Aging: Age is Not Just a Number

My 53rd birthday reflection

Woman smiling
That would be me a few days short of 53

Being older is the same as being younger in many respects.

That’s what I think anyway. I’ll be 53 this month and my needs and wants are not much different than they were at 35. I continue to want love, adventure, a good job, fulfillment, peace of mind, more money. I still want to take on and meet challenges, to be fit and healthy, to learn and grow. I still need to be there for my sons and husband. I want to share experiences with family and friends. I want to do good.

That’s not to say being 53 is no different than being 35. The struggles and attitudes do change over time. It’s just that, compared to what you’d expect when you’re younger, being 53 is surprisingly similar to being 35.

What’s more, 35 isn’t obviously better, as I would’ve said seventeen years ago had someone asked me which age was better -a question I would’ve thought silly.

Age is not just a number. As I reflect on being 53, it’s clear to me that there’s a lot more to it.

The Drawbacks of 53

Age is one of those aspects of our being that can be easily measured, in whole numbers usually, unless you’re a young child, in which case your age could be a number and a half. If you have kids, you know that it’s one thing to be four, and four-and-a-half quite another.

Our obsession with age begins when we’re very young indeed, though why we obsess about it changes as we age. Eventually, we reach a point where what we fixate on is our real vs our perceived age.

We increasingly compare ourselves based on how young we look and we go to great lengths to appear younger, as if looking our age was something to be ashamed of.

We associate young  with attractive, energetic, promising, dynamic, and able to learn new things.

Some of us actually take a perverse delight in discovering people we thought were older than us are actually our age. The older-than-us they appear, the greater the delight. I’d say that after forty, no compliment is more welcome than, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re [insert age],” and no one is more instantly likable than the waitstaff who cards us.

You may want to not care or compare, but you can’t not do it. And this, dear readers, is way worse at 53 than at 35.

Because you do look way older and ageism becomes real.

They say you can’t really understand sexism if you’re a man, or know what racism feels like if you’re white. Aging is similar. When the wrinkles and sagging make it evident you’re well past youth, that’s when you truly grasp ageism.

When my friend Lilah (not her real name) got divorced, a male friend commented, “Well, she still looks young. She has time to find someone.”

The comment bothered me, especially coming from a guy. But you know what? Women make such remarks all the time too! They are, after all, valid (and please don’t hate me for saying it). If you’re around my age and get divorced, you had better be mentally prepared to see your ex of many years (in my case 30) dating and marrying women much younger than you.

And so, even as we bemoan becoming targets of ageism, we realize that we, too, are ageist.

Ageism holds us back unnecessarily. I mean, it would make no sense for me to try to become a neurosurgeon or competitive gymnast at this point. But I could explore career shifts and completing a triathlon.

You need to be braver at 53 than at 35.

The Gifts of 53

I for one fit more into each minute today than I did seventeen years ago. At 53, one is definitely more aware that time runs out than at 35.

You also appreciate the journey more. Writing is my personal adventure, regardless of where it might lead. Running is less about pace per mile and more about what I get out of each run: a space to think, to notice the trees outside, to be grateful for my body.

Sure, I work to pay the bills, but each year I appreciate  more my relationships with students and their families.

I don’t know why but aging is disinhibiting, especially if, like me, you tend toward insecurity. So what if my essay submission is rejected with a critical note? So what if I told everyone my goal was to complete a half marathon and I didn’t even finish?

I’ve found the corny cliches to be true: with aging comes a fuller life and a deeper sense of purpose.

At 53, I have fewer choices than I did at 35 yet I’ve gotten better at centering my life around attitudes I can cultivate no matter what: facing my fears, staying curious, doubting my certainties, doing good, taking on new challenges, loving deeply, seeking peace of mind.

Aging is Full of Contradictions

I can only speak for myself when I reflect on my experience (so far) of aging. But studies do suggest that many share my feelings.

According to survey data, 88% percent of older adults report having become more comfortable being themselves, while 80% indicate having a strong sense of purpose (Most older adults say they’ve experienced ageism, but majority still hold positive attitudes toward aging, poll finds, referenced in National Poll on Healthy Aging: Everyday Ageism and Health).

“Youth is wasted on the young,” the saying goes. Like aging, the saying is contradictory.

I wonder what my life would be like if I’d had the bit of wisdom I have today back when I was 35. I couldn’t have though; I needed to waste some of my youth to acquire it.

Aging is ongoing and uneven. Perhaps 17 years from now, when I’m 70, I’ll have discovered added contradictions. I assume 53 will sound incredibly young to me, just as 35 does right now.

Hopefully, this time around, I’ll have acquired a bit more wisdom without having wasted any of my relative youth .

Related post you might also like: We Are All Ageist.

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