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ROBERT REICH ASKS: How old is old?

Who among us, retirees, doesn’t ponder that question at least once in a while? Particularly as we add another year with the arrival of 2024. When I saw the article online, I was intrigued. Even more so when I saw who had written it.  Robert Reich is a major public figure with a stellar political past, and a man with a brilliant intellect. And, he happens to come to San Miguel periodically. By the way, if you run into him on the streets, a polite “Hello” would be the appropriate thing to do. No autographs, no political discussions. When he is here, he is a private citizen enjoying the city, and I believe he deserves to be left alone.

His article is so beautifully written, with wonderful insight and wit, that I feel compelled to reprint it in my blog. I am sure many of you will find it as thought provoking as I did.

HOW OLD IS OLD? By Robert Reich:

In the spirit of Christmas past and future, and in light of the age of our likely two major candidates for president in 2024, I thought it a good day to ask: How old is too old? (Forgive me if I’ve asked this before. I’m old and occasionally repeat myself.) I have a personal stake in the answer. I’m now a spritely 77. I feel fit, I swing dance and salsa, and I can do 20 pushups in a row. Yet I confess to a certain loss of, shall we say, fizz.

Joe Biden could easily make it until 86, when he’d conclude his second term. After all, it’s now thought a bit disappointing if a person dies before 85.

“After 80, it’s gravy,” my father used to say. Joe will be on the cusp of the gravy train.

In 1900, gerontologists considered “old” to be 47. Today, you’re considered “youngest-old” at 65, “middle-old” at 75, and at 85, you are a member of the “oldest-old.” Three score and 10 is the number of years of life set out in the Bible. Modern technology and Big Pharma should add at least a decade and a half. Beyond this is an extra helping.

Where will it end? There’s only one possibility, and that reality occurs to me with increasing frequency. My mother passed at 86, my father two weeks before his 102nd birthday, so I’m hoping for the best, genetically speaking.

Yet I find myself reading the obituary pages with ever greater interest, curious about how long they lasted and what brought them down. I remember a New Yorker cartoon in which an older reader of the obituaries sees headlines that read only “Older Than Me” or “Younger Than Me.”

Most of the time I forget my age. The other day, after lunch with some of my graduate students, I caught our reflection in a store window and, for an instant, wondered about the identity of the short old man in our midst.

It’s not death that’s the worrying thing about a second Biden term. It’s the dwindling capacities that go with aging. “Bodily decrepitude,” said Yeats, “is wisdom.” I have accumulated somewhat more of the former than the latter, but Biden seems fairly spry (why do I feel I have to add “for someone his age?”).

I still have my teeth, in contrast to my grandfather, who I vividly recall storing his choppers in a glass next to his bed, and have so far steered clear of heart attack or stroke (I pray I’m not tempting fate by my stating this fact). But I’ve lived through several kidney stones and a few unexplained fits of epilepsy in my late 30s. I’ve had both hips replaced.

And my hearing is crap. Even with hearing aids, I have a hard time understanding someone talking to me in a noisy restaurant. You’d think that the sheer market power of 60 million boomers losing their hearing would be enough to generate at least one chain of quiet restaurants.

When I get together with old friends, our first ritual is an “organ recital” — how’s your back? knee? heart? hip? shoulder? eyesight? hearing? prostate? hemorrhoids? digestion? The recital can run — and ruin — an entire lunch. The question my friends and I jokingly (and brutishly) asked one other in college — “getting much?” — now refers not to sex, but to sleep.

I don’t know anyone over 75 who sleeps through the night. When he was president, Bill Clinton prided himself on getting only about four hours. But he was in his 40s then. (I also recall Cabinet meetings where he dozed off.) How does Biden manage?

My memory for names is horrible. I once asked Ted Kennedy how he recalled names, and he advised that if a man is over 50, just ask, “How’s the back?” and he’ll think you know him.

I often can’t remember where I put my wallet and keys or why I’ve entered a room. And certain proper nouns have disappeared altogether. Even when rediscovered, they have a diabolical way of disappearing again. Biden’s Secret Service detail can worry about his wallet, and he’s got a teleprompter for wayward nouns, but I’m sure he’s experiencing some diminution in the memory department.

