Reaching 75, the downward slope of the great divide


WE'RE only as old as we feel, right? Men and women not uncommonly work past 65. Three score years and 10 no longer have great significance. And 75 is just another year, or so I thought until my turn came last year. Then I learned differently.

Two life insurance companies, both strangers to me, wrote "Dear Edgar" letters to inform me ahead of time that on June 14 I would be 75. I could only presume that their actuarial tables showed that an American male of my age couldn't remember his own birthday. Maybe I also wasn't expected to notice that the "life" policy they offered was small enough to be what we used to call a burial policy.

Maryland Blue Cross-Blue Shield skipped the salutation and automatically increased my premium. Its adjusters didn't wait for the actual birthday, dating the price jump from the first of the month, two weeks before I became a greater risk.

Shortly after my birthday I got a surprise notice that I had outlived the life insurance policy that I had taken out early in my working years. The money was now mine, I was told. Maybe it should be a good feeling to beat the insurance odds, but to me there was a sense of living on borrowed time, beyond my allotted years, and getting the money intended for survivors.

Most disturbing of all was a substantial increase in our automobile insurance rate when renewal time came. The larger part of the cost rise was attributed to our living within city limits, although only a mile or so from the supposedly safer suburbs. Another $80, however, had been added because I was no longer in the preferred driving age bracket that runs from 50 to 74. My driving record was just as clean as before. The birthday, however, had made me a greater liability.

While insurance companies are dogmatic but wholly impersonal in their age assessments, many doctors are inclined to be less precise but quite personal in what they attribute to advancing years. Those of us who have reached senior status frequently find that most any common ailment will get a medical diagnosis that begins with: "At your age . . ." Some of us by now have heard those three words often enough to call it the AYA syndrome.

Still, I had not previously thought of age 75 as the downward side of the great age divide until last September. Vacationing in Maine, I found ordinary outdoor activities would cause my left leg to swell painfully. I tried to blame it on an arthritic knee, but a hot pad only helped the knee, not the leg.

The local internist whose skills we admire first made certain that a blood clot was not causing the swelling and then told me bluntly that I had "incompetent leg veins." When I protested that "incompetent" was hardly a nice way to put it, he paused only briefly and then said, "Well, how about old and tired veins?" Since he added that there was nothing he could do about it, old and tired became a reflection of age 75.

At about the same time, also in Maine, there came an afternoon when I couldn't keep my balance. I staggered around the house like a drunken geezer. Worried family members rushed me to the hospital emergency room, where it was obvious from the outset that the doctors were proceeding on the assumption that I must have had a stroke. No signs of a stroke could be found, but the joy went out of that vacation. (Back in Baltimore, I discovered that the vertigo was caused by fluid in the middle ear, which the proper pills eliminated. Later, a young, Hopkins-trained internist prescribed a medication for the leg swelling. Gradually the swelling was less severe and so was the pain.)

Much longer lasting was the insidious effect of all the attention given my age. Our house is surrounded by assorted greenery, flower beds and lawn, all of which require strenuous work. Despite arthritic twinges and muscle strain, I had found satisfaction during the first 10 years of retirement in scraping paint, digging up honeysuckle roots, splitting wood and trimming hedges. If I did too much lifting or bending, retirement provided time for a nap or hot bath.

Last fall was a different story. When it came time to get out the big stepladder and wash the outside windows, or wrestle heavy wooden storm windows into place, or rake up bag upon bag of oak leaves, I grumbled to myself that this was too much for a 75-year-old. I did the work, but without the former satisfaction. The AYA syndrome had taken a debilitating toll.

The winter does not bear recalling, so much precious time was wasted. Essential chores got done, but none of the inside painting projects. After dinner I slouched in an easy chair, pretending that a crossword puzzle was constructive mental exercise, when I should have been upstairs doing the writing that I had always enjoyed. Good friends had dreadful ailments, dire human misery abounded in the world, while I used a lame excuse for inactivity. The more I sat, the stiffer the back and leg got.

There came a fresh springtime, the prettiest in our 40 years as Baltimore homeowners. From the first snowdrops in February through the early spring flowers and on to the iris, lilacs, peonies and roses, everything bloomed in profusion, with the lilies now awaiting their turn. Being outside was a pleasure, even though anywhere one looked there were weeds, sprouted acorns, rampant vines and invasive shrubs that required vigorous action. After initial protests each day, my back and leg yielded to the bending, digging and lifting. I was good for at least four hours a day of hard labor.

If "old" is only in the mind, as retirement literature assures us, then the thing to do is get it out of mind and onto paper. Look ahead. Think positively. And to me nothing could be more inspiring than the knowledge that after Friday I'll never be 75 again.

Edgar L. Jones used to write a column for The Evening Sun and editorials for The Sun.

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