If you’re a baby boomer, you’ve probably experienced this by now: That moment when you realize you can remember a time when your grandparents were younger than you are today.
I did the math and was unnerved to realize that my grandmother was in her 40s when I was a child. She was active and spunky, but she was an old lady. She wore housedresses and Keds, with her gray hair in a tight perm, burnished with a tinge of blue.
Today I know plenty of women in their 40s who wear skinny jeans, high heels, and long hair — and pull it off. Nobody would call them old ladies. So that got my editor and me wondering: How old is old?
I started asking people of different ages. Reflecting surveys along these lines, the younger the interviewee, the earlier the person was likely to deem someone old. People my age (55) or older were particularly resistant to naming a number. Many insisted that age is a state of mind or that you’re only as old as you feel. And when a 69-year-old woman was described as elderly in a New York Times story, some readers were livid.
Was that a reasonable response and, if so, how should we quantify old? Current measures of population aging count people as old after age 65, but today many are still healthy and independent at that age. Using 65 incorrectly inflates the number of people who are dependent and that skews policy makers’ decisions, according to a 2013 study, “Population aging: the time bomb that isn’t?”
So we took a look at old age from various perspectives, then and now.
Who knew you could be young and old?
60-69 The “young old”
70-79 The “middle old”
80+ The “very old”
49 Sandra Bullock’s age when she played astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone in the 2013 film Gravity.
50 Age of creepy aging movie star Norma Desmond (and of Gloria Swanson, the actress who played her) in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard.
60 Ellen Corby’s age when she played Grandma Walton when The Waltons TV show debuted in 1971.
66 Meryl Streep’s age now.
69 Age of actress Helen Mirren, who signed a contract last year to become the face of L’Oreal Paris in the United Kingdom.
62 The beginning of old age, according to Plato. He divided life into six phases, the last two being old age (62-79) and advanced age (80+).
70 Typical lifespan, according to the Bible.
84 In the Hindu tradition, a significant birthday, the age at which the person has lived through a thousand full moons. In some cultures, an 84-year-old is considered a “living ancestor.”
Old age is … fluid
60 The average age when you become old, according to survey respondents, ages 18 to 29
68 Average age at which respondents of all ages said old age begins
70 The age at which middle-aged respondents said that a person becomes old
75 The age at which respondents, ages 65 and older, say that the average person becomes old
SOURCE: “Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality,” published June 2009, based on a Pew Research Center survey of almost 3,000 adults
Milestones in the history of aging
1949 The year when the average life expectancy of American women hit 70.
1976 The year the first Baby Boomer turned 30
1979 The year when average life expectancy of American men hit 70.
2011 The year the first Baby Boomer turned 65
Still going strong
75 Age of Jack Nicklaus (center) when he hit a hole-in-one at the Masters par-3 contest in Augusta, Ga., in April 2015.
76 Age of John Fredrickson, the oldest marathon finisher, Dallas Marathon, 2014
92 Age of Harriette Thompson, who became the oldest woman to complete a marathon when she finished the San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in June.
96 Age of Tao Porchon-Lynch, the oldest living yoga teacher
97 Age of Heinz Wenderoth of Germany, the oldest person to earn a doctorate (Doctor of Science degree, 2008)
116 Age of the oldest living person, Jeralean Talley, a Michigan resident, born May 23, 1899.
SOURCE: PGA.com; runnersworld.com; Guinness Book of World Records; and other reporting
Thoughts on aging
“I am no spring chicken but I am not an old lady. I don’t know when middle age starts, exactly. According to my current edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, middle age is the ‘period between young adulthood and old age, now usually regarded as between about forty-five and sixty.’ Sixty? Nice try, Oxford.”
Amy Poehler, in her book, Yes, Please (AGE: 43)
“In your twenties, you always secretly think you’re the one person who’s never going to grow old, your evidence being that the next day you’re not old, or the next or the next — ta-dah! But one day, you’re thirty, and no matter how well-preserved you look, chronological limitations begin to become apparent.”
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, “Misfits Fit Here,” essay in Good Bye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York (Seal Press, 2013)
“Old age is not for the fainthearted.”
Mary C. Morrison, author, Let Evening Come (1998)
“Old age is always a bit older than you are.”
Jeffrey Love, AARP Research Director
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?”
