I’m Getting Better, Not Older

The chorus in John Prine’s song, “Hello In There,” always gets to me. It goes:

“Ya` know that old trees just grow stronger,

And old rivers grow wilder ev`ry day.

Old people just grow lonesome

Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’

So if you`re walking down the street sometime

And spot some hollow ancient eyes,

Please don`t just pass `em by and stare

As if you didn`t care, say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”

The only things I remember about my grandmother, who died when she was 89 and I was 15, was how gross it was that she left her false teeth in a glass of cloudy water on the bathroom sink and that she smelled. I have all my teeth and I try to bathe regularly so I hope my kids have deeper memories of me.

They used to call it “extended families” when generations of grandparents, parents and children all lived under the same roof and cared for each other with loving concern and isn’t that quaint and doesn’t that sound like it was a million years ago in another universe? My grandmother lived with us in her final months but she was in ailing health and hard to care for so she was bustled between the homes of her three daughters, including my mother, so that doesn’t really qualify as providing loving concern for an extended family member but at least we didn’t shove her into a nursing home.

For all concerned, I am 71 years old and I hate to type that number and you can accuse me of being in denial or worse, but I am not an Old Fart, Codger, Over the Hill, Senior Citizen, Elderly Gent, Older and Wiser, Old Bag, Coot, Has Been, Fuddy Duddy, Old Goat, Retired Person, One Foot in the Grave, Obsolete and Out of Touch, a Buffer, a Colonel Blimp, a Gaffer, Old Bat, Old boy or Old Dear. I am Phil and please refer to me by name, even if you are just a teenager and I will then call you by your name and not refer to you as a little snot. I have to admit that as I get older it is harder to guess a person’s age and I see girls that look 15 but are actually 28 and guys that I would say are 40 when they are actually 51. I wonder how old they think I am?

The life expectancy in the U.S. in 2020 was 78.93 years so that means that when I turned 39 years old, I had hit the halfway point and it was all downhill from there or to say it another way, if I hit the average life expectancy, it will be all over in about eight years.

So who decided I need a label and who is it that is deciding when the label applies and that we are suddenly senior citizens, which is a euphemism for outgrowing usefulness and being closer to the grave and are no longer baby citizens, teenage citizens, early 30s citizens, 50s citizens? And who says that wrinkles and sagging skin under the arms are bad? Not me, although I do know that older men like myself can be considered dignified and still desirable but older women are just considered old, although not in my mind.

AARP offers senior membership at age 50 while the U.S. government says you can retire at age 62. Burger King and Dunkin Donuts considers senior citizen age to be 60. McDonald’s, Arby’s, and other restaurants offer senior discounts beginning at age 55. You can move into “age restricted” retirement communities when you’re 55.

I see an old person and I think “old person” not a person just like me and I conjure up all the stereotypes that I don’t want applied to me, like old people aren’t up to speed on current events and probably don’t know how to Skype and I just showed my age because I didn’t say “Zoom.” I do like it when people say that I don’t look 71 but I don’t ask then, what do I look because I’m afraid the answer will be that I look around 66, which I think is old even if it’s not as old as 71.

Paul Simon sings in “The Boxer”:

“I’m older than I once was

and younger than I’ll be

that’s not unusual

No it isn’t strange

That after changes upon changes

We are more or less the same.”

That about says it all.

In this country, when you get really old and lonely and your grown children are too busy to care and you wear a diaper and can’t walk to the bathroom anymore, they stick you in places with nice-sounding names but are really places to get you out of the way and they call them retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes where you live with total strangers who you may learn to really dislike.

Rather than think that getting old is getting useless, why can’t we be more like Korea where Koreans respect the elderly and even celebrate them with large feasts to commemorate the 60th and 70th birthdays. Or be more like China where it is an adult child’s honorable duty to care for his or her parents.

Is it a coincidence that Asian Americans have the highest life expectancy in the world while the U.S. stumbles across the finish line without a medal, in 34th place?

As it is written in Leviticus 19:32, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” Just saying.

Which reminds me of a joke I read:

John Henry decided that his wife was getting hard of hearing. He called the doctor to make an appointment to have her hearing checked. The doctor said he could see her in two weeks, and meanwhile, there’s a simple, informal test the husband could do to give the doctor some idea of the dimensions of the problem.

The doctor said, “Here’s what you do. Start about 40 feet away from her and speak in a normal conversational tone and see if she hears you. If not, go to 30 feet, then 20 feet, and so on until you get a response.”

That evening John Henry’s wife was in the kitchen cooking dinner, and he was in the living room watching TV. So, he decided, “I’m about 40 feet away, let’s see what happens.”

He asked, “Honey, what’s for supper?”

There was No response.

He moved to the other end of the room, about 30 feet away and asked, “Honey, what’s for supper?” Still, No response.

He then moved to the dining room about 20 feet away and asked, “Honey, what’s for supper?” He still got No response.

He moved to the kitchen door, only 10 feet and asked, “Honey, what’s for supper?” There was still No response.

He moved right up behind her and asked, “Honey, what’s for supper? “She turned and looked at him a bit miffed and said, “For the fifth time, CHICKEN!”


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