How old are you?
68 and a half. I love that half.
Everything I feel about aging stems from being a cancer doctor. For 35 years, I spent every working day in the presence of people doing everything in their power to live one more year or see one more spring. It’s imprinting as hell.
So when somebody says, “I’m so bummed I’m turning 50″ (or whatever age is making them wince), I immediately want to jump on my Cancer Clinic Soapbox and say, “Let me tell you about all the people I worked with who begged me to help them get to 50.”
This is why at this point I’m absolutely “I LOVE being 68. And a half.”
Is there another age you associate with yourself in your mind? If so, what is it? And why, do you think?
I suppose I think of myself in my late 40s: solo mom of two young kids, a busy doc with endless energy and willingness to take on more, confidence I could problem-solve my way through anything.
I still have that fundamental optimism but now it’s clearly pretty delusional.
Do you feel old for your age? Young for your age? Just right? Are you in step with your peers?
Mentally and emotionally I feel mature, seasoned, seen-a-lot-done-a-lot. I can’t do math as fast as I used to but that’s what calculators are for.
Mostly aging for me has been about the physical.
I became a Lunatic Pandemic Walker during Covid; “walk-and-talks” are now my primary social activity so I end up walking multiple miles most days. I also do weights and yoga and whatnot as part of my never-ending goal of being able to get up off the floor. It’s a low bar but a good one.
Most of my friends and I have done a reasonable job of taking care of our lungs and hearts and livers. But boy, joints matter. You can do all the right stuff and still become a prisoner of your joints.
What do you like about being your age?
Having an extensive personal history of getting psychically knocked down and getting up again—it adds up. I am 1000% wiser than when I was younger.
Plus those thousands of cancer patients provided me with long-term perspectives on life cycles and grace, as well as mantras I draw on literally every day. I do love all this wisdom.
What is difficult about being your age?
Definitely the physical limitations. Definitely these damn joints.
I have become accident-averse. I take my phone with me when I take the trash out. I watch myself in unfamiliar shower stalls, I’ve stopped fall-likely sports.
Still, stuff happens. I had several injuries this year and each one set me back some months. Plus the second I’m ill or injured I feel older overnight.
I increasingly recite something I learned from an 85-year-old masters-level athlete: “At my age I work out between injuries.” Getting older has meant needing a physical therapist on speed dial.
But the absolute worst part about aging is seeing friends and family get ill, and knowing it’s like an accelerating train.
In your 30s and 40s there’s maybe one tragic friend with pancreatic cancer or bad MS. Then in your 50s once or twice a year you have a friend get breast cancer or some weird thing like scleroderma.
But in one’s 60s, every MONTH there’s another bud with a new problem—a little stroke or early heart disease or an outright inability to pee.
And every year the issues get more serious. It’s liver nodules out of nowhere and lethal lymphomas and Parkinson’s and, oh, it has gotten so hard.
This is without question the worst part for me, seeing my peeps suffer. And losing them. And walking with them as I lose them. It’s a misery.
It’s where the cancer clinic mantras come in:
“I try to find a way to enjoy myself every day.” “I lay in bed and think about what makes me happy.” And another, “Every good day is a gift.”
What is surprising about being your age, or different from what you expected, based on what you were told?
1) I’m so different from my parents! I’m healthy and hearty and have lots of young friends. I have an active intellectual, physical, sexual and social life at an age when my folks’ lives felt much more constricted and contained (although now I wonder if they were in fact all that constrained).
2) My friends and I are so funny! I didn’t expect our rueful wisdom to be so hilarious at this age.
3) I have no patience with whining anymore, or self-created angst. It’s a rough road we’re all on, my darlings. We need to hold hands and buckle up and not create drama when plenty is coming and now is right around the bend.
What has aging given you? Taken away from you?
Wisdom. Perspective. Confidence that I know how to emotionally survive anything.
I have a strong sense of the clock ticking. Every week I am more aware that at some point my current pleasures will be less manageable and my life will be less filled with the ones I love.
Hence I’m in the carpe-the-fucking-diem stage of my life.
How has getting older affected your sense of yourself, or your identity?
So far not much. I’m struck dumb when I look in the mirror (who IS that?), but the rest of the time I just assume people are going to treat me with the respect and interest I deserve. I’m amused when they don’t — it’s their loss.
What are some age-related milestones you are looking forward to? Or ones you “missed,” and might try to reach later, off-schedule, according to our culture and its expectations?
After all those decades of being a cancer clinic doctor, I stepped away from formal clinical responsibilities into a “Covid-accelerated retirement” that’s turned out to be fantastic.
I’ve continued to work part-time as a physician writing, teaching, and helping people get second opinions about their cancers so I still feel smart, of service and engaged.
But all my work is remote and on my own terms so it’s meant a sharp uptick in the time I can spend on fitness, writing, travel, learning, relationships and just plain thinking.
Upcoming milestones: At some point I suppose “down-sizing” will have to happen, something I both dread and look forward to. What a waste of energy to have to spend time on “stuff!” Also: what a wonderful way to lighten up!
I’m working on my body donation/cremation plans and I look forward to getting it all finalized. For the third time.
What has been your favorite age so far?
They’ve all been jewels with the exception of the long period of bereavement after my first son’s death.
I’d love a do-over of being a mom of young kids. I wish I could just watch us with pleasure rather than constantly managing the endless To-Do lists I kept to create that wonderful life.
But I’d probably create To-Do lists anyways.
Is there someone who is older than you, who makes growing older inspiring to you? Who is your aging idol and why?
My friend Nancy Jokerst. She has had multiple careers and life transitions, including the loss of two of her four children and now her husband. She is still actively involved in a life of service and at 84 is an absolute badass.
Also, many of my cancer patients. Both the survivors and the people who died of their disease.
It has been a gift to watch people manage suffering.
What aging-related adjustments have you recently made, style-wise, beauty-wise, health-wise?
I still dye my hair. But I’ve let it grow out all curly and crone-like.
Body-wise: I work on fitness most days. I think about injury prevention and injury recovery many days. So far so good.
What’s an aging-related adjustment you refuse to make, and why?
I refuse to be invisible or to let society make me think I’m less worthy just because I’m older. After accumulating all these decades of wisdom, I refuse to buy into such a silly narrative. So I call out ageism when I hear it, which is unbelievably often.
What’s your philosophy on celebrating birthdays as an adult? How do you celebrate yours?
Some years are more celebratory than others. I try to have notable “milestone” birthday parties. But for intervening birthdays I’m good with a quiet acknowledgement of the wild and precious ride it’s been. And how much I love the people still around me.