I was born in 1930. That does not make me elderly, a senior, an oldster, a retiree, a “young lady,” or grandma. What it makes me is old. To have traveled this far is a matter of dumb luck in the form of durable genes; my father lived to 103, my mother to 88. My sister is going strong at 92. I would like to report that there’s a secret to having lived so long. Sorry, there isn’t one. Whenever I look in the mirror and see an old bag looking back at me, I remind myself of the alternative, and that cheers me up. I keep my brain in working condition by writing something every day, by drowning myself in series like “After Life” and “Doc Martin,” and by rereading books that gave me a lot of pleasure the first time around, like “The Age of Innocence” and “Going After Cacciato.”
In some countries, Korea and Greece among them, aged men and women are placed on a pedestal reserved for the wise. In this country, on the other hand, we dispatch our “senior citizens” (do I ever hate euphemisms) to retirement communities or, worse, “nursing homes.”
When you reach 90 — that means I’ve brushed my teeth 85,000 times — you acquire a kind of “What have I got to lose?” attitude. Since every day is a blessing, you tend not to respond to the serious moments as seriously as you once did. This is liberating, allowing you to say things you wouldn’t have dreamed of saying 10 years earlier, such as “Are you still married to that Robert person?” or “I liked your hair better the other way.”
The trip from zero to 90 is somewhat bumpy; age sneaks up on you. One minute you’re a youngish mother with three daughters all born within six years, and the next you’re grandma — or peepah or bahhna or g-ma. And here’s the real stunner: You’re grandmimi to three great-grandchildren. But those amazing daughters remain your principal happiness.
There’s no point in my describing the inevitable assaults on the body. These you can find out about on Google or at your local CVS. Talking about ailments gets my award for the most boring subject on earth.
But there are some things it’s best to keep an eye on so that they don’t take over your life. Your choices, for one. It’s not so much that you can no longer heft 15 pounds or walk 10 miles without collapsing; it’s that just because you can doesn’t mean you should. And then there’s the illusion of choice: You find yourself doing the same things over and over again. Certain habits accrue stealthily over the years. When you finally realize that your full grocery cart more or less replicates itself every week, it’s extremely hard to change things up. Ditto routines. I wash every part of my old body in the exact same order every night before getting into bed. I eat the same breakfast every morning — a slice or two of prosciutto, a slice or two of smoked salmon, very few carbs, a small mountain of freshly cut-up fruit. Trying to vary your routines is worse than realizing that you may be set in your ways.
A healthy diet can’t hurt, but who’s to say how much it actually contributes to a life with more years in it? Yoga? Not for me. Likewise a treadmill, a stationary bike, or bouncing up and down on a huge rubber ball. Each is exhausting, monotonous, with nothing alive to look at, listen to, or smell. I suggest doing one of the first things many of us ever learned how to do: walk. I aim for 40 minutes a day.
When tempted to explain how life was better “back then,” I try to keep silent. Without high tech and AI, everyday existence was relatively simple. Rules of behavior were hardwired and inflexible, and choices, both tiny and momentous, were few.
But I’m a fan of technological advances. Many of them, anyway. I’m more than grateful for the computer and the iPhone. Especially the latter, which falls into the category of modern miracle. Except when it gives me cause to overhear someone mangling the English language. “I expected him to pick up Mary and I.” Or “I saw him laying on the sidewalk.” Confusing “infer” and “imply” is unforgivable — I have never overheard someone say it into their iPhone, but I thought I’d mention it.
I’m dubious of Alexa and GPS. It would be a waste of time trying to persuade a young person not to rely so heavily on either, though I’d like to tell them that having too much help makes you helpless. I found this out the hard way. Raised in a family rich enough never to have to mention money, I realized when I married that I didn’t know how to buy the ingredients for a meal, let alone combine and cook them for dinner. Would my great-grandchildren, reduced to consulting a paper map, know what to do with it?
How can we, the old, transform ourselves from throwaways into people valued for our experience and maybe even sagacity? I have lived through enough sturm und drang to sharpen my emotional wits: the Depression, a nervous Cold War, a recession, ongoing and heartbreaking racial conflict, one term with a certifiable lunatic as president, and the death of my amazing husband after almost 60 years together. Ask me anything. I bet I have an answer.
I’ve learned a lot. Like toss the bottle. Not the one filled with bourbon but the one containing dye. Look your age. Be completely honest about who you are and what you are: old. Don’t shave off a couple of years, don’t let anyone come near your face with a knife, and don’t change that lustrous silver for a muddy brown — that means you too, Nancy Pelosi. If you want to be treated like a treasure — and not just by your grandchildren — throw away every last one of your disguises. Who are you trying to fool, anyway? So don’t rush out and buy a pair of jeans with pre-cut holes in them. A nice pair of dark pants with an elastic waistband will do fine.
Anne Bernays is the author of 10 novels and the coauthor of three nonfiction books.