Aged people are often asked how old they feel inside. And even if they are not asked, they often volunteer the information. “I know I’m 70, but if I don’t look in the mirror, I still feel like I am 40!” Rarely does anyone admit to “feeling” older than their chronological age. Younger is always better, unless you are a fifteen-year-old waiting to be old enough for a driving license.
The common adage of our age is “you are only as old as you feel.” This was, in fact, the title of a New York Times article three years ago, in which two doctors discussed the effect of the perception of age on health. Apparently, most people think of themselves as younger than they are, a discrepancy which widens with age:
If you’re over 40, chances are you feel younger than your driver’s license suggests. Some 80 percent of people do, according to Dr. Stephan. A small fraction of people — fewer than 10 percent — feel older. The discrepancy between felt and actual age increases with the years, Dr. Terracciano said. At age 50, people may feel about five years, or 10 percent, younger, but by the time they’re 70 they may feel 15 percent or even 20 percent younger.
This got me thinking about two things – how old do I feel and at which age was I the happiest? (Happy is not exactly the right word; sense of well-being might be better.) Or to put it another way, if I’m not going to feel 70, what would be the best age to feel? To start with the first question, I probably only feel about a decade younger than I am. I definitely do not feel like a working person; the fire of ambition is almost extinguished – it flickers only for matters of small consequence. I feel like a recently retired person of about 60 I would say, which squares entirely with Dr. Terracciano’s study, with about a 15% discrepancy with my real age.
More interesting are my thoughts about what age I would like to be mentally or psychologically – which age I would like to adopt the characteristics of. After a short contemplation, the answer was easy. I would like to be eight years old. Being eight was wonderful. I was in the third grade and the only competition I felt in my life was who was the tallest person in the class – myself or Rae Ann Reutershan. (The boys were all midgets at that point.) I loved my teacher, Miss Butterfield. I loved my school and where I lived. My younger brother was a tease and my little sister was a nuisance, but they were not my responsibility. I had started needing eyeglasses in second grade, and spectacles made the world so much brighter and more wonderful that I didn’t mind wearing them at all, despite occasional taunts from my brother and his mean friends (four-eyes).
I had no control over my life at age eight, something I knew and accepted. My parents and teacher called the shots, and I went along with their decisions the way adults go along with the weather – something that may be aggravating but which we can do nothing about. There was no anxiety, except perhaps some short-lived angst about whether I would hit the baseball or be able to bicycle up a steep hill. I loved animals and was interested in almost everything except boys and snakes. I was ill sometimes – that was the era when children still got the full array of later-eradicated diseases as well as the still common colds and earaches – but even that had it’s advantages; I got to stay at home, lay on the couch, and watch TV. And read.
Another reason I chose eight was that was when my reading ability hit its stride. I had been an early and precocious reader, and by eight I was able to get “real books” from the library – books like “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew” or Nancy Drew or even “Little Women.” If I didn’t understand a word, I guessed and kept reading. I often used words in conversation that I didn’t know how to pronounce, which amused my family. And reading represented an eternity of possibility. It was not like Easter candy which would disappear quickly. I could see by surveying the shelves at our wonderful public library that I would not run out of material for a very long time. Which was, indeed, the case. All I needed to do was return the books on time and keep my little sister from destroying them. The one time of true anxiety I can remember from this period was when my toddler sister crayoned in a copy of one of the Boxcar Kid books I had from the library. The librarian, who knew me well by then, was very sympathetic. “It’s still readable,” she said. Readable – what a wonderful word my eight-year-old self thought.
If it sounds like life was simple, it was. Not for my parents, not for the world – but for me. I know it is not so for all eight-year-olds. (Think and weep for the children of Ukraine!) My family was intact and had its problems, but at eight I didn’t know the difference between problems and normality. I thought all was as it should be, and I adapted. I didn’t waste much time wanting to be older or younger. Eight was wonderful. Pictures from that period with my sparkly pink glasses and my home perm are a horror, but I was surely not aware of that. And when something was going on around me that I didn’t understand and was afraid of, I dove into a book. Any book.
So back to myself at 70. Of that little girl, only the joy of reading seems to have stuck. But maybe I am reverting in some ways. I would like to think I care less about what I look like or what people think. I have gone back to realizing that we have very little control over the world. I have come to know that anxiety, guilt, and regret are useless emotions – at least I recognize that intellectually but wonder if one can go back to the innocent Eden of a child. Last week I wrote about confronting the reality of nuclear war when I was ten. Two years made a huge difference in my level of anxiety and fear about all things. Even before the missile crisis, I had lost my optimism and well-being.
I am talking about a state of mind, not a delusion as to our real age. My mother’s dementia-fueled descent into her childhood was not a pleasant one. She spent a year asking me where her parents were and fretting about how she was going to get home. I do not wish that on myself or anyone.
But again, I would like to recapture some of what time and enculturation took away from that eight-year-old girl. What age would you like to recapture?
The story this week – “Like Heaven” – is about a woman who lives in two worlds – the real one of her old age and a vivid memory of a younger age, which was not perfect but had its moments.