"An Elderly Man. . . ."

Lowell L. Getz

The newspaper article begins "An elderly man . . . ." As I read these words, I conjure up the image of a feeble, stooped, pot-bellied old man with wrinkled skin and tattered clothes. I read further into the article and the age is given — 75. "God", I think, that is four years YOUNGER than am I. Surely the writer was not thinking when he used the term "elderly." Or was it meant as such? "Elderly", an euphemism for "old", is in the eyes of the beholder, or in this case the news reporter, obviously years younger than was the subject. When one is young, anyone at least a generation older, is "elderly."

When you are young, there is little thought of you, yourself, as ever becoming old. "Old" is something beyond imagination. "Old" is so far in the future as to never imaging its arriving. Yet, others seem to have grown old. How long did they have to live to become "elderly?"

I never really thought about growing old. Through the teens and twenties it was all about getting in shape, especially while in the Army, and in the thirties and forties it was about keeping in shape. After that, with so many responsibilities, everything seemed simply to remain the same. I did notice that my hair was getting a little less brown. First time I really thought about it, though, was when our neighbor, at a dinner party, mentioned how depressed she was when she had to put on her new passport application her hair color as "gray." That evening I checked my hair out in the mirror and "Damn", it, too, was gray. So, "gray" it was on my next driver license application. That sort of took care of the hair problem until my sister-in-law, upon seeing me for the first time in a couple years, asked me how come my hair "was so white." "Damn" again. "White" it was on my next passport application, driver license, University retired ID card, and military retired ID card. The "retired" bit should have given me some pause to consider. After all, it has been over 13 years since I gave my last lecture and over 28 years since I last wore my Army uniform. At least there was hair to provide "color." But, then, I noticed my always "high" forehead, now extended almost to the top of my head.

A few other things had changed along the way, but I attributed no special meaning to them. Glasses had come in my late twenties and over the years had gone from a single lens to bifocals and then to trifocals. Later, cataract surgery replaced the lenses in both my eyes. I had a little more trouble straightening up after kneeling down, but hey, my legs hurt even more in my mid 20s when doing field research for my doctorate in a muddy Michigan marsh. There had been a bout with arthritis several years ago, but a running regime when attempting to get in shape in anticipation of being called back to active duty had solved that problem. The "2000" thing that started appearing on the calendars does not seem overly real — sort of like living in a dream. Will wake up some day and the calendars once again will be using "1900s." Apparently, these events really did not equate to my becoming "old."

Then, there were a number of observations that should have tipped me off that I was getting old. I don't like or understand any of the music I hear; none of the radio stations plays Wayne King, Glenn Miller, Sammy Kay, Vera Lynn, or Patsy Montana. I once perked up when the disc jockey said he was going to play some "oldie goldies." He then proceeded to play a number of songs from the 1980s! Come on, that was only yesterday! Or was it? I get the home town newspaper and feel cheered that none of my friends is on the obituary page. But, then I realize none can be there because they all have already died. My daughters seem unimpressed when I tell them stories about the Depression or about FDR's fire-side chats, or where I was when I heard of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and FDR having died. None of these things seemed to relate to my actually being old, just sentimentalities.

To me, getting old meant sagging splotched skin on the arms and legs, a bulging belly hanging down over the belt, limp leg muscles, twisted toes with brittle thickened toenails, and snagged yellowish teeth. A look in the mirror and a visual "body scan" after a shower indicated things not much different than they had appeared to me years ago, even with my trifocals on. I still can do my 30 minutes a day on the NordicTrack (although the setting is now down to 8.5, instead of 10, as of a short [?] while ago). As always, I mow the lawn in 20 minutes, maybe with a little less spring to my feet. A few months ago I shoveled and wheeled eight cubic yards of river rock from where it had been dumped in the driveway, to the sides of the house and the steel stents in my coronary arteries remained open (did I forget to mention the major coronary blockages and minor heart attack several years ago?).

That, at our last (60st) high school class reunion (was it really that long ago?), the yearbook photographs of more than half of the students were on the "table of the departed" should have made me stop and think. But maybe they had died "young" — some actually did. When I think of what the world was like the night we graduated and what it is like as I write this (on my desktop computer; I doubt that in June 1949 even room-sized computers could do what this small [6.5 x 6.5 x 2 inch] computer can do), the magnitude of changes should make me feel "elderly." I also have noticed recently that by early evening, my mind goes blank and it is not possible to do any sensible writing (this is being drafted in the early afternoon). I used to be able to remain productive well into the early morning hours and be back on the job at the usual 8:00 AM, or earlier.

Being "old" is something that comes upon you gradually, without any warning. One day you are a young active twenty something, the next thing you know, you are a 79 year old, thinking you are still that young man you were in 1957. Oh, how the years move by, as if on fast-forward in a sea of molasses — they seem to be moving slowly, but all of a sudden, there you are, "old." In a few months, I will pass the 80 year mark, thus becoming an "Octogenarian." "Now, Octogenarian" has a nice ring to it, but "ring" or no "ring", 80 years is still "old." I have long thought, and still think, anyone 80 years old is "old." So, if I make it that far, I reluctantly (or resignedly, given the alternative) will take my place amongst the "elderly" cohort of the population. Then, should I meet my demise or experience some other event in a news-worthy manner, I will not feel a disservice has been rendered, if the reporter starts the story "An elderly man . . . ." I will have survived long enough to deserve that ultimate ageing accolade, "Elderly."