I have lost much of my enthusiasm for travel and feel, as did Philip Larkin, that I would like to visit China, but only on the condition that I could return home that night. Air Force One makes this possible under most circumstances. If not, it has a first-class bedroom and personal bathroom, so I don’t expect Biden’s trips are overly taxing.

I’m told that after the age of 60, one loses half an inch of height every five years. This doesn’t appear to be a problem for Biden, but it presents a challenge for me, considering that at my zenith, I didn’t quite make it to five feet. If I live as long as my father did, I may vanish.

Another diminution I’ve noticed is tact. Several months ago, I gave the finger to a driver who passed me recklessly. Giving the finger to a stranger is itself a reckless act.

I’m also noticing I have less patience, perhaps because of an unconscious “use by” timer that’s now clicking away. Increasingly, I wonder why I’m wasting time with this or that buffoon. I’m less tolerant of long waiting lines, automated phone menus, and Republicans.

Cicero claimed “older people who are reasonable, good-tempered, and gracious bear aging well. Those who are mean-spirited and irritable will be unhappy at every stage of their lives.” Easy for Cicero to say. He was forced into exile and murdered at the age of 63, his decapitated head and right hand hung up in the Forum by order of the notoriously mean-spirited and irritable Marcus Antonius.

How the hell does Biden maintain tact or patience when he has to deal with Michael Johnson, Mitch McConnell, and the White House press corps?

The style sections of the papers tell us that the 70s are the new 50s. Septuagenarians are supposed to be fit and alert, exercise like mad, have rip-roaring sex, and party until dawn. Rubbish. Inevitably, things begin falling apart. My aunt, who lived far into her 90s, told me “getting old isn’t for sissies.” Toward the end, she repeated that phrase every two to three minutes.

Philosopher George Santayana claimed to prefer old age to all others. “Old age is, or may be as in my case, far happier than youth,” he wrote. “I was never more entertained or less troubled than I am now.” True for me, too, in a way. Despite Trump, notwithstanding the seditiousness of the Republican Party, regardless of the ravages of climate change, near record inequality, a potential nuclear war, and another strain of COVID making the rounds, I remain upbeat — largely because I still spend most days with people in their 20s who buoy my spirits. Maybe Biden does, too.

But I’m feeling more and more out of it. I’m doing videos on TikTok and Snapchat, but when my students talk about Ariana Grande or Selena Gomez or Jared Leto, I don’t have a clue whom they’re talking about (and frankly, don’t care). And I find myself using words — “hence,” “utmost,” “therefore,” “tony,” “brilliant” — that my younger colleagues find charmingly old-fashioned.

If I refer to “Rose Marie Woods” or “Jackie Robinson” or “Ed Sullivan” or “Mary Jo Kopechne,” they’re bewildered. The culture has flipped in so many ways. When I was 17, I could go into a drugstore and confidently ask for a package of Luckies and nervously whisper a request for condoms. Now it’s precisely the reverse. (I stopped smoking long ago.)

Santayana said the reason that old people have nothing but foreboding about the future is that they cannot imagine a world that’s good without themselves in it. I don’t share that view.

I’m not going to tell Joe Biden, Donald Trump, or any other “middle-olds” and “oldest-olds” what to do. But as for myself, I recently made a hard decision. I taught my last class at the end of April, after more than 40 years of teaching. Why? I wanted to leave on a high note, when I felt I could still do the job well. I didn’t want to wait until I could no longer give students what they need and deserve. And I hated the thought of students or colleagues whispering about the old guy who shouldn’t be teaching anymore.

Getting too old to do a job isn’t a matter of chronological age. It’s a matter of being lucid enough to know when you should exit the stage before you no longer have what it takes to do the job well. It saddens me that I won’t be heading back into the classroom this spring. But it was time for me to go.

(Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It.” Read more from Robert Reich at

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Gerald Teldon
Gerald Teldon

I enjoyed reading how a man who I admired, reflects on his being a certain age that’s only a number, who, as I, believe a positive attitude is 90 percent of ageing. Additionally, I have adopted a philosophy I refer to as SO WHAT! In my 99 years of being very lucky, I’m in a position to have the choice of “getting involved in things I consider important to what I believe in and not use my limited time and energy attempting to change anything else.” .

Natalie Taylor

Congratulations to you on your many years! Best thing is you are obviously still enjoying life. May life continue to be good to you!

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