, I caught myself thinking, “How could I leave this house and give up my view?” I had to laugh at myself as I acknowledged that my view no longer exists, stolen by those ever-growing trees.

Around the same time that I sat watching for the bats' return, I came across an article about a British study. 2000 residents of the United Kingdom over the age of 40 were asked what they considered “old.” The average answer was 80, an advance on the age of 68 suggested by previous generations. The respondents were influenced by the active lifestyle of older people, the fact that many delay retirement, and even by familiarity with happily working and playing octogenarians. Just as I did, many people noted names of celebrities who had celebrated their 80th birthdays and saw that for them, as for the population in general, it no longer made sense to link “old age” to retirement. 93% of the people surveyed said that “you're only as old as you feel,” and 82% said that they themselves felt, on average, 11 years younger than their chronological age. I've taken questionnaires that distinguish between chronological age and “real” age, measured in terms of both physical and psychological health; I imagine that the 82%-- a whopping 1640 respondents!-- reflected that distinction.

So I must, and will, come to terms with being 80. I will relish the things I enjoy doing just as much as I did at 69 or 79, and accept that there are things I will decide not to do. I will accept that my physical strength has decreased, but take comfort from the fact that my trust in my own judgment is enhanced by years of experience. I will not beat myself up when I notice that I have become less confident in tackling new things, driving unfamiliar routes. I will allow myself to take time in making major decisions, and to claim the right to change my mind, and to say “No!” I will try to cultivate, in the words of the Serenity Prayer, “the wisdom to know the difference” between the things I can change and the things I can't. I did not like the fact that the average answer given by those 2000 Brits was that eighty equates “old”; I preferred the opinion of the one in five who said that you might be considered “old” when you reached ninety. I'll drink to that-- and at least for now, it won't be from a can of Ensure.