Recently, a curious thing happened while I was sleeping. I turned 80. I could wear the “I’m 21 with 59 years of experience” T-shirt or drink from the “Eighty is only 13 in Scrabble” mug. But who would want to be an awkward, pimple-faced teen again? And 21 — yikes — if I knew then what I know now …
According to a study cited in 2017 news program by John Shoven, a prominent economics professor at Stanford University, I’ve turned the corner from “old” to “very old.”
For several months leading to this milestone birthday I was in a deep funk, locked into thinking the worst. Would I soon be incapacitated by a stroke, heart attack or dementia, dependent on others for my care and survival? I was a victim of my own negativity, like iconic Nell Fenwick tied to the railroad tracks with the No. 80 train barreling down and Dudley Do-Right nowhere in sight.
I had never attached any thought-provoking significance to previous milestone birthdays. Who feels anything but excited anticipation when you turn 10? That year I got my new Columbia two-wheeler and experienced my first birthday party.
By the time 20 rolled around, engagement to my first husband and my musical studies at the Eastman School of Music far outweighed the start of a new decade. At 30, after a divorce and remarriage, a new pregnancy after a miscarriage occupied my waking thoughts. I turned 40 a year after my husband, Will, died. I was consumed with caring for two young children, working and finding comfort in a new relationship with Josh, my husband for the past 37 years.
The big five-oh came and went while my son was in the throes of failing out of Carnegie Mellon; and at 60, celebrating retirement from a 30-year teaching career outranked my birthday. A week in Barbados provided a relaxing entree into my 70s, the mild climate a welcome respite from a frigid February on Long Island.
Strangely, as my 80th birthday crept closer, I started to feel better, began to see it was time to loosen the ropes, get myself off the tracks and board the train for a productive journey through the rest of my life. I’ve always had great energy and good health. Why should that change after midnight on Feb. 12? My knees and big toes ache with arthritis (no more sexy high heels for me). Upper arm tendinitis limits my heavy gardening (something I loved to do) and snow shoveling (which I shouldn’t be doing anyway).
But I’ve been lucky, no life-threatening diseases and no prescription medications. My hearing is sharp, and I have all my teeth. Cataract surgery gave me new lenses allowing me distance vision not possible for over 70 years without glasses and contacts. I’ve played the flute since I was 12 and continue to teach and perform throughout Long Island with the Flutissimo Flute Quartet.
Life is good.
When I venture to share my age with the unknowing, I hear, “No! I can’t believe it. You look great — I would have thought you were in your 60s. What’s your secret?”
“Luck and good genes,” I answer, inwardly fanning my good fortune like a proud peacock. “One of my aunts lived to be 103, an uncle 99. Mom was 93, and Grandma Van Hanegem, 91.”
My husband and children add, “Luck and genes, yes, but you live right, too, always keep your mind and body active, eat well and thrive on new challenges.”
Ernestine Shepherd, named the world’s oldest female competitive body builder by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2011, put it this way: “You’re not getting old; you’re getting ready.”
So, bring it on. I’m a young octogenarian and proud of it, intent on staying fit and living life to the fullest into my 90s and beyond.