Living and Learning: The Academy of Aging

I entered the Academy of Aging – an informal but ancient and rigorous school – the easy way, reading and writing about it. I was drawn to the subject in my mid-50’s by working on the future of Medicare and its predictable economic crisis in the years ahead. I gained a good academic knowledge of the economic and social problems of getting old, and some insight into its psychological and physical meaning for aging individuals. But I never much worried about getting old myself, tending in fact to laugh a bit at those who had fits about it all, some as early at age 30, others at 40, still others at 60. Not me, even at 70.

Why should I have worried? I moved with some ease into my later years. Everyone had always told me I looked much younger than my age, preserving my vanity. My career improved; my energy level remained high; and I more or less shrugged off some emphysema, a bout with heart disease, prostate annoyances, and late-onset allergies and asthma. I gave little thought to the idea of “slowing down,” something I was told those of advancing years would be wise to consider.

All that geriatric euphoria began to wither away a couple of months ago, just as I was approaching my 82nd birthday. The Academy of Aging was about to put me through an intense seminar. It began with a lecture trip, requiring that I pass through the Minneapolis airport, notable for long treks to its gates. I wasn’t particularly uncomfortable walking and carried only one light shoulder bag. But twice, unbidden by me, the driver of an airport golf cart for the old and disabled stopped to offer me a ride. Then, when I arrived in New York, I had to climb a small staircase (no more than eight steps). At the bottom of the steps, however, a nice lady took one look at me and, unbidden also, said “May I carry your bag up for you, sir?” I politely declined her offer, thinking I could make it on my own. By the time I had reached the top I finally got the point: I now looked old and I walked the slow, slightly unsteady way such people often do. Call that Lesson 1: the end of vanity.

Lesson 2 came with my 60th college reunion. Going through our starting class list of l,100, I could not fail to notice that some 500 or so had died. Of the 134 who attended the reunion, at least half looked like they would be soon joining the 500. Most of other half seemed to be doing well enough, but it was left unclear to me the half to which I belonged. One good reason to go to college reunions is that they are about the only chance you ever get to see people exactly your own age. You may get more insight than you bargained for. Lesson 2: I am just like everyone else my age, even if I’m uncertain whether I am on the short or the long list of life expectancy.

Lesson 3 came days before my 82nd birthday. Going to the bathroom one dark night I tripped, and hurt what I thought was my ankle. I resisted going to a doctor. If I have learned anything from my work with medical ethics, it is that it is almost always best to choose watchful waiting over any treatment. I waited 10 days and the pain did not go away, so I gave in and went to an emergency room. It turned out I had broken the fibula in my right leg.

I instantly understood why those over 65 are warned about the hazard of falls. I also came to notice from my gait and other symptoms that I fall squarely in that geriatric category known as “frail.” The one-time swimmer, tennis player, and runner in me feels simply insulted by such a diagnosis. Lesson 3 is that classy pathologies are hard to come by, with none to be recommended. The curriculum of the Academy of Aging does not offer elective diseases; the unseen faculty chooses them for us.

We decided not to celebrate my 82nd birthday. It was just as well, not a good day. My leg (in a cast) hurt, my breathing was stressed, my allergies were stuffing my head –and then a new malady appeared. My thighs began to hurt badly, so much so that I had to be helped to walk. It took me a few hours to recognize another faithful companion of the old about which I had only read, sarcopenia, a loss of muscle mass and strength. Many people my age say they feel the same inside as they did when young. I used to say that also. I won’t say that again.

I suppose that the great lesson to be learned from my smaller lessons is that there are more lessons ahead. The Academy of Aging starts easily but the course load gets more demanding as time moves on. Yet it is not always a harsh school. It has its good days as well as bad days, and one of the nice features of an aging memory is that it allows us to forget most of the bad days. There are some other advantages of aging but I can’t recall at the moment just what they are. Aren’t wisdom and serenity supposed to be on that list? If so, just when do they start? On my 83nd birthday?

Daniel Callahan, 82, is President Emeritus of The Hastings Center and an editor of Over 65.

11 Responses to “Living and Learning: The Academy of Aging”

  1. ralph freidin

    you describe so well the realities all of us face as we age. What you do not mention and something that I have thought about is that minor symptoms we may have not noticed or dismissed when we were running and swimming and feeling in untouchable health, now easily bring forward the anxiety of initial symptoms of a life threatening disease. Is the constipation that may come with aging a sign of colon cancer, is the pain in my epigastrium insignificant indigestion or coronary disease? Sifting through these everyday symptoms to find the actionable versus the forgettable is also a part of understanding aging

  2. Amy Ziettlow

    Your words remind me of the William Stafford poem, “Waiting in Line.” His words never cease to still me.

