In my twenties I thought that anybody over the age of 40 was old. From the perspective of ancient society, I was right. The Romans called a man under 40 a iuvenis, i.e. a young man (‘juvenile’); while a man over 40 was called a senex, i.e. an old man (‘senile’). In the ancient world there was no such thing as middle age.
Or does fifty mark the transition to old age? This was Victor Hugo’s opinion:, “Forty is the old age of youth; fifty the youth of old age”.
People used to link their definition of old age with the statutory retirement age, but since October 2011 there is no mandatory age for retirement in the UK. Currently the state pension age for men in the UK is 65; while the state pension age for women is increasing from 60 to 65. From 2019 the state pension age will increase for both men and women to reach 66 by October 2020. The government is planning further increases, which will raise the state pension age from 66 to 67 between 2026 and 2028. But to define old people as ‘pensioners’ is not helpful, for there are ‘old people’ and ‘old people’ – there are stages within old age.
Paul Stevens adopts three sub-categories for old age: ‘young olds’ are 60-69; ‘old olds’ are 70-79; and ‘oldest olds’ are 80 plus. The World Health Organization suggested that ‘the elderly’ are 60-74 years of age, whilst ‘the aged’ are 75 years and above.
Frankly I find these categories demeaning. Age has very little relation to the actual physical, mental or social health of people. At the age of 74 I don’t feel an ‘old old’; I certainly don’t feel ‘elderly’, nor am I ‘aged’. Like many older people I don’t really feel old. Indeed. in a survey of people over 80, although 53% admitted they were old, 36% reported that they considered themselves middle-aged, and 11% young. According to American research anthropologist, Sharon Kaufmann, “When old people talk about themselves, they express a sense of self that’s ageless – an identity that maintains continuity despite the physiological and social changes that come with age”.
One way of looking at the ageing process is to divide life into four stages or ‘ages’:
- First Age: Childhood
- Second Age: Paid work and family raising
- Third Age (the ‘Golden Age’): The age of active independent life beyond child-rearing and work. For some the Third Age can start as early as 50. This can be a very active period of life with many joining the University of the Third Age, and others serving as volunteers. Many churches are dependent upon on ‘third-agers’ to staff their activities.
- Fourth Age: The age of eventual dependence, often very short.
An imaginative approach to the life-cycle of older people was developed by Tim Stafford, who broke the years beyond 65 into seven “days of the week of old age”:
- The First Day – Freedom Day – begins with retirement which introduces the life of leisure
- The Second Day – the Day of Reflection – leads an elderly person to begin meditating on their life.
- The Third Day – Widow’s Day – comes with the loss of a spouse
- The Fourth Day – the Role-Reversal Day – begins when an older person needs frequent help to manage
- The Fifth Day – the Dependence Day – comes when a person must lean on others for basic needs.
- The Sixth Day – the Farewell Day – is the period of preparing for Death
- The Seventh Day – the Sabbath Day – is the day of worship, the day of rest.
However, what ultimately counts is not the years but the attitude. “You do not grow old”, it has been said, rather “when you cease to grow, you are old”. Or in the words of Eugene Bianchi: “The greatest tragedy for a religious person is not being a sinner, but the embracing of stagnation, the refusal to grow”.
For me growth is not an option. We are not just human ‘beings’, we are to be human ‘becomings’. So let’s resolve to grow – rather than just grow old!