I turned 70 in August. It felt momentous in a very different way from when I turned 50 and 60.
There’s little time to begin any stage of life other than the final one of Old Age. But those two words have changed dramatically – not just from when I was a child growing up on a farm outside Hamilton, when most people who reached 70 were either doddering or soon to be dead, but from when I wrote a book 10 years ago called The New Middle Ages.
It was about being 50 and 60, and its thesis was that menopause had changed, too.
No longer was middle age akin to sitting in a waiting room, fretting about what to do with your life for the next 20 years. Instead, life was a shopping-mall of choices and opportunities brimming with excitement and purpose.
I’d seen this change hundreds of times in my medical practice where I am a family physician and see Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man acted out in our clinic every day. I am now delivering the babies of the babies I first delivered, and telling their parents that they will spend more time caring for their parents than their children.
The stories that filled the book and columns in two daily newspapers came from my practice, from years of hearing patients talk about their out-of-control kids, their waning sex drive and serious health problems of their parents.
These middle-aged women also faced a quartet of major health issues – breast cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and failing memory. I believed back then that if you were a woman in your 50s and took care of your health by eating right, exercising and reducing your stress, you’d have a good platform to see you well into your 60s. All of that is still true. And as we boomers push the upper limits of middle age from beyond our 40s (which we did in the 80s), then beyond our 50s (which we did in the 90s), then beyond our 60s (which we’re doing this decade), what it means to be 70 will change just as relentlessly and dramatically.
That’s why I call this blog This Is What 70 Looks Like. It’s about our age and our attitude. Our 70s used to be most Canadians’ final decade, or at least our final active one. But it’s not any more. With Canadian women now living on average to be 83 and Canadian men 79, and with millions more of us staying healthier longer, our 70s hold all kinds of new promise. But because we’re the first generation privileged even to think that way, there are few guideposts for facing the realities and myths of what I call the “bonus” decade.
So let me begin my bi-weekly report by checking in on my own body.
I’m not too fussed by grey hair and wrinkles. And if you are, there’s a billion-dollar industry out there ready to make you feel less anxious about your age. But why bother? You’re 70 or will be here in a few years. There are much better things to spend your money on than trying too hard not to look your age.
Facial hair is another story. In the right light, stoking the sides of my cheeks, there are times when I could pass for a rhesus monkey. I decline scouring the ‘fur’ off, hoping it will wear away or disappear, like the transient coating of hair that sometimes covers the shoulders of a newborn. I remember my mom had porcelain skin in her late 80s, so I’m counting on a similar silken slickness. And while your body hair disappears as you age, what remains can sometimes catch you off guard when you wake up and suddenly notice your face carries a two-inch growth.
One of my other memories about Mom is that she always had handkerchiefs — up her sleeve, in her bra, always washed, ironed and ready to blow her nose. This was to fend off another hallmark of your 70s: rhinitis. This perpetual state of clear and freely running snot at any temperature below 10 C is my reality and embarrassment. I’m not prepared most of the time so it drips at the most inconvenient moments – in the middle of buying a coffee at Tim Hortons, in the midst of street conversations with friends. The labels on my running gloves never refer to the thumb padding as a snot catcher, but that is what it is for me and millions of others over 60.
But perhaps the most telling body change is my teeth, or more pointedly, my gums.
My recent encounter with my dentist affirmed that after gum surgery 30 years ago, I hadn’t lost a tooth on his watch. “Probably”, he mused, “You have more time to brush and floss.” More likely, he’s unwilling to pull teeth, which spawns waves of root canals, crowns and implants. And how about your eroding enamel? Yes, me too, the result of decades of grinding.
Our bodies change their configuration as well. Even though I spend a lot of time talking with patients about standing tall, when they hit their mid-60s, from their neck to their knees everything wants to move to the middle. Part of this stoop, I attribute to upper arm-wasting and soft bellies. Most women our age aren’t likely to be bodybuilding and so our shoulders droop and round down. The waist squares off and the whole torso looks like a block.
We’re not done yet. There are now those embarrassing moments when I sneeze or laugh too hard and if I’m not doing 100 sit-ups a day – and I’m not – don’t even think about doing jumping jacks as a corrective ploy.
Let me end my informal list by mentioning the unmentionable – the issue of passing gas. It used to be you had some choice of when and where you could do this. In your 70s? Not so much.
I consider myself healthy and whole and I’m on no medications. My memory sometimes acts like a worn 33 rpm record, skipping from one song to another, playing the same passage over and over, and then moving on.
On the other hand, my sense of patience is improving. There’s a kind of grace in knowing that if I can’t remember that name right at this moment, it will pop up tomorrow, unbidden. Not feeling anxious about our fading memories causes them to fade more slowly.
Time itself has also taken on a different quality. I’m sure it’s because it’s more treasured and appreciated. I’m not trying to jam everything I didn’t do in my first 60 years into my 70s. Rather, I’m accepting that there will never be enough time to do everything I want to do. But it’s important to make it all count for the time I have.