Q I am a 65-year-old man, in good shape and run my own company. I recently had a cardiac procedure, which fortunately was successful and then spent the night in the hospital. The next morning I was dressed (jeans and plaid shirt), sitting in a chair ready to leave when a woman walked in and said, “You don’t look sick.” She then asked if I had any appliances. I had no idea what she was talking about and wanted to say I had a toaster and mixer at home. She finally told me that I didn’t look 65 and left in search of her next patient. What did she expect me to look like? Did she think I was retired because of my age? Why do we still have this “thing” about age 65?
A Dear B.J.:
In all likelihood the woman with whom you had the conversation was a social worker who was a discharge planner. These professionals play a vital part in case management. They help patients develop a care plan before leaving the hospital that will keep them as healthy as possible, safe and from having a relapse. The appliances she mentioned were likely references to a cane or walker. Let’s initially give the social worker some slack. She might have just seen someone your age with the same condition who had mobility problems and needed a walker or cane. Consequently she may have been shocked to see you with the same condition looking and feeling fit.
However, she also may have a stereotyped impression of what 65 looks like. And that number is still a marker. For many it has been the age to receive full Social Security benefits; for those born in 1960, that age moves to 67 years. Sixty five is also the age to collect Medicare. Age 65 also conveys the message of retirement. It originated back to the late 1800s when Otto von Bismark, Chancellor of Prussia, selected 65 as the age when a person could collect a full pension to retire. Average life expectancy at that time was 45, so most people did not live long enough to collect.
In 1935, the U.S. government adopted Bismark’s retirement age of 65 to qualify for full Social Security benefits. Life expectancy was almost 62 years. If you lived until 65, you were considered old. Note the official term for Social Security is “Old age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI).” Is it any wonder that we connect Social Security with old age? Today we think of 65 as the number of years lived, governed by how we feel, what we think and what we do. I asked several people what it meant to turn 65. Their responses varied.
“I felt that 50 was tougher, realizing that I had more years behind me than left to live.”
“Sixty-five was liberating. I don’t have to be polite.”
“Becoming 65 made me feel that it was legitimate to retire.”
“Sixty-five was a time of reckoning. Was I living the life I wanted?”
“I felt I was getting older when my back went out. I exercise now and take more time to take care of myself. I feel better at 70 than I did at 60.”
“Just another birthday. I feel healthy, dedicated to eating well and exercising so I can make it to 100.”
“I became more aware of my mortality.”
“Sixty-five gave me time to renew – to do all the things I didn’t have time to do before.”
“I am no different than at 35, except for my skin.”
“I felt in charge and more confident than when I was younger woman.”
“Sixty-five? I don’t even remember it.”
At one time, we could predict what people would do with their time at that age. It typically meant no longer working, collecting a pension, enjoying leisure time, volunteering and resting a bit. Today, it is difficult to describe typical 65 year olds. It is easier to describe them by their focus in life than by their chronological age. Their time and energy might be directed to leisure, work, family, taking classes, starting a new career, volunteering or traveling and any combination of these.
They also may be raising grandchildren, working on an invention, caring for an aging parent and dealing with divorce, building a home or helping an adult child. Age is a poor predictor of these activities. Today it is extremely difficult or almost impossible to guess someone’s age by looks alone.
B.J., thank you for sharing your experience. Hopefully interactions with those in their 60s and beyond will influence both professionals and ordinary citizens to become less judgmental and more realistic about age and what it means. Best wishes for continued health.
Send emails to Helen Dennis at firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to www.facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity. Her column will return on April 9.