Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

Warning: Don’t define us by our age!

Written by Barbara L. Finch, MLA, alumna of Washington University in St. Louis

Depending upon where you are in life’s journey, birthdays have a different meanings.  For children and teenagers, they are exciting milestones: ready for school (6), obtain a driver’s license (16), able to vote (18), legally buy a beer (21).

Between 21 and 50 there don’t seem to be many age-related occasions to celebrate (although when I turned (gasp!) 40, a friend showed up in my office carrying a brown paper bag with a bottle of gin and a straw inside.  It seemed appropriate).

At 50 we can sign up for membership in AARP and get “Modern Maturity,” the magazine for older adults that features glamorous photos of never-aging starlets on the cover.  And at 65 there is blessed Medicare, which relieves suffering for so many.  About this milestone, a friend once observed, “It is so much better to be 65 with Medicare than 64 without it.”

When I moved to an independent living retirement community a few years ago, I thought birthdays would mostly be ignored; after all, we are all old.  But I was wrong.  Sometime in the past (no one remembers when) someone (no one remembers who) started a tradition of giving a card to every resident on his or her birthday.  If this sounds silly to you, you don’t know the joy of opening 50 or 60 cards, some hand-made and many with a cheerful or thoughtful message, on a day when you might not have a lot to celebrate.

While birthdays here are marked with cards and cake, those of us who can hold on to 100 can expect a big celebration.  There are four women here who have passed the century mark, and all of them seem proud and delighted to be here.

One of them, though, would prefer not to discuss it.  My friend Muriel, who recently turned 104, told me the first time I met her:  “I don’t want to be defined by my age.”  I thought this was an admirable display of spunkiness, since she was more than 100 when she made this statement.

I recently spent an afternoon with Muriel.  She was seated in a comfortable chair in her apartment, surrounded by books and magazines and drinking a cup of strong coffee.  Her mind is sharp, her memory intact, she is a wonderful conversationalist, and she has a great sense of humor.

I broached the subject I had been wondering about.  “So,” I ventured, “if you don’t want to be defined by your age, what do you want to be defined by?”

With a wide smile and a raised fist, she responded, “Tikkun olam!” This is a Hebrew phrase  translated as “repair of the world.”  Muriel and I share a Jewish tradition so it didn’t surprise me that she said this, but I was surprised that it seemed top of mind for her.

There are many things that can define us in life:  the work that we do, the contributions we make, the lives we touch.  How many years we manage to accumulate is not the thing that most of us want to be recognized for or remembered by. We know that life is a crapshoot, but it doesn’t have to be a numbers game.