14 September

What It Means To Get Old In America

by Jon Katz

People always approach me, wanting to share the pain and loss of getting old, which makes me happy that I don’t have many friends. I have nothing bad to say about getting old, and I don’t speak poorly of it.

It’s the one thing every human has in common with every other human. I don’t intend to waste much time arguing with other people; there is too much in life worth doing.

For me, growing older is about several things. One is sharing what I have learned. Another is accepting what I have lost. A third is appreciating what I have gained, learned, and experienced.

Grandma Moses was correct when she said life is what you make of it at any age. George Bernard Shaw was also correct when he wrote that we don’t stop laughing when we grow old; we grow old when we stop laughing.

Jon Katz said it doesn’t matter how old you are; it matters how you choose to be old. And believe me when I tell you, it is a choice, no matter what your body says.

Yesterday, I learned that I would have surgery on my foot to remove a bone spur.

As I was leaving the doctor’s office, I heard a nurse saying to another nurse, “because of his age, he has to get the surgery cleared by his cardiologist and his primary care physician, and he needs to get blood work done as well.”

They are worried I’ll drop dead while having my bone spur removed. What irony, I thought, to survive open-heart surgery and be done it by a bone spur.

For a second, I had thought, “poor guy, he’ll be running around like a hungry chicken.” I took a few more steps before I realized she was talking about me.” Wow, I thought, I’m 74, I am old. I have the older man’s belly and sometimes, the old man’s shuffle.

I never thought I’d make it this far. In my life, and at different times, I drank, smoked, gambled, suffered many panic attacks, and upended my life at 60 when I got divorced, left the normal behind, and fled to the country.”

A shrink said he had never seen a human being undertake as much change as I had. I don’t think he was optimistic.

I believe Americans are tough on older adults. We are not allowed in most movies; there are few books about us, no songs, we don’t appear in fashion shows, are never invited to host those TV awards.

When people talk about us, they talk about the million dollars we are supposed to have amassed to age safely,  about dementia, caretaking, and nursing homes. We are expected to fade into the b background, take our medications, visit our doctors and get out of the way.

Children no longer seem to see us when we run into them, and it’s true, so many older adults become invisible over time, as our society often leaves them few roles beyond dying.  I don’t mind any longer when young men and women rush to help me carry heavy bags of dog food out to my car.

I try to mention regularly that I have sex with Maria as often as possible and treasure it. I give thanks to God every time.

Every time I mention sex, someone is horrified at the image of an old bald man daring to have sex at 74 and write about it. Some say the image is disgusting. Nuts to them, They are disgusting. Sex is love; it is a pure celebration of humanity.

Can you believe it? A beautiful, brilliant, loving, and creative person wants to have sex with me, even gets pissed off if I’d rather sleep a while longer?

I won’t be given anybody else’s label, left or right, and I won’t be stuck with anybody else’s idea of me. Few things in life cannot ever be taken from me. That is my identity.

I’m happier than I’ve been at any time in my life. I have a wonderful wife I adore, a daughter and granddaughter to cherish, a blog I love to write on, readers I love to write, photos I love to take, dogs and donkeys I love to live around, good deeds to do every single day.

Like everyone else my age, I have friends who are sick or have died. Rather than grieve their loss, I am grateful that the fates gave them to me to know and that I was and am alive to know them. I’m proud of every one of the 26 books that I wrote and every single hair that I’ve lost.

I am blessed to finally have gotten around to figuring out how to do good (thank you, Donald Trump, for getting me off of my ass).

We all know the downsides of aging; time seems to outrun me sometimes. And, of course, I get closer and closer every day to dying. Death is no longer a remote thing I don’t need t  think about. If I’m lucky, it will be years away.  But it could just as easily be tomorrow. That alters one perspective about what is important and what isn’t.

A doctor told me that you know you are getting old when something hurts every day. I am getting older—every day.

Once in a while, I look back on my regrets, mistakes, lost opportunities, the people I hurt. I’m sorry I didn’t enjoy life more or make better decisions, or treasure time. I worried too much and enjoyed life too little.

I think it’s important to acknowledge the pain and mistakes of life and the joy and accomplishment.

But here I am, the old guy, the nurses, talk about when they schedule operations. One of the most interesting things about aging is that you can’t conceive of it when you’re young, and by the time you figure out who you are and how you want to live, the sun is going down.

A pastor friend once told me that when I get old, I should surprise myself. “Surprise yourself as often as you can,” he said. “Surprise the people around you. “Surprise the people you love and the people you don’t.”

I surprise myself all the time. Just look at my underwear.

My face is looking older in the mirror. But it’s still my face, and I respect it and give thanks for it. There is something very liberating about growing old. I haven’t had a panic attack in years. There doesn’t seem to be any point.

