Don't let boomers define old age for those of us already there


AUBURNDALE, MASS. -- Like most 70-somethings, I can't pick up a magazine or tune into a talk show without encountering somebody much younger telling me what a great time of life I've arrived at.

In fact, all the wild enthusiasm about the joys of being "mature" is really aimed at baby boomers, who live in terror of ending up, heaven forbid, like their parents.

Do they honestly believe that you're only as old as you think you are? Are they really convinced they can remain "forever young" if they think positively, jog and eat tons of broccoli?

Of course not. Baby boomers may be charter members of the Me Forever generation, but they're also secret hypochondriacs, panicked about their genes, ominously well-informed about the rarest diseases. The best may be yet to come, but in the meantime, please pass the Prozac.

We detect a sneaky attempt to phase old age out of existence by making it an extension of middle age, pretending the so-called new friskiness is the norm. Every man ready to take his parachute and jump like George Bush. Every woman preparing, like poet Judith Viorst, to celebrate her 70th birthday by acquiring a tattoo.

Doesn't it occur to those prodding us toward the finish line that there's a subtle cruelty in asking us to "go for it" at 70-something as we did at 30-something?

Old age, it seems, is two different countries. There's real old age, for those of us who live there, and, on the whole, like it. At least so far.

Then there's old age for middle-aged control freaks -- a fantasy land where organ transplants and a biochemical fountain of youth bubbling with superhormones will cure old age.

Yes, people today enjoy better health and live longer. But does that mean a revolution is taking place? Life expectancy has been increasing since Cicero declared that old age began at 46, and a 46-year-old living to be 76 is more of a miracle than a 76-year-old living to be 106.

Compared with eternal life -- the promise of most religions -- the virtual immortality promised by our new secular alternative only qualifies as a stingy second helping.

I don't expect to convince baby boomers that if they bowdlerize the final chapter they'll miss out on the fullness of life in all its mystery, its sweetness, its terror.

On the other hand, boomers shouldn't count on converting us to their credo on modern immaturity, based as it is on the simplistic assumption that being young is the same as being happy.

Melvin Maddocks, a retired newspaper columnist, wrote this article for the New York Times.

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