Sweet Bird of Old Age

Old age can be a lot of fun

A friend asked “Do you really want to become one of those decrepit codgers who, after a morning of doing virtually nothing, trundles into his club for lunch, has a glass of claret and then snores the entire afternoon away in an overstuffed chair next to the fire?”.

In a word: Yes.

It’s socially accepted, indeed almost mandatory, for Americans to dread old age. I simply can’t relate to the sentiment. Indeed, I find myself looking forward to the “declining years” of my life.

The traditional reason to fear old age was that it was a time of economic poverty. But in the developed world today, economic misery has been shifted toward children and young adults. If like me you are over the age of 30, you are past the highest risk years for poverty. And no matter what else happens politically in the future, there is an excellent chance that senior citizens will be able to continue voting themselves significant income support from the government.

Some people fear ageing because they think old people are depressed. In reality, they are among the happiest segment of the population, it is young people (specifically, teenagers) who are the most unhappy. There is a good chance you will be happier as a senior citizen than you were in your youth.

Increased terror of death is also an expectation many have of their December years. The best antidote I can offer to this expectation is a story from a friend of mine in his late 30s. He decided to take a “roughing it” vacation deep in the Alaskan wilderness at a cabin with no phone, running water or electricity. His grandmother surprised him by saying that she would like to go as well.

“But Grandma” he said, “you’re 85!”

“Exactly” she responded. “What’s the worst that could happen to me? You are the one who is taking the big risk.”

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

19 thoughts on “Sweet Bird of Old Age”

  1. At 61 the biggest trouble is the aches from accumulated injuries. A torn roter cuff here, a sprung knee there and pretty soon every chore has a debt of sleepless nights and achey days.
    No doubt there will be balloon payments due at 71, 81, “?”. Life is tough but it beats the alternative.

  2. one of those decrepit codgers who, after a morning of doing virtually nothing, trundles into his club for lunch, has a glass of claret and then snores the entire afternoon away in an overstuffed chair next to the fire

    This is me; it’s great. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s true that the accumulated long term stress injuries add up, but at least I’m not accumulating any more!

  3. I can’t say I have any terror of death, got over than during the chemo. And, yes, I’m happy, as much from reduced expectations, as from a happy family life. Giving up can be comfortable, resignation a consolation.

    But let’s not pretend old age isn’t awful. It’s a hideous abomination, if it didn’t exist, and suddenly appeared on the scene, finding a way to cure it would be our number one priority.

    Ought to be anyway. What was it Alan Harrington used to say? “Spend the money, hire the scientists, and hunt down death like an outlaw.” Yeah, I’d say it’s time to do that.

    Alzheimer’s also means never getting bored, but that doesn’t make it good.

    1. “Spend the money, hire the scientists, and hunt down death like an outlaw.”

      On the right hand: You are going to tax me in hopes of prolonging your life?
      On the other right hand: You want to tax me to do this even though you don’t have any terror of death?

      Ayn Rand’s *medicared* skeleton is spinning in its stinking winding sheets.

      1. Just like a liberal: You say something about spending money, and the first thing that springs into their head is the government doing it. It’s like they’re convinced the private sector isn’t real, or something.

        No, I want to donate some money to the SENS foundation.

        1. It’s like they’re convinced the private sector isn’t real, or something. No, I want to donate some money to the SENS foundation.

          Want? If the private sector will “hunt down death like an outlaw” why pay the SENS foundation a self-imposed tax? Why not just let the marketplace cure aging?

          Furthermore why do you want to donate to SENS? Why haven’t you ALREADY donated to them? You’ve known about them (and the Harrington quote) since 2010: http://www.samefacts.com/2010/09/income-distribution/against-raising-the-social-security-retirement-age/#comment-48091

          Have you not donated to SENS because you know the science involved is way too big for one ridiculous foundation? And isn’t the SENS foundation really just a Potemkin libertarian canard that you pull out of your hat at various times to get a free-ride for your liar’s philosophy? Yep. I nailed it yet again.

        2. The private sector will hunt down death like a mercenary. They will do it, for a dear, dear price.

          perhaps if humanity discovers a cure to old age, it will not be sold to the highest bidders alone.

        1. Huzzah James. Some libertarians fantasy world is one without children…a wretched thought.

    2. Brett Bellmore said:
      What was it Alan Harrington used to say? “Spend the money, hire the scientists, and hunt down death like an outlaw.” Yeah, I’d say it’s time to do that.

      Sounds scary to me. How did the “War on Poverty” go? The “War on Drugs”?…

  4. I completely agree. Having suffered pretty chronic pain all my adult life, I love nothing more than puttering. It may be odd, but I’ve always felt that my personal hobbies and creative endeavors have felt like minor world-class triumphs. I know it’s rather silly. But I look forward to having the time to flit about from private bliss to bliss.

  5. Not to mention the pleasures of geezerdom. I enjoy being able to deplore the way the world is going to hell in a handcart, what with these young people today listening to Cliff’s Notes on their iPods. Back in my day, if we didn’t feel like doing our homework, we had to sit down and read our Cliff’s Notes, by gum!

    1. True: We’re trying to get out of this apartment, and buy a house. Mostly it’s so my 3 year old can have a backyard, but, privately? I really want a lawn I can order those kids off of! 😉

  6. Old age? It depends. My uncle at 91 was chasing skirts, catching more than a few, and doing pretty much whatever he wanted to do. My wife’s uncle, at 93, drives hundreds of miles safely and still does our plumbing for us, as he has been doing for decades. My mom, at 87, was a physical wreck, but intensely alive.

    On the other hand, I’ve known people in their 70’s who were bedridden and collapsed into themselves, with no regard for anything or anybody but their aches and pains.

  7. I’m not terrified of old age – though I’m no fan of it, either – but the decrepit-codger-doing-nothing thing fills me with horror. I plan to die with my boots on; fortunately, that’s possible in academic life.

    In some ways, my life is better now than it’s ever been: my ideas probably aren’t as good as they used to be due to the normal cognitive decline of aging, but on the other hand I know a lot more (things and people) and get a much better hearing for whatever ideas I do have. As far as I can tell, the trick of remaining useful rather than slipping into anecdotage is having younger collaborators, and assuming that, when they disagree with you and you can’t convince them, you’re probably wrong.

    1. You are indeed fortunate to have placed yourself in a situation in which you can say this. Sadly, it is far from the norm (although until just a few years ago, I would have said the same).

      My vision of paradise is to be off the clock, and enjoying whatever activity is most suited to the moment: read all night; hike all day; drive to the ocean or the mountains; meet new people; immerse into creative projects; spend time creating simple but delicious food; listen to the wind; the choices are endless. Best of all: in full command of all the hours of my life for the first time ever.

      I am indeed fortunate to be living such a life after choosing to retire quite early, from a job that had become more ordeal than reward. Sure, I could have stayed on for years more to enhance my finances, but I am content and profoundly grateful for what I now have. Even better, my leaving opened up a position for someone in need of a job. Win-win (from perspective of 18 months post-retirement).

    2. Mark: You are like Harold Pollack, who wants to die in harness at 80 or more. I have no such ambition, will be happy to leave the world’s work to younger and better hands. At the moment, like you, I enjoy being in demand…but when most people perceive me as an old guy who is out of step with the times, they will probably be right and I will retreat to my chair by the fire without regret.

    1. Well, my grandfather knew ahead of time the precise day he was going to die, and by golly he was exactly right.

      The judge told him.

Comments are closed.