No one starts out with the goal of becoming a senior citizen. It just sort of happens to you one day. Recently it just sort of happened to me. As it has, I am beginning to realize things about me and my situation in life that will never be the same. In some ways that is not encouraging. But, in other ways, it opens up to my experience a lot of understanding about the whole aging process and about the perceptions that go with it.
I remember when I was a young man of 20. I remember thinking that, wow, I’m not a teenager anymore, I getting old. Then I met the plant’s new quality control manager. He was 27! One day I asked him what it felt like to be that old! He laughed and said not much different from 20.
When we are young, time seems to go much slower. I think it’s for two reasons. First, the same amount of time is a much larger chunk of our lives. When you are five, one year is 20% of your life. When you are 50, you’ve been through it 49 time before, and one more isn’t a big deal.
Secondly, there are a lot more milestones to reach when you are young. There is talking, walking, the interminable waits for Christmas and birthday presents, learning to ride a bike, to spell, to read, the write, to just about anything. There are the slow, agonizing years waiting to get out of kiddie school and up with the big kids in junior high. Then, finally, we arrive at high school. High school is like a mini lifetime all its own Seems like there is a major milestone every day, what with grading and sports and clubs and dances and parties.
Then, all of a sudden, it’s over. There is college for a lot of people. But college is the big step into adulthood. Sure, you still have some social fun. But you start to get into the work routines and the specific job skills that you hope to carry you for the rest of your life. You have to learn how to budget, keep track of all the paperwork and bills, and maybe you find a spouse. If you don’t decide on college, you go right to the job. In a few years, you settle into the work-a-day drudgery that is yours until retirement. The rest of your working days are spent trying to save enough to be able to not starve when you retire.
When your are still young, by which I mean under 50, you have the aches and pains, but they go away and you have some days where you still feel young. It never occurs to you that there will come a time in your life when the fatigue and the pain don’t seem to go away. So you think you can just keep on working till you die. Of course, you kinda have the idea that you will not really get old until that moment when you are ready to drop. Retirement will be fun and exciting. You have to keep that hope alive, because it’s the only thing you have to look forward to for forty years.
Now, I have no children. I understand why people want them. Heck, I want them, too. Back in the pioneer days, everyone wanted and needed children to run the farm and take care of the folks when they got old, which, back then, meant 35. Now we don’t have those kinds of needs. But parents still get older, and they stay older for a looooooooong time. So, parents need kids, even those in their 50’s and 60’s, to help them keep out of those dreadful places we used to call “nursing homes.” Now they call them “retirement communities.” A lot of older folks who never had kids like to go there to hang around other old people so they can swap stories about medications and who had the best operations, but mostly so they can be in a crowd of people that pretty much moves at the same pace–slow and careful. Plus it’s nice not to have to care for a house and make meals anymore.
However, especially among those who didn’t have great paychecks, invest well and can afford twenty years in a retirement community, the idea of moving out of one’s own home is quite depressing. My own folks have been blessed, so far, to stay in their house. But there are signs that the run is about done. They were smart enough to have everything in place, like powers of attorney and living trusts, so that, if it happens, we far away children won’t have to make too many decisions. Still, it nags in the back of everyone’s mind that it’s time to be prepared.
And, of course, when you have children, the cycles of looking forward to things keeps repeating itself. Each new child born gives the parent a chance to live all the milestones over again. Eventually, children lead to grandchildren, and so on.
I often find it sad that so many couples have decided to have just one child, or maybe none at all. What we always hear is that we have a responsibility to keep from overpopulating the world. But we shouldn’t be inclined to think that way. First of all, the poor of the world are filling our void anyway. When people who are blessed with all the advantages for raising a big family fail to do so, they are merely ensuring that most of the children born in the world will be born into poverty. So, instead of decreasing the poverty cycle by having fewer children, well off couples are actually increasing poverty by not having more children.
In most developed countries, the birth rate has fallen to 1.5 children or less per couple. Statistics show that it takes at least 2.6 births per couple to keep a nation or ethnic group from becoming extinct. Hard as it may be to believe, The United States, most of Europe and even China are all on the verge of extinction. Theorists tell us that the earth can only support a few more people than the 7 billion we already have. But all kinds of new technologies exist that could, if needed, produce enough food to sustain 150 billion people!
I guess, when it comes down to it, it’s either fear or selfishness that causes people not to have more children. Now, I’m not saying that all those mothers on welfare should keep popping out children that they can’t afford and can’t raise properly. But I have known many, many middle-class families that learned to get by quite well with half a dozen or more children. And, despite the fact that studies show that only children are more successful, money made is a very poor measure of success. Having siblings made me a much better person.
Now, as I get to the point in my life where I am the “crazy uncle” to so many people’s children, I begin to really see what I have missed. You can bet that, even though I often feel put upon by parents who want me to help with their kids, a bigger part of me is sad because I can’t really raise them as my own. I only get to borrow them for awhile. I work a lot, read a lot, blog a lot, and do all manner of things to try to pass the time that I wanted to, at this point in my life, have filled with the stories of my children raising their families.
The other day, I blew my knee out carrying a piano. I’ve carried hundreds of pianos before and tweaked my knee countless times. But, this time, it was different. This time, the pain lingered for four days. This time, I looked up and realized just how tenuous is my remaining hold on a strong and healthy body that will not need major repairs. It forces me to double down on my efforts to eat right, live right and be more careful with my body. It definitely brings me to my knees in prayer on a daily, hourly, basis. And it makes me wonder if I can hold out until I finally catch up to the ever-increasing age of social security, and what to do if I’m unable to retire at all and can’t work either. (I think euthanasia will probably be the law by then. Laws against the old are enacted by young people who don’t think ahead too well.)
So, double nickels it is. Old by the standards of the 20 year old I once was. Young by the standards of the incredible octogenarians, many of whom still work. I come from long-lived people. Many see one hundred. I’m not sure I want to go that long, given how hard it is to get out of bed now. I think the answer for wanting to keep going is having something to look forward to. This world so made for young people keeps right on ticking with or without the older people. Most times, it seems like older people are irrelevant. But they are only so if we make them so. Or if we make ourselves so. But children need us. They need aunts and uncles and grand parents, even if those people are not blood relations. They need mentors, people with perspective, people with advice and possibly a little capital to invest when the cause warrants it. Double nickels is the new quarter, I’m going to keep telling myself. I won’t stop trying to be a father, literally or not.