When I go to milestone birthday parties, I sagely offer this advice: The forties are about emotional pain, the fifties are about physical pain. I’m entering my sixties and realizing quickly and sadly that they are about … dang, it was on the tip of my tongue. Well, I’ll let you know when I remember.
A good friend and I decided to celebrate turning 60 in the same year by going on a week-long vacation together. Savvy travelers that we think we are, we were getting off public transit to go to our VRBO when my friend stopped in her tracks, gasped and called me by name, saying “I don’t have my purse”. I was in the lead, making my way through mid-afternoon traffic flow and looked back at her. She was panicked as she helplessly continued to pat down her arms, waist, shoulders for the purse strap. Fortunately, the purse was returned without loss a few hours later and we were able to enjoy our vacation without further incident.
My friend is reasonably well-travelled so it seemed strange that she left her bag on the bus, and I was disturbed by the experience and felt like I had to be on duty for the remainder of the stay, although she did help me get an awesome bargain at one of the shops we were in so she was looking out for me too.
Yesterday evening I was waiting for a 63 year-old-friend from out-of-town to come by for dinner. She called right about the agreed on time to say she would be late because she had misplaced her wallet and had been frantically searching for it for the last half hour and had located it at the grocery she had been at last and would be picking it up before coming my way.
Recently travelling with my adult kid, we were annoyed by the sound of drums on the airplane; an incessant digital drum beat that went on for at least an hour, just below the level of a normal conversation, the rhythmic tick-tick-tickety-tick/boomedy boom boom making us a little crazy. My kid said they felt like they were in Birdman; I thought it might be an electronic game someone was playing with the sound on, how rude. In typical boomer fashion, I wanted to call the attendant and get them to find the culprit. In typical millennial fashion my kid didn’t want me to make a scene. I leaned forward to get up and look around to see if I could find out where it was coming from and noticed my phone flashing blue in the seat pocket and realized the sound was coming from my phone. An alarm I don’t use much had gone off and I hadn’t recognized it.
Sadly I have come to the conclusion that the sixties are about mental pain – the pain of not remembering simple things that you’ve done before like making it off the bus with everything you came on with; the pain of being easily distracted and not able to talk and put your wallet away at the same time; the pain of not noticing you are the most annoying person in the room.
Next time you are out to eat, listen as a table of boomers tries to have a conversation. What you will hear is a disjointed set of separate topics loosely connected by things that everyone knows but can’t put words to, something like:
“We saw that movie the other night.”
“Oh, yeah, the theatre by the pond.”
“We were planning on seeing it but we were buying gardening things at the place”
“I love that actor – you know, oh darn I can’t remember her name, but you know…”
“The one with the red…”
“Sure, she was in that other movie with that other guy.”
“The one with the baseball. We saw that when we were in…honey, which place was that?”
“That was a great trip, we were there with the neighbors that moved to that city” …
And it goes on like that. The crazy part is that they all know what they are referring to without a single proper noun – no names, just vague descriptors that could apply to anything but they all know what each other is talking about like they have developed some new language that only they can understand. Anyone under the age of 60 feels like they are in an old-timey movie watching a comedy routine and wants to hit someone on the head with a nerf bat to make them stop. For some reason with age comes an inability to remember names and the insistence on talking in detail about things we can’t remember the names of.
This is not dementia or Alzheimer’s, at least not for most of us. It’s the pain of your brain aging. You can do crossword puzzles and sudoku to try and stave it off but it turns out your brain only recognizes a new behavior pattern for about 15 minutes and then it goes back to “Flowers for Algernon”, reversing your mental abilities in a sad, sad way. After awhile you don’t even know they’re gone and you’re just out there driving everyone else nuts as you try to put together a sentence. You ARE Abe Simpson with an onion in his pocket.
We joke about it amongst ourselves and list the benefits of being senior – like being able to wear sunhats under our bicycle helmets or welder’s sunglasses over our regular glasses, and not care how we look, or getting 10% off groceries on Tuesdays, but the fact is it is painful not to be able to remember things we know, things we knew a few years ago, things we did last week, shows we’ve already seen.
There are meaningful benefits to being older – we can do our jobs with confidence because we’ve been through pretty much every scenario that could be imagined and the confidence means we don’t question our own judgement or the results of our decisions so we don’t lie awake at night wondering if we should have done things differently. If we are no longer working we can enjoy a life of choices not governed by employers. Working through a lot of the emotional pains of our past and getting used to the physical pain of our present gives us a new perspective later in life, which – if we’re lucky and mindful – means we accept things more graciously and help other people to do the same.
The painful part of not remembering things, in addition to the inconvenience or embarrassment – is forgetting things that matter, like did I visit my good friend at her place by the lake last year? Or the year before when her husband died? I think it was both years and she can’t remember either but I wouldn’t have missed a year. Is that heart-shaped crystal stopper that my sister-in-law gave me while downsizing for a move what I gave her for her fortieth birthday? It looks familiar. Should I be offended or touched? I guess she never liked it. And which one is Jake Gyllanhaal?