What is "old" anyway? | Minnesotans on aging | TiltMN

Ageism, Part Two: The Definition of Aging

We’ve talked about the societal stigmas surrounding aging in What’s the point of living if no one wants to f#ck you? and we talked about the disruptors developing tech to make it a better experience in Why eldercare is the most important tech sector. But how do people actually feel about aging? What do people actually think about growing up and growing old?

To an a kid in elementary school, college is eons away. To a teen, 30 seems old while to someone in their 60’s, age 30 is still only the beginning of life – and they themselves might still have much more of it to live.

So What Is Old Age?

“I don’t know. Like 35?” Cara, 15, says. “When you have a good job and can’t go out anymore.”

Ann, 19, thinks for a moment. “When I hit 50,” she says, “That’s when you’re over the hill.”

“72,” Sam, 31, says. “Everyone else is wrong. The age is 72.”

So it’s determined only by age?

“Of course.” Ahmed, 24, says, “How close you are to death, right? The more years you have lived. It’s that simple.”

Apryl, 29, describes it as fluid as per the individual. “The older you get the more it changes to avoid being the old person,” she laughs. “Maybe 55? That’s when everyone around you will call you old.”

“And,” she adds, “when you start to get all the good deals/discounts before death.”

Like at restaurants? Where 55 is the starting point for senior discounts?

“Yeah I remember my grandpa getting those,” Lisa, 32, says. “It’s crazy to think that I’m over halfway there.”

“55?” Jake (who goes by “Jekyll” on his soccer team), 22, pauses. “Yeah that’s pretty old.”

The definition, from dictionary.com, is


far advanced in the years of one’s or its life:

an old man; an old horse; an old tree.


of or relating to the latter part of the life or term of existence of person or thing:

old age.

But it isn’t always just a simple definition. To some (or many) age is much more than just a number.

“When you look in the mirror and the early 20s image of yourself isn’t looking back anymore, you’re no longer young.” Nick, 28, says. “But when regret catches up and time runs out to change, that’s when you’re old.”

Megan, 27, says, “I don’t think I’ll feel old until I actually feel old, you know? Like that lady who’s 80 running marathons. She might be grandma, but she’s not grandma in a rocking chair.”

Brandon, 29, agrees. “When someone succumbs to feeling old and lets themselves go.”

To Ben, 22, agrees – it’s more mental than physical. “When you start thinking about the past more than the future,” he says, “That’s when it happens. You remember your good times more than you get excited for the next… if you never stop looking forward to tomorrow you’ll be young forever.”

“I see age more by spirit, and I associate young with wonder and high energy,” Amra, 26, tells us, “while I see old as wisdom and slowing down the moment… I think your chronological age may not always match your spirit, and I also believe it’s fluid and can change through a lifetime.”

Or how about when your priorities change?

As, Zach, 28, says, “When they no longer know the cartoons that are on. When they no longer care what others think. When they get hungover after two beers and it takes a full day to recover (but they still do it). When they have a 401(k) and actually care about the amount they have saved…”

What seems to be clear, is that the threshold does change with the individual; age 55 might be currently accepted as elder status, but Denzel Washington is 61, George Clooney is 55 and recently married, Brad Pitt is 52 and still considered a heartthrob. Are they old in the same sense as your grandfather? Why do we have so much trouble defining it?

“Old” is a Societal Construct

A recent study by PLOS determined that as people continue to live longer, 65 must now be considered middle age. 65 is no longer the threshold of life’s end, and we have to consider what that means for us.

“My dad started getting AARP magazines in the mail on his 50th birthday,” Melissa, 24, says. “He throws them in the trash.”

Restaurants then are going to have to change their senior specials, and AARP should only targeting only those over 70.

“Yeah didn’t Jeff Goldblum just have his first kid? What is he, like 60-something?” Josh, 30 asks.

(Jeff Goldblum is 63. A happy, healthy, and middle-aged man. And yes, a recent father.)

