From the Country of the Young-Old

By Jonathan Silin

I was completely rattled when it happened — a young man in his 20s offered me a seat on the bus. I turned, sure that he was speaking to the person beside me. But no, he clearly meant me as he stood up. I demurred. Certainly I was not yet ready for the kindness of strangers.

At home a glance in the mirror does not lie. Some mornings I barely recognize the drawn, craggy face I see there. How did this happen, I ask myself even as I note that the face looking back at me is fast becoming the face of my father and his five siblings, three of whom lived into their 90s. This patrilineal resemblance, less frequently glimpsed when I was younger, was once a source of curiosity, belonging, even reassurance.

The thought of roots soothes, says the French philosopher Roland Barthes, and the thought of the future disturbs and agonizes. Now the sight of my transgenerational genetic essence elicits equal measures of disbelief and resignation, alienation and recognition. Profoundly unsettling. I don’t linger.

The mounting evidence of public encounters and private confrontations with the mirror tells me that I have clearly crossed over into the country of the “young-old.” This is the term that sociologists have adopted to describe the period, roughly 60 to 80, when we are no longer shouldering the responsibilities of middle age — establishing careers, nurturing families, changing the world — and still able to enjoy active lives and contribute to the broader society. After a decade of caring for my fragile, elderly parents, I relish this staging of the increasingly long lives that many of us are now fortunate enough to live.

Between middle age and old-old age, I find myself, along with 76 million baby boomers, confronting inevitable questions of retirement, health, and legacy. But five decades of working with and thinking about young children’s lives helps me to realize that the challenges young-old age presents are not so different from those we have faced earlier in life.

Although buried in the busyness of middle age, we all grapple with the tension between independence and dependence. Gray panther Maggie Kuhn reminds us that interdependence is the truth of our lives at all stages. Each individual, every generation, needs those who came before and those who will follow. While in the big picture the young are moving toward independence and we young-old are moving toward increasing dependence, in our daily lives both young and old experience a heightened push-pull between the desire to stand on our own and our need to rely on others.

The psychologist Adam Phillips tells us that from the moment we are born until we die our central challenge is to make sense of the losses that mark our lives. Regardless of age, we move forward through compromises, substitutions, and denials. While the young-old more obviously grieve the loss of friends and family, even physical and cognitive skills, children too are deeply affected by the loss of closeness with first caregivers, at times temporary at others permanent, at times imagined and at others real.

Both the young and the old strive to be visible in a world that shuns those not seen as economically productive. No one who has spent time with young children can doubt that they want to be seen and heard, to make their mark on the world. Now my life as a young-old person tells me that it is also critical that we sustain a sense of social relevance as we age. Current education policies promote testing and standards-based classrooms that leave little space for students to voice and explore their own interests. Older people in a youth-oriented, throwaway society often wrestle with how to make their lives count and leave their imprint.

Focusing on similarities rather than differences across time, a common world emerges in which we can better appreciate people of different ages as more like ourselves and less the other whom we may ignore, disregard, and underfund. It mediates against age-segregated institutions that limit the opportunities that the young and old have to learn from each other. For the young remind us of the importance of play, the imagination, and self-expression, while the old not only share routes taken and not taken but also the wisdom they have accumulated from fording difficult times.

Entering the landscape of the young-old is never easy. But we can more quickly orient ourselves once there when we recognize that its geography poses similar challenges to those we have met before. Perhaps the next time someone offers me a seat I’ll just have the confidence to accept it as a privilege granted rather than a marker of declining capacity.

Jonathan Silin is the author of “Early Childhood, Aging, and the Life Cycle: Mapping Common Ground.” He lives in Amagansett and Toronto.