As I get older, I think I have a shot at being a better human, one of the most significant ambitions and goals I still have, along with learning to be honest and authentic.

I realized a few months ago that I have everything I need and want nothing that I don’t have. That is an astounding feeling; I never thought it would come.

I can almost feel the day coming when I am free at last to be me, look at my life with great pride and gratitude and joy. I worked for it. I earned. I will keep working for it.

I’m not yet there, but I can smell it.

How much fun that will be, what a great thing to look forward to, what a great opportunity to bring meaning to my existence.

15 Comments

  1. Jon, some people are asexual, and the assumption that sex is what makes us human (which underlies your post) alienates us. Just something to be aware of in the future: we’re the “ A” in LBTQIA.

    1. Not something I care to be aware of all the time Stephanie, or when I write. I can only be honest in my writing, not cautious… I can’t carry the neuroses of other people in my head..

      1. Hello, Jon. I’m not going to make a big deal out of this, but for the record I was shocked at your “neuroses” comment, and doubly shocked that you’re apparently proud of it. I’m not going to explain to you that asexuality is a natural variation and not a neurosis—you can look that up if you’re interested. But you’ve treated me as though I’m a freak, which means this isn’t the blog I thought it was. You’re not as openminded and tolerant as you believe yourself to be. I’m sorry we both wasted our times.

        1. Stephanie, I’d be more open-minded if you weren’t so pious and insulting. It’s not a good way to get people to listen, and I must confess it’s not a subject I’m much interested in.

          I have no idea if you are a freak or not; it never occurred to me, and I’m not even sure what that is. I just found your tone obnoxious, and I don’t react well to it.

          That’s my bad, but your message certainly is not drawing my interest. Disagreements, even snotty ones, are never a waste of time for me. I think I’m just getting wary of angry and aggrieved people. I have no idea what you are like, and you have no idea what I am like. Be careful of the labels you put on people.
          Your outrage has nothing at all to do with the point of the piece, and since you never addressed in any way what the piece was about, I think I’ll pass on a diversion that seems to interest one person.

  2. Just a couple years ago my mom, who was 74 but still worked cleaning houses & was very healthy & independent, woke one night with chest pain. Wasn’t the first time. My brother took her to the emergency room & the next day her Dr. decided she needed surgery. I was opposed. She barely weighed 100 lbs & always recovered on her own. The Drs assured us it was routine & she’d be back at work in 2 weeks. Her BP never came back up & 6 days later she was dead. I’ll always blame the doctors, and her for trusting them.
    She was healthy enough to keep going, maybe not enough for heart surgery. I doubt you wanted to hear this but your story brought it to mind.
    I sincerely hope you get to see 94. 104 even.
    Should you choose not to post this I fully understand. Keep on sharing your wonderful stories.

    1. Steve, sorry about your Mom, but I am not affected or discouraged by the hard stories of other people.

      I get messages like this every time I see a doctor and write about it.

      So far, my doctors have been good to me.
      Your mom is not me, she didn’t have my doctors or my life. I just don’t see it as having anything to do with me, we are not bound by each other’s experiences. If I listened to every message I get like that, I’d have thrown myself into the ocean years ago. I’m not sure what your point is sending it to me, but your comments are thoughtful and interesting, and I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t post the message.

  3. Jon…
    Reflections on your post:

    1. I see not ‘old’ but ‘up’, as if climbing along a steep hiking path: I pause to sense the burden of the backpack, the tightness in my legs, and the thirst in my throat. But all is relieved by a glance below toward all that I have traversed. Now, I must push ahead to journey’s end, for daylight is waning and a winter storm approaches.
    2. Those younger seem less interested in advice than in lessons from their own personal experience. Who can blame them? Things seem to change so fast that all but the most profound counsel seems outdated.
    3. Forbes reported (Jan 28, 2021) that Americans ARE tougher on older individuals. This bias was correlated with a country’s culture: Ageism flourishes more in countries with a more individualistic orientation (such as the US, Ireland, and Australia), as opposed to more collectivist countries (such as Korea, India, Brazil, and Japan) that focus on group cohesion and harmony).
    4. “Bringing meaning to my existence.” This might be a struggle won in small daily victories.

    And a reflection from my own aging: “As I age, I seek approval for my thoughts and actions less from others, but more from myself.”

  4. I am 69 moving into 70 and am wondering about the decade of 70 will bring. I have health issues too but I keep living with joy and plans.
    You’re article was so right and encouraging. We can’t let age or things that come with age get us down. 60s has been my best years yet.

    right

  5. being authentic and being open as you are, jon, it is inevitable that other people’s ‘unresolved issues are activated. Feeling discomfort is part of each person’s journey toward’s their own greater wholeness. in the throes of unexpected upset, it is understandable that some folks will lash out.
    i admire you for your authenticity and hope people who find your words problematic will find their own peace. kathy

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