Getting Older. Real Life Stories
Getting Real about Getting Older
Linda Stroh, Karen Brees
GETTING OLDER. IF I COULD TURN BACK TIME…
“If you think you can do at sixty-seven what you did at twenty-five, chances are you were not doing much at twenty-five.”
One of the questions we asked the participants in our survey was: “What surprised you most about growing older?” The most frequent response hands down was that they had aged so fast. They simply couldn’t believe they were old. They felt much, much younger than they were. An overriding concern was that time was going too fast—now that they were old, they feared they couldn’t get everything done (even in a day) that they had hoped they would. They feared that time was running out.
GETTING OLDER. IT’S AS IF ONE DAY, YOU’RE JUST OLD
Many respondents told us that they had felt pretty much the same age for most of their adult lives. Their faces and bodies might have changed slightly, but the mental image they had of themselves had changed very little. At some point, however, they realized they were elderly. They felt and looked different for sure, and they thought differently about many things. Some said it seemed as if they had just awakened one day in a different body. It strikes us as curious that becoming older takes so many of us by surprise. We all know older people, and we see older people on TV (but, come to think of it, not too many), yet we tend to think thatwe will never be old. It seems that many of us think we will stay young forever.
Then, one day, we realize that we aren’t moving as quickly as we used to. Minor injuries take longer to heal. We’re not as strong or as mobile as we used to be. While most of us experience these changes gradually, the overall impression is that time went so fast! It seems like I just woke up one day and I was seventy-two. I guess I should have known it was going to happen, but most times, I just can’t believe it. I feel much younger. I wish I had known this was going to happen to me. I might have made better use of my younger years. It’s not even that I might have done anything differently or made different choices, I would have just more fully enjoyed being young. As I look at the current crinkles and wrinkles in my body, I would have more fully realized my body wasn’t so bad after all.
—Seventy-two-year-old crinkled woman. Getting Older.
It happened so quickly. For me, aging seemed to happen overnight. One day I could keep up with my son as we rode bikes through the hills and valleys of San Francisco. The next day, I was having a hip replacement. How did I not see that coming?
—Sixty-eight-year-old caught-off-guard professor. Getting Older.
I know it must seem hard to believe, but I don’t think I ever really thought I would be an older person. I didn’t think I would die young or anything like that. I have just never imagined myself as an older person. I could imagine myself as a parent, as a manager, or as a spouse, but I have never imagined myself as an older person.
—Seventy-year-old number cruncher. Getting Older.
When we finally acknowledge that we’re old—whether at sixty-five, seventy, or older—time continues to move rapidly. In fact, as we get older, time seems to go by faster than ever before.
Of course, although we may feel that time is flying by, it isn’t moving any faster than it did at any other point in our lives. One hypothesis for this change in perception is that our biological clock slows as we age. While we are slowing down physically, we perceive that the rest of our world is speeding up.
This sensation can partially be explained by the fact that it takes older people longer to do things than it used to, and as a result, they feel time is passing quickly. It’s not just our older respondents who observe this. Changes in the perception of time as we age is a topic of interest to writers and researchers as well. Experiments have shown that older people really do perceive time as going faster, as compared to younger people. In her book Time Warped, Claudia Hammond recounts an experiment in which twenty-year-olds and seventy-year-olds were asked to indicate when a minute had passed, without counting the seconds. The seventy-year-olds were less accurate than the twenty-year-olds. A minute seemed to go by a lot more quickly for the seventy-year-olds.
When we look back at our lives, certain events stand out. As we grow up, there are many things for us to accomplish. There are skills to learn, people to meet, milestones to reach (first crush, first job, first everything). So many memorable moments are crammed into the early part of our lives. I can clearly remember the big events of life: getting married, starting/buying businesses, births, deaths. But the everyday of life passes in a blur. Those events in my life were memorable. It seems as though I have fewer big memorable events now that I am older, fewer “markers” in my life.
—Seventy-three-year-old used-to-be entrepreneur. Getting Older.
As our respondent noted, as we age, the number of new and memorable events decreases. We can only do something for the first time once, and as the gaps between these big events increase, we fill in these gaps with less memorable events and activities. As a result, time seems to be going faster. I guess the best analogy I can think of is the toilet paper roll. You know how when it gets down near the end, it seems to go so much faster. Well, I feel just like that toilet paper roll, now that I’m getting near the end, my life seems to be going so much faster.
—Sixty-nine-year-old mountain man. Getting Older.
Of course, the toilet paper roll really does go faster as the circumference of the roll decreases, but for our sixty-nine-year-old mountain man, it was an important analogy.
Psychologist Jean Piaget coined the term schema to describe how our brains categorize events in order to store and retrieve information more easily.7 The first time we have an experience, he wrote, we remember it with greater detail because of its novelty. We’re less likely to remember subsequent similar events with such detail, and we assign fewer memorable markers between each experience. Fewer life-changing events tend to occur as we get older, which gives the illusion that time has passed more quickly, given we have so little to show for the time that has passed.
GETTING OLDER. REALITY CHECK
Anticipating an upcoming event gives us the perception that time is moving more slowly; similarly, events that we dread seem to last a long time, while we perceive fun or exciting things to go by quickly. If you want to increase your perception that time is moving less quickly, do more and stay more active.
1.Getting Older. What events have you experienced that you can picture vividly? When did they occur? Should you plan more “firsts?”
2.Getting Older. What events have you experienced recently that were life-changing? Can you describe them in great detail?
3.Getting Older. What activities or events would you consider planning that could be life-changing, or at least something you could anticipate and look forward to?