Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How Old Do You Feel?

When asked, during a recent interview, what people might be surprised to learn about her, the Irish novelist Maeve Binchy replied: "To know that even though I am big and lame and aged 70 and have breathing problems, I feel about 22 and optimistic and full of adventure all the time."

I so know what she means! There are times when my own reflection in the mirror startles me.  When did I get that white hair, that extra weight, those glasses, that aging face? When, in short, did I start to look like my mother? Especially when I still feel so young inside? Even though the calendar says I'm elderly, I am excited by ideas, feel very connected to the world and its events, and very committed to continuing to try to make a difference.  My spirit soars at the dawn of a new day or a beautiful sunset or an authentic moment with another.  Just under my deceptively grandmotherly facade, there is a young woman delighting in new adventures and old pleasures.

I've seen this phenomenon with friends as well.  A few years back, my college friend Georgia Watson was visiting California with three teenage grandchildren in tow. We arranged to meet at a restaurant in L.A.  As soon as she saw me, Georgie, sounding just like she did when we'd greet each other back at school after the long summer, squealed "Kathy! Kathy!" and ran into my arms.  Her grandkids were mortified. "Oh, Grandma," they groaned in unison, slinking into the background, hoping no one was watching. Georgie and I couldn't help giggling at their embarrassment. It felt delicious to be young-old friends greeting each other after far too long.

Sometimes the mind just won't let go of a young face. Michael Polich, a very special boyfriend of mine in young adulthood, just turned 70 this past February. Although we're still in touch -- via birthday and Christmas cards and major life events like parental deaths, surgeries and the like -- I haven't seen him for more than 35 years. Whenever I think of him, it is always as the twentysomething he was when we were together.  Even if I were to see him today, I'm sure I'd glimpse him through the prism of his youth. For even though I've seen my college friend Robert McVea enough in mature adulthood to know that he is a white-haired grandfather, when I think of him, the image that pops up is of the slim, red-headed young rebel I knew in school. And my friend Pat Hill, whom I have known since our kindergarten days, seems just as young and vibrant today as she was as a child -- and sometimes I see both the caring adult and the sweet child in her face.

On the other hand, there have been times, when seeing patients, that I've glimpsed elderly spirits in young bodies -- those who are so depressed, so overwhelmed, so hopeless about their lives that they've stopped dreaming or finding pleasure and excitement in anything. One of the greatest challenges of working with them was to help them reconnect with hope and with their youthful spirits.

So how old do YOU feel today? Your chronological age is much less important than how you feel inside. Do you still have dreams for the future? What excites you about today? What makes you smile?
What makes you feel like dancing? What brings you joy?

My husband Bob once asked my maternal grandmother -- who was in her 90's at the time -- how old she felt inside.  This was as my mother and one of my aunts talked around her as she sat quietly on the sofa. Grandma looked at Bob and smiled, pleased to be noticed, happy to share her secret. Her eyes sparkled suddenly and she said "I feel 18. I've always felt 18 inside."  And she winked at him, a fellow conspirator in the effort to retain the best of youth inside.

One of Bob's favorite moments in nurturing his youthful spirit came some years back when my sister Tai  and her young child Nick were making a rare visit from Seattle. Bob immediately started playing games with Nick, showing her magic tricks, sharing favorite Viewmaster slides and puzzles.  After awhile, when Nick took a quick bathroom break, Bob rejoined the adults. Soon we heard 8-year-old Nick's voice calling from the hallway: "Hey, where's the boy?? I want to play!"

"The Boy" became, in an instant, Bob's favorite nickname, the evidence that, despite his graying beard, his stiffening joints and his AARP card, he was still young at heart.

While our bodies age inevitably -- despite good diets, exercise, expensive creams or plastic surgery -- our spirit ages only as much as we allow.  The most wonderful combination might be the wisdom of age and the exuberance of youth, the kindness and compassion that come from life experience combined with hope and optimism -- so we can live with a youthful spirit of adventure every day of our lives.


  1. I love this post. This week my husband and I are on a Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) trip to build a Habitat for Humanity house in Lafayette, Louisiana. There are 20 of us, ages 62 to 82. We're all tired tonight, but today we made a difference as a group. Everyone is eager to be active and useful - and we are.

  2. Kathy, I'm so glad I found you. I always call myself the perpetual 12-year-old.

  3. Does being your (lucky) husband remove me from potential commenters?
    You're the best. I love your blogs.... even when I show up in there (and I suspect I'm in there, one way or another, more often than I'd like!).
    Bob ("The Boy")

  4. Enjoyed your Blog post mostly because it rings so true for me. One of my favorite quotes is "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?" (Sachel Paige)

  5. I think I don't feel the same age from day to day! Sometimes hour to hour. There are moments when I might be feeling petulant about something -- especially towards my husband ;-) and I feel the spoiled 8-year-old child ready to have a tantrum! I might be shopping and feel as when I was in my 20's and carefree, but a few hours later on the train, rather grateful to look old enough to have some young thing give up his or her seat to me!!! Today I'm not thinking about that much -- I've put my face on looked in the mirror and thought -- well not bad, I can live with that!!