Why 80 is Not the New 60

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Beloved author and poet Judith Viorst on the complexities — and realities — of old age

I am not going to tell you that 80 is the new 60, because it isn’t. It is tempting to delude ourselves that 80 is the new 60, but it isn’t. There’s no question that I, and many of the 80ish women I know, look dramatically different from the way our mothers looked when they were our age. We pump iron, watch our weight, we no longer smoke. We eschew old-lady-ish clothes and too-done hair-dos. We live energetic lives; we notice who’s a sexy guy; and we have not yet given up on our own sexuality. Younger women — by which I mean those who are 50 or 60 years old — often tell us they find us most inspiring, assuring us that we surely can’t be anywhere near 80, because 80 to them means one foot in the grave.

Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that 80 is one foot in the grave, but it’s well past middle age and is no spring chicken. It’s 20 years older than 60. It is closer to 90 than 60. It’s exactly in between 1-0-0 and 60. It’s an age at which a lot of the people we love are being smacked down with Parkinson’s or dementia or one of those other rotten ailments that lie in wait. It’s an age at which we’re attending a lot of funerals. It’s an age at which we get up in the morning achingly and gingerly, and swallow at least ten pills in the course of the day. It’s an age at which our every symptom strikes us as probably fatal and every trip to the doctor is yet another chance to hear some really bad news. It’s an age at which we must call ourselves — having exhausted all the euphemisms — OLD.

And “old” means that whatever we accomplish from now on will burnish not our resume but our obituary.

Do I think about death? Every single day. But I’m also thinking, Lady, don’t waste this day. Because, if my days are indeed — as the song lyric has it — dwindling down to a precious few, I want to give each one my full attention.  Attending to the day, taking in whatever sweetness each day has to offer, is a skill that I have acquired at age 80.

But don’t cue the violins — I can still bitch and moan and whine and complain with the best of them, and often over the dumbest, most trivial things. And I can still, despite being married for 50 years, sulk over some silly something that my husband has been doing for 50 years. What’s different, now that I’m 80, is how much quicker I can stop with the moaning or sulking — and how much shorter a time it takes (now that so little time is left) for me to get over it.

I am sad that I will be leaving, to my own and to everyone’s grandchildren, a damaged, depleted world beset by poverty and war and unrelieved suffering. And I don’t forget, when I embrace the sweetness of the day, how bitter that day may be for countless others.

But embrace it I do — or try to do — even though, in my book of poems about being 80, I note that we’re ceasing to drive at night, that we’re taking our morning dose of Metamucil, and that glancing in the mirror makes us wonder, with a nod to Robert Frost, “Whose breasts these are I think I know. But have they always hung so low?” Embrace it I do, with a sharpened sense of gratitude for autumn’s slanted light, for having grandkids to spoil, and friends to hang out with, and wine to drink, and a husband with whom to read the morning papers. Embrace it I do with a gratitude that derives from knowing that 80 is not the new 60, and that now — this very moment — is the time for me to love what I’ve got while I’ve got it, the time for me to love what I can while I can.

Editor’s Note: Judith Viorst’s new book of poems is Unexpectedly Eighty: And Other Adaptations

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