On my 77th birthday, I’m coming out again: I’m coming out as old. That means I’m officially a part of the “old old,” among “the most vulnerable” during this COVID-19 pandemic. I’m now a part of an age group that our society may prefer to be invisible and may feel worthy of being discarded.
But as Oliver Sacks wrote at 80-years-old, “I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over.” He also wrote, “I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too.” My feelings about aging began to change when I heard a man in Houston say, “I’m 82, and this is the best time in my life.” I knew I had to learn what he had discovered.
I found that with old age come freedoms: I can work when I choose to, I see “networking” as a pointless activity if it’s with people I don’t really like, and I stopped wearing neckties that now seem like a pretentious costume. I wear a gold earring to symbolize that what others think of me no longer matters as much as it once did.
The sense of freedom is absolute. I am less stressed, less depressed, worry less, rarely angry, and I experience more joy, happiness, and satisfaction. I have the things most important to us as we grow old: health (I’ve been blessed), financial security (I could have done better), and lots of relationships with people I love (as demonstrated by birthday greetings, too many to respond to.)
The isolation imposed by this pandemic is difficult because one of my greatest joys is my connection with other people. I can remain connected on social media, of course, but I miss your hugs more than anything. (Men giving and getting hugs is another freedom that has come through growing old, and it saddens me to think I had to wait until old age to recognize that.)
So, I’m coming out, again; I won’t lie about my age or try to hide it. Our society may wish for me to become invisible, but I will not be silent. I may have less energy than I once did, but I will use what energy I have to look for ways to find meaning during the limited and diminishing days I have remaining.
What I would like you to give me on my birthday is to let go of your fears of growing old and to look around and celebrate the lives of those of us who are already old. As Sacks said, I’ve not only experienced a lot of life, but I have experienced your lives, too, and I am very grateful for the gift you’ve already given me.
Thank you for enriching my life.
Previously Published on Psychology Today