How old is too old?
My test for when you ought to leave your job
Nancy Pelosi, at age 83, is running again for Congress. Mitch McConnell, at 81, has had two bouts of freezing in front of news cameras this summer. Dianne Feinstein, the California senator, 90, is having difficulty doing her job. At 80, Joe Biden is the oldest president the United States has ever had. Donald Trump, his likeliest rival in the 2024 election, is 77. Iowa senator Chuck Grassley is 89. The U.S. Senate is at its oldest in history.
How old is too old? In 1900, gerontologists considered “old” to be 47. Today, you are considered “youngest-old” at 65, “middle-old” at 75, and at 85, you are a member of the “oldest-old.”
I ask with some personal stake. I’m now a spritely 77 — lightyears younger than our president. I feel fit, I swing dance and salsa, and I can do 20 pushups in a row. Yet I confess to a certain loss of, shall we say, fizz.
Forgive me if I’ve said this before (I’m old and occasionally repeat myself), but Joe Biden could easily make it until 86, when he’d conclude his second term. After all, it’s now thought a bit disappointing if a person dies before 85.
Three score and ten is the number of years of life set out in the Bible. Modern technology and Big Pharma should add at least a decade and a half. Beyond this is an extra helping.
“After 80, it’s gravy,” my father used to say. Joe will be on the cusp of the gravy train.
Where will it end? There’s only one possibility, and that reality occurs to me with increasing frequency. My mother passed at 86, my father two weeks before his 102nd birthday, so I’m hoping for the best, genetically speaking.
Yet I find myself reading the obituary pages with ever greater interest, curious about how long they lasted and what brought them down. I remember a New Yorker cartoon in which an older reader of the obituaries sees headlines that read only “Older Than Me” or “Younger Than Me.”
Most of the time I forget my age. The other day, after lunch with some of my graduate students, I caught our reflection in a store window and, for an instant, wondered about the identity of the short old man in our midst.
It’s not death that’s the worrying thing about a second Biden term. It’s the dwindling capacities that go with aging. “Bodily decrepitude,” said Yeats, “is wisdom.” I have accumulated somewhat more of the former than the latter, but Biden seems fairly spry (why do I feel I have to add “for someone his age?”).
I still have my teeth, in contrast to my grandfather, who I vividly recall storing his choppers in a glass next to his bed, and have so far steered clear of heart attack or stroke (I pray I’m not tempting fate by my stating this fact). But I’ve lived through several kidney stones and a few unexplained fits of epilepsy in my late 30s. I’ve had both hips replaced.
And my hearing is crap. Even with hearing aids, I have a hard time understanding someone talking to me in a noisy restaurant. You’d think that the sheer market power of 60 million boomers losing their hearing would be enough to generate at least one chain of quiet restaurants.
When I get together with old friends, our first ritual is an “organ recital” — how’s your back? knee? heart? hip? shoulder? eyesight? hearing? prostate? hemorrhoids? digestion? The recital can run — and ruin — an entire lunch.
The question my friends and I jokingly (and brutishly) asked one other in college — “getting much?” — now refers not to sex, but to sleep.
I don’t know anyone over 75 who sleeps through the night. When he was president, Bill Clinton prided himself on getting only about four hours. But he was in his 40s then. (I also recall Cabinet meetings where he dozed off.) How does Biden manage?
My memory for names is horrible. I once asked Ted Kennedy how he recalled names, and he advised that if a man is over 50, just ask, “How’s the back?” and he’ll think you know him.
I often can’t remember where I put my wallet and keys or why I’ve entered a room. And certain proper nouns have disappeared altogether. Even when rediscovered, they have a diabolical way of disappearing again. Biden’s Secret Service detail can worry about his wallet, and he’s got a teleprompter for wayward nouns, but I’m sure he’s experiencing some diminution in the memory department.
I have lost much of my enthusiasm for travel and feel, as did Philip Larkin, that I would like to visit China, but only on the condition that I could return home that night. Air Force One makes this possible under most circumstances. If not, it has a first-class bedroom and personal bathroom, so I don’t expect Biden’s trips are overly taxing.
I’m told that after the age of 60, one loses half an inch of height every five years. This doesn’t appear to be a problem for Biden but it presents a challenge for me, considering that at my zenith, I didn’t quite make it to five feet. If I live as long as my father did, I may vanish.
Another diminution I’ve noticed is tact. Several months ago, I gave the finger to a driver who passed me recklessly. Giving the finger to a stranger is itself a reckless act.
I’m also noticing I have less patience, perhaps because of an unconscious “use by” timer that’s now clicking away. Increasingly, I wonder why I’m wasting time with this or that buffoon. I’m less tolerant of long waiting lines, automated phone menus, and Republicans.
Cicero claimed “older people who are reasonable, good-tempered, and gracious bear aging well. Those who are mean-spirited and irritable will be unhappy at every stage of their lives.” Easy for Cicero to say. He was forced into exile and murdered at the age of 63, his decapitated head and right hand hung up in the Forum by order of the notoriously mean-spirited and irritable Marcus Antonius.
How the hell does Biden maintain tact or patience when he has to deal with Kevin McCarthy or Joe Manchin or the White House press corps?
The style sections of the papers tell us that the 70s are the new 50s. Septuagenarians are supposed to be fit and alert, exercise like mad, have rip-roaring sex, and party until dawn. Rubbish. Inevitably, things begin falling apart. My aunt, who lived far into her nineties, told me “getting old isn’t for sissies.” Toward the end, she repeated that phrase every two to three minutes.
Philosopher George Santayana claimed to prefer old age to all others. “Old age is, or may be as in my case, far happier than youth,” he wrote. “I was never more entertained or less troubled than I am now.” True for me too, in a way. Despite Trump, notwithstanding the seditiousness of the Republican Party, regardless of the ravages of climate change, near record inequality, a potential nuclear war, and another strain of COVID making the rounds, I remain upbeat — largely because I still spend most days with people in their 20s who buoy my spirits. Maybe Biden does, too.
But I’m feeling more and more out of it. I’m doing videos on TikTok and Snapchat, but when my students talk about Ariana Grande or Selena Gomez or Jared Leto, I don’t have a clue whom they’re talking about (and frankly don’t care). And I find myself using words — “hence,” “utmost,” “therefore,” “tony,” “brilliant” — that my younger colleagues find charmingly old-fashioned.
If I refer to “Rose Marie Woods” or “Jackie Robinson” or “Ed Sullivan” or “Mary Jo Kopechne,” they’re bewildered.
The culture has flipped in so many ways. When I was 17, I could go into a drugstore and confidently ask for a package of Luckies and nervously whisper a request for condoms. Now it’s precisely the reverse. (I stopped smoking a long ago.)
Santayana said the reason that old people have nothing but foreboding about the future is that they cannot imagine a world that’s good without themselves in it. I don’t share that view.
I’m not going to tell Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Diane Feinstein, Chuck Grassley, or any other “middle-olds” and “oldest-olds” what to do.
But as for myself, I recently made a hard decision. At the end of April, I taught my last class after more than 40 years of teaching. Why? I wanted to leave on a high note, when I felt I could still do the job well. I didn’t want to wait until I could no longer give students what they need and deserve. And I hated the thought of students or colleagues whispering about the old guy who shouldn’t be teaching anymore.
Getting too old to do a job isn’t a matter of chronological age. It’s a matter of being lucid enough to know when you should exit the stage before you no longer have what it takes to do the job well.
It saddens me that I won’t be heading back into the classroom this fall. But it was time for me to go.