As quoted in an Atlantic article (12/2/12), psychological researcher Ellen Cole says, “Seventy is a major milestone for women—a wake up call.” She goes on to say, “It’s the age at which, according to Pew, most women think ‘old age’ begins.”
Wow. This struck home as I’m on this year-long celebration of turning seventy. I hadn’t thought about this year being the beginning of old age. But since I use to think anyone over fifty was old, I guess this is as good a time as any to enter that period of old age. And to add to this dire information, on the news the next day, I heard that the life expectancy of women is now age eighty-one.
It appears, then, that I’ve now started “old age” and have eleven years to go. Sobering when I think of all the things I still don’t know or haven’t done. It’s true that the more you learn, the more you’re able to see what you don’t know.
Take my class now at the University of Chicago Basic Studies program. Along with Thucydides that I’ve written about before, we’re reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813. I’m one of the few in the class that has never read Austen. Reading her engaging narrative about the early nineteenth century in England, I realized I don’t even know what’s real and what’s satire.
From my nursing education, which was very short on the humanities, I have only one reference point near that time period. When I was teaching nursing, I had access to a tape of a speech made by Florence Nightingale and to her writings, including a note in which she describes life as a Victorian woman in 1852: “The morning is spent sitting round the table in the drawing room looking at prints, doing worsted work, reading little books…. The afternoon is passed taking little drives…. When night comes women suffer physically the accumulation of nervous energy which had nothing to do all day and makes them feel every night when they go to bed as if they are going mad.”1 Thankfully, she broke through that expectation and pursued her interest in nursing.
Without this brief knowledge of Ms. Nightingale, I would know nothing about the nineteenth century in London. Plus, if I learned anything in English Literature in high school, it did not take up a permanent address in my brain. And this example is only a teeny piece of history that I don’t know. There’s so much more out there to learn. And so little time.
And, it’s not like I can avoid being reminded that my clock is ticking. The day after I read the Atlantic article, I was walking purposefully down Michigan Avenue when I heard a woman asking for volunteers to answer a survey. “A chance to earn thirty dollars,” she said. Thirty dollars to me means seven peppermint mochas, so I slowed down and approached her. She smiled broadly, happy to snare someone, I think, and said, “I first have to ask you your age.”
“Seventy” I replied.
Her smile vanished. “I’m going to have to reject you. I’m not allowed to interview anyone over sixty-five.”
Seeing the sheet on her clipboard featuring bright labels from cans of food, I said, “Well, if your next question was going to be whether I am the grocery shopper in my family, I would have had to say no.”
“Why,” she asked, her face a question mark.
“My husband shops. And he cooks for me.”
In disbelief, she clutched her clipboard to her chest. “Really! I’m jealous.”
I laughed. “That’s okay. A lot of women have hated me for that for a long time.” So I walked on, minus thirty dollars.
But then, later that week, being seventy turned into an advantage. When I got my flu shot, my friendly pregnant pharmacist reminded me, that with my history of chronic pain, it would be wise to get a shingles shot. At $219, I was not eager to get it, but she advised me to call my secondary insurance carrier. Lo and behold, another friendly gal told me that anyone in my household on our policy who was over sixty-five was eligible to have the shingles shot covered at 100 percent.
Do the math. I lost $30, but am getting $219 in a health service that should be a good preventative measure. So it’s all good, life should balance out while starting old age and having only eleven years to go. After all, my first decade of retirement was so rewarding—witnessing graduations and births of our grandchildren, moving to a city high-rise from suburbia, completing/publishing/promoting Caring Lessons, and more–that I’m hopeful this decade will continue to promise new and interesting things.
Next time, I’ll discuss the life lessons Ellen Cole has learned from her psychological research about aging, relating them to my life now. And, if you’re starting “old age” too, you can see how the findings relate to you!
1 As Miss Nightingale Said…, ed. M. Baly. (London: Scutari Press, 1991).