What is Old?

And why do we care?

Lisa Renee


The Life and Age of Woman by James Baillie, ca.1848

When I heard about Hilary Mantel’s death at 70, my first reaction (after the obvious sadness at the loss of genius) was, Oh god she’s still young! She’s not old! I thought of her as a near peer. It’s funny how the meaning of “old” keeps changing as we get “older.” Is 70 old? Is it “still young”? Is “still young,” “not old”? It’s subjective, usually dictated by how old or young we are, or feel. Not too long ago, I would have said that 70 was old. Or fairly old, anyway. Getting old. And maybe it is. Current US life expectancy is about 79. (Sort of shocking — 79 is not old, right?!)

Old is usually the part that comes before death, which we’re all afraid of no matter what we say. So we resist old, and run from it. We lie and pretend, resort to potions and tricks. We panic, join gyms and eat kale. We take the stairs slowly and consider the new weighted meaning of red meat and dessert.

We try to get our arms around the concept of death, reading books about mortality, dreaming up afterlife scenarios, and spreading inspirational fertilizer all over our socials. “Live each day as if it’s your last!” splashed across a daisy ass background. Marcus Aurelius said, “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” Yeah, sit down Marcus. It’s all terrifying, the living and the dying, and you knew it. Your aphorisms were your armor. (They help sometimes, though, so thank you.)

Anyway, if 79 is the average span of expected life, then 70 is objectively old. Hilary Mantel was old, in this context. And if she’s old, then my 58 isn’t far behind. My parents will both soon celebrate 80 (if they make it — jesus, that 79 warning is oppressing me). Aunt Bea is 93. My horrible neighbors are in their 80s. Age is not equal opportunity, either. Next door Judy is a sound physical specimen, but younger Jimmy shuffles toothless and breathless to the mailbox.

If you’re as young (or old) as you feel, as the tired cliché goes, then some days I’m damned old. I’ve got creaky knees and readers, my memory is spotty and dosages are on the rise. I’m getting reports from all over that we’re in new territory. Friends with cancer scares, family with various age-related ailments. The struggle is real and ignoring the inevitability for decades hasn’t helped. Head in the sand…