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Lew Donohew: Age may be only a number, but aging presents reasons to deny growing old

We joke about people who won’t reveal their age. We think it is vanity, and maybe it is. But, as I have begun to walk in the shoes of these senior citizens, I have discovered there are several reasons to deny we are growing old.
One is that when others know your age, many of them treat you differently. You are no longer a part of the present, but represent the past. Functionally, you no longer exist.
So, I have come up with a couple of responses to deflect their question when people ask me my age. “If I tell you how old I am, you’ll be trying to help me across the street,” I say to some. And that’s as far as I go. To others, I ask: “How old do you think I am?”
Whether making a bad guess or simply to be nice, they respond with a figure that’s 10 to 15 years below my actual age. “I’ll settle for that,” I say, and move on to another topic.
Even more of a reason to hide our age, even from ourselves, is to avoid thinking about mortality. I know, of course, that although I have been fortunate enough to have fairly good health (except for that bypass 22 years ago), inevitably, somewhere down the road it will all come to an end.
Who wants to think about that? Not me. Probably not anybody I know.
The way I push that back to near infinity (in my imagination) is to look at the ages of my longest-living relatives and project that, since I am from a younger generation, I’ll live longer than they did.
I’ve mentioned before that one of my aunts died several years ago at 101 1/2. For awhile I thought I should make it to 102. But after thinking about that for awhile, I’m now beginning to think that with one-and-a-half generations between us that estimate might have been too conservative. In that much time, wouldn’t you think life spans should have increased more that six months? Maybe they should be 105.
That’s far enough away to seem like near infinity. I guess there’s no such thing as near infinity, but my projection is far enough away that I can comfortably slip back into denial about death.
In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe wrote about how the early astronauts — the ones who took us into space and then to the moon — dealt with fatalities. It was always pilot error and not something wrong in the system. That way, they had control of their own fate and could feel assured it wouldn’t happen to them.
There are, of course, frequent reminders of our mortality.
Each year, the ages of more and more people in the obituary columns are less than my own. One way to handle that is to quit reading them, but they seem to have a morbid fascination for me and I go on reading. Once in awhile they are about someone I know, even some who are old friends or relatives.
When I recall these people and their qualities, death seems like such a waste. A person spends a life developing a unique personality and, albeit not always, acquiring wisdom. Then, it all disappears in the bat of an eye.
I’ll grudgingly admit I’m no longer immortal, but I don’t plan to spend my time thinking about it. I’ll be too busy setting a new family record for longevity, so I won’t need to ponder that for a long, long while.


Lewis Donohew retired from the University of Kentucky College of Communications in 1999 after nearly 35 years of service and having earned a national reputation as a communications scholar and researcher. Now down on his farm growing grapes and living close to the earth, he contemplates issues of the day from a lifetime of experience and a love of the land.

To read more from Lewis Donohew, click here.

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