Attending a 50th birthday lunch, there was a moment to ponder the odd process of ageing, a process that seems odd because our physical age often seems years in advance of our mental and emotional age.
I knew a lady in her late-90s who defined the feeling succinctly, “The problem”, she said, “is that I don’t feel that I am the age I am”.
When she declared herself to be feeling tired one day, I said to her. “You haven’t been out night clubbing again?”
“She smiled, wryly, ‘The chance would be a fine thing; the chance would be a fine thing.'”
A favourite passage in the opening chapter of Milan Kundera’s Immortality captures that sense of timelessness that many of us have,
“She passed the lifeguard, and after she had gone some three or four steps beyond him, she turned her head smiled, and waved to him. At that instant I felt a pang in my heart! That smile and that gesture belonged to a twenty-year-old girl! Her arm rose with bewitching ease. It was as if she were playfully tossing a brightly coloured ball to her lover. That smile and that gesture had charm and elegance, while the face and the body no longer had any charm. It was the charm of a gesture drowning in the charmlessness of the body. But the woman, though she must of course have realized that she was no longer beautiful, forgot that for the moment. There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless. In any case, the instant she turned, smiled, and waved to the young lifeguard (who couldn’t control himself and burst out laughing), she was unaware of her age. The essence of her charm, independent of time, revealed itself for a second in that gesture and dazzled me. I was strangely moved.”
Perhaps there are as many people who feel themselves to be much older than they are; perhaps if all the ages people felt themselves to be the aggregate would be no greater than the aggregate of people’s actual ages.
Five years ago, research published by Purdue University suggested thinking yourself younger keeps yourself younger:
“How old you are matters, but beyond that it’s your interpretation that has far-reaching implications for the process of aging,” said Markus H. Schafer, a doctoral student in sociology and gerontology who led the study. “So, if you feel old beyond your own chronological years you are probably going to experience a lot of the downsides that we associate with aging.
“But if you are older and maintain a sense of being younger, then that gives you an edge in maintaining a lot of the abilities you prize.”
The age you feel on the inside really does matter, which maybe explains all the moments of laughter with the nonegenarian lady – and a sense that my friend’s 50th birthday was a matter of numbers rather than age.