    “Waiting in Line”

    You, the very old. I have come
    To the edge of your country and looked across,
    How your eyes warily look into mine
    When we pass, how you hesitate when
    We approach a door. Sometimes
    I understand how steep your hills
    Are, and your way of seeing the madness
    Around you, the careless waste of the calendar,
    The rush of people on buses. I have
    Studied how you carry packages,
    Balancing them better, giving them attention.
    I have glimpsed from within the gray-eyed look
    At those who push, and occasionally even I
    Can achieve your beautiful bleak perspective
    On the loud, the inattentive, shoving boors
    Jostling past you toward their doom.

    With you, from the pavement I have watched
    The nation of the young, like jungle birds
    That scream as they pass, or gyrate on playgrounds,
    Their frenzied bodies jittering with the disease
    Of youth. Knowledge can cure them. But
    Not all at once. It will take time.

    There have been evenings when the light
    Has turned everything silver, and like you
    I have stopped at a corner and suddenly
    Staggered with the grace of it all: to have
    Inherited all this, or even the bereavement
    Of it and finally being cheated!—the chance
    To stand on a corner and tell it goodby!

    Every day, every evening, every
    Abject step or stumble has become heroic—

    You others, we the very old have a country.
    A passport costs everything there is.

  3. jane gross

    Dan, You have and will continue to age with more grace than anyone I know and are an inspiration to those of us in “freshman year” at this academy you so good-naturedly describe. I have been (without quite being eligible) a founding “member”of this merry band of “Over 65s” and just this week hit the magic mark; not just the first-of-the-month medicare card in the mail, the deluge of solicitations for this Medigap policy and that Part D plan — but both the big b’day itself and the first doctor’s visit with my red-white-and-blue badge promising that the government is now going to give back to me some of what I’ve given as a hard-working, tax-paying citizen for all these years. I hope you won’t find the cranky musing of a mere 65-year-old trivial because I am soon to send you, Shep, Jim and Mary my first post. Should I still feel in untouchable health and full of hope? Maybe. But entering this new world — “old” according to the Census Buro and quaking at the prospect of VoucherCare instead of Medicare — sure is a shock to the system. I hope some of your younger readers will “enjoy” hearing about those. — Jane

  4. Ted Marmor

    A useful and moving use of irony and realistic description to cut through the banalities of ‘healthy aging’ and to underscore the importance of knowing the limits of wishful thinking. Thanks, Dan

  5. Ann McKennis

    I am a decade behind you in age, but can relate to your article.
    Thanks for the insight.

    • Dill

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  6. Faye Girsh

    The realization of impending disability, pain, loss of control and dignity is a reminder that the reality of a peaceful, assisted death at the time of your choosing would be a comfort as the aging process progresses. You have been reluctant to agree with the idea in the past; I wonder if getting older has influenced your opinion about the peace of mind it could provide?

    • Jaya

      epitelous paidia erexte mia aspri kai pio ksekourasti mera gia olous emas pou mono emeis kseroume to ti diskola pername. telika o theos mas akouse .makari makari kai ksana makari ola na teliosoun to 2009 h 2010 .

  7. Carol Levine

    Dan, A wonderful piece full of rueful insight and wisdom. It reminded me of an all-too-relevant book — “You’re Only Old Once! A Book for Obsolete Children” by none other than Dr. Seuss. Starts with the Initial Eyesight and Solvency Test:
    All in increasingly large letters, of course.
    And goes on from there.
    Ends with being “properly pilled,” and forms “properly filled,” so that “you and your heirs can be properly billed.”
    Where is the successor to Dr. Seuss now that we need him?

  8. Kathryn Clarl

    Thank you all – so glad to find this dialogue. I too am just entering the academy of aging and yes it is an academy we have much to learn from each other and through meaningful connection find the creative acceptance of the inevitable diminish meets with a deep affirming of each of our own particular individual unusual lives as we travel the journey toward life completion…it sounds lofty and feels ridiculous and flies right out of my mind when I can’t figure out an unusual lasting fatigue..and it all gets worse as I struggle with my fear and concern that I’ll get over diagnosed etc etc etc. Thank you all at The Hastings Center.