Satchel Paige (1906-1982)
My, how the view has changed
“Never trust anyone over the age of 30.”
Berkley student and activist Jack Weinberg (left window), 25. The retired volunteer and environmental advocate lives in Chicago and is now 75.
“When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?”
Lyrics to “When I’m 64,” written by 25-year-old Paul McCartney, who is now 73, and still rockin’
“This is what 40 looks like.”
Famous line from Gloria Steinem, now 81. When she made the comment in 1974, many older women wouldn’t reveal their ages — or fibbed.
62 Average retirement age in the U.S. in 2014
64 Walter Cronkite’s age when he retired in 1981
82 Age of Charles Osgood, who is still anchoring CBS Sunday Morning
‘Chronological age comes to mean less, the older people get’
Laura L. Carstensen is founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and a professor of psychology at Stanford University. On a recent visit to Dallas, she spoke with special contributor Mary Jacobs for our story on chronological age.
How old is old?
There is no answer. The bottom line is it’s about health. To the extent that people are healthy, I think they don’t feel old. That’s a problem. Linguistically we associate age with negative things.
If I say, “I feel old,” people think that means, “I’m tired, I’m aching, my joints are bad.” And if they say, “I feel young,” generally that means they feel good, and healthy, and fit. That’s the conundrum.
Some of the people I interviewed felt we need a new word for whatever is between “middle age” and “elderly”?
Has anybody come up with one?
No. Parade magazine about a decade ago had a contest. They asked their readership to come up with a new name that would describe that stage in life between ages 60-74. And they declared it a total failure. They just couldn’t come up with a word that satisfied people. There isn’t a word.
But that period after when we traditionally said we entered old age —65 or so — no longer feels old. That group of people today is the physically healthiest, best educated group of older adults that has ever lived in human history. When we say, “They’re old,” it doesn’t make sense. They’re engaged, they’re active, and many of them are pursuing new careers, new pursuits of all sorts, so it doesn’t fit.
However, I do think there is some benefit to talking about the years where people tend to be more physically frail and tend to need help. When we collapse the years from 60 to 100, and say, “That’s old age,” well there’s such a huge difference in those ages. It’s really more about how much time you’ve got left than how much time has passed since you were born.
What do you mean by that?
If you’re close to death, most people aren’t doing that well. If you’re going to die at 70, then 67 might not look that good. You might be functioning like an old person. But there are a lot of 67-year-olds who are out running marathons and working and running the world. So it’s more about illness.
So if you’re going to live to be 100, you’re probably very healthy at 70, 80 and even 90. There’s a point in life where it’s much more meaningful to think about how much time people have left than how much time since they arrived.
Chronological age comes to mean less, the older people get. If we took two 2-year-olds, you and I could make very good predictions about what they could do and couldn’t do. But with two 80-year-olds, we can’t make any predictions about what their functioning is like. So chronological age comes to be a poor predictor of function.
As I researched this story, some people bristled at the question. They were reluctant to label anybody, even a 90-year-old, as “old.” What was that about?
It’s because of the connotations. “Old” means decrepit to people. “Old” means that you don’t function well.
But we have reached a period in history in which “old age” is a decades-long period of time for most people. And during those decades, most people most of the time are going to be functioning really well.
I feel there are two competing myths — “Age is just a number, you can do anything at any age.” Or the opposite: “You’re old, it’s over.” Is there a middle ground?
Ageism is unlike sexism or racism, where the beliefs and stereotypes are actually false. If you say, ‘Older people are frail, they need assistance, their memories are bad’ … that’s true for a lot of older people. But if we just say, ‘There are no problems with aging,’ there’s a whole successful aging movement in the country and in academics, people studying how do people age successfully. It’s always a little troublesome because we’re all going to be frail. Yes, some of us are going to get hit by trucks. But most of us will have a period of time in our lives where we need people to do some things for us: driving, running a household, paying finances, hearing, getting out and about. These are real issues that are associated with age.
The danger is when you say, ‘Well, that’s age, we need to respect that, and older people are like that.’ Instead I think we’ve got to start picking off the problems and saying,‘These are problems.’ So if 20 year olds had difficulty walking long distances, we would not say, ‘Oh, it’s because they’re 20.’ When people [who] are in their 70s have trouble walking long distances, we say, ‘Oh, they’re old.’ That means we don’t figure it out.