“I didn’t even start my career until I was almost 40.” Amy, 49, says. “I was working serving jobs until then and somehow found my way into branding. I never rushed anything… I used to think that was a problem. But I’m happy now.”

“I started hitting the gym after 40.” says Michael, now 51. “I was getting a gut, so I started running. I feel as good now as I did 20 years ago. Some days I feel better, even.”

So perhaps the focus should be on slowing down; we don’t need to rush through things. We don’t need find the first job out of college, start saving, start a career, start worrying, get married, start stressing about the future and abandon the dreams of our youth.

“These kids,” Brenda, 65, laughs, “talk about growing old. You take care of yourself, you eat right, you exercise and get good sleep, then sure age is just a number. My father was unhealthy. He stressed and died of a heart attack when he was 62. My aunt Elise, on the other hand, lived happy and healthy until she was 90.”

“That isn’t to say your body will always cooperate,” she adds. “There are differences, of course, as the body ages. Your body does start to betray you, more-so after 60. But truly – good exercise, good diet, and good sleep can help mitigate the worst of those.”

So you’re not an elder until you think you are. Or – at least until you’re over 90.

“My grandma still lives alone. She still bakes and walks to church.” Andrew, 40, tells us. “She’s 94.”

Okay, until you’re over 100. And someday, maybe even longer. As Chris Traeger (played by Rob Lowe) told us in Parks and Rec:

But – You Will Get Old

We mentioned Hollywood stars earlier who have benefited for years from luxury living – this of course makes it easier to age with a certain amount of grace, and suffer less from the averse affects. We talked to people from every era who will tell you that age is just a number. We can look at getting old through the rosiest glasses in history as it gets easier, and more fun, to age.

But your body does start to break down at some point. You won’t be as quick as you were. You won’t jump out of bed without a few groans, no matter how much sleep you get.

“I swam competitively for thirty years. I raced all across the country. But at some point my body just couldn’t do it anymore,” Mark, 47, tells us. “That was hard.”

As Andre Agassi wrote in his memoir, Open,

“My body doesn’t want to retire — my body has already retired. My body has moved to Florida and bought a condo and white Sansabelts. So I’ve been negotiating with my body, asking it to come out of retirement for a few hours here, a few hours there.”

William, 60, waves his hand dismissively. “The problems only come when you can’t accept it. When you don’t accept it. I struggled for years with growing older. And as a man, I’m not supposed to be so vain. But I struggled with it because I still wanted to look and feel and act the way I used to… But I found a way to come to terms with it. I started to garden. I was a bachelor. I met a woman. These things help. It’s not always so easy for people. My cousin… he took his own life. I think it was because he couldn’t handle it [getting older].”

So not attempting to stave off old age, but rather finding new ways to embrace it –

Mark continues, “If you try to do everything you did at 20 when you’re 50, you’ll find yourself feeling pretty old pretty fast. But if you embrace new things as they come… maybe you can’t run quite as fast, maybe you can’t lift quite as much, maybe you can’t stay out partying until three in the morning, but there is always something new that you can do. You just have to understand that.”

“Even if I can’t swim competitively the way I used to, I still swim. I still love to swim. And I can still beat most of the kids in the pool. I see that as a victory. I’ll never stop swimming.”

Karl, 52, says, “Never be afraid of change.”

The advice is consistent:  Even as your body ages, how you feel about it, what you do with it, and the way you look at the future, is still up to you. You are still in control.

“You’re constantly growing,” John, 59, says. “Even as you age. Or especially as you age. The trick is not to fight it and not to… pretend it isn’t happening.”

“Fall in love,” Leonard, 73, says. “Fall in love. She might get on your nerves… she might get on your nerves but she, or he, or whoever, I think you know what I’m saying, will be the thing that makes life worth living. That’s how you grow old with style.”

“Good food, good movies, beautiful music, museums. Those things don’t change.” Blair, 60, says. “I won’t ever stop enjoying those things. The world will never stop giving you wonders and things to enjoy – if you let it.”

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Ageism, Part Two: The Definition of Aging