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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: May 2024

Dealing with the Perception of Old and Tips to Cope with It

Cathy Stricklin Krendl


  • How to deal with the stereotypes of growing old and prove you are not one of them.
  • Finding purpose through activities you enjoy can lift your spirits about growing old.
Dealing with the Perception of Old and Tips to Cope with It

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We look in the mirror and see grey hair and wrinkles. Our immediate reaction is that we are not only old but worse, we look old like the picture of Dorian Gray (even though we feel as young as ever on the inside). This problem is even worse for women. Older men are said to be distinguished, while older women are said to have “let themselves go.” If we judge ourselves this harshly, why are we surprised that others do?

Our Appearance

While we despair of wrinkles and grey hair, it is even worse when we easily gain weight that is very hard to lose and suddenly see brown spots sprouting on our hands and arms. I have fought with myself over my old appearance and have come to grips with it. In my 40s, I noticed my first grey hair, and I regularly went to the beauty shop to have my grey covered. Then I noticed that judges had grey hair, as well as the men with whom I negotiated. Shouldn’t I look more like them and less like some kind of trophy wife? I am now 79, and most days, I look 79. I am not motivated to sit in a chair for several hours to turn my grey hair brown or turn my wrinkles into smooth skin. However, I learn every day that old is a pejorative term. Rather than being appreciated for my experience, I am considered an old woman without as much to contribute to society as my younger self.

Our Opinions

Why is it that the day before we retire, we may still be considered not young but also not seriously old? Our opinions are relevant, even expert. They are sought because of our experience and many years of accumulated knowledge and life lessons. The day after we retire, we are old. Our opinions are outdated and irrelevant. Even worse, if we are old while we are still practicing law, we may be considered a drain on firm resources and “not pulling our weight.” I remember well when I first started practicing law. I looked at the law, the statutes, and the cases for an answer. As I became more experienced, I looked at the person first and only then looked at the law. A client may, as I learned, insist he or she wants to do “X.” After talking with the client, you learn “X” is not the best immediate or long-term solution for the client. I call that “wisdom,” not old and outdated.

Caveat please. These days, when clients want instant answers 24/7, it is much more of a challenge to persuade the client to talk with his or her lawyer, but it is still just as important.

Our Perceived Fragility

We work out. We take 10,000 steps a day measured carefully by our Fitbits or Apple watches. Yet, if we stumble, our children automatically assume we are destined for a serious fall. It doesn’t matter that we are simply clumsy and have tripped many times. Stumbles plus old age equals fragility. Yes, our gait may not be perfect, and we could stumble more than we should. Even though we have always been like that, now that we are old, we are deemed to be fragile and in imminent danger of hurting ourselves. We are also considered to be helpless. Although it is nice when someone helps me lift my luggage to the overhead compartment in an airplane, I know it is because I am old and not because I am out-of-shape. Save my pride. Let me do it myself. However, my back would say the heck with my pride.

Our Brains

We may have always had memory problems. I, for example, have always had trouble remembering names. True, it is worse now that I am old. Also, I now have trouble doing three things at once, which was crucial when I was practicing law full-time with three young children. However, I am very good at processing information. When my husband had Alzheimer’s, he could pass the memory test until close to the end, but he could not process information. What we can do seems not to matter. Looking old, we are classified as inept. For example, once, when I had gone through the Clear/pre-check line at the airport, the pre-check TSA agent who was supervising the luggage moving through the machines asked the Clear representative if I was actually pre-check. I have also been asked whether I was actually a Clear member. Those agents no doubt assumed that I did not know what I was doing because I was old. I am constantly referred to as “Ma’am” by the young residents of my apartment building. That is not simply a courtesy but an acknowledgment that I am old. “Sir” connotes respect; “Ma’am” connotes helplessness.

Our Leadership

We now have two candidates for President of the United States who are said to be too old. Why is age the sole criterion? Since when are knowledge and experience to be condemned, rather than honored? Are we so busy chasing blonde hair and Botox ourselves that we fail to value our worth and condemn those who do not hide their grey hair and wrinkles? Do we immediately conclude that someone who stumbles or can’t remember names is incompetent? Will we ever recognize that wisdom is hard to achieve and worthy of respect? Oh, and do we forget the heartaches, the mistakes, the humiliations, and the failures that were the price of wisdom?

Tips to Cope with Being Perceived as Old

What can we do, if anything, to help change the negative perception of old age? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Don’t whine.
  2. Don’t complain.
  3. Schedule and attend doctor’s visits.
  4. Don’t discuss your health in detail with others, especially your children.
  5. Stay in shape. Exercise by doing something you enjoy, such as walking.
  6. Eat healthy food, even if you have to cook the food yourself.
  7. Stay interesting. Read the newspapers and books and attend the theatre, opera, symphony, and/or athletic events. Discuss these with others.
  8. Find purpose. Look for activities that you enjoy and where you can make a difference.
  9. Be willing to quit activities that don’t work for you. I tried being a homeroom “Mother” for my grandson when he was in kindergarten. That didn’t work because I had nothing in common with the young Mothers.
  10. Continue pursuing your purpose until you find something you like.
  11. Don’t expect others to be your purpose.  It is wonderful to be there for your grandchildren, but be willing to let go. They will soon be teenagers with friends and activities and very little time. Be happy for them even though that means reduced time for you.
  12. Stop driving when your children ask you to do so. If you are in an accident and injure yourself and/or others, your children will have to deal with it.  Spare them.
  13. Keep your will, general power of attorney, medical power of attorney, and health directive up to date.
  14. Downsize and eliminate clutter. Don’t leave that sad task for your children.
  15. Find your final abode. If it’s your home, fine.  If it’s assisted living, check it out.  Then, when you need to move to assisted living, your children will not have to find a place that fits you.
  16. When you have accomplished most of the above tips, welcome to the Defying Age Club!