"I feel old." Three little words that can pop into just about everyone's head, just about any time. You walk past a store window, see your reflection, and realize you look like your father. Your back gives out during a workout. You play a game of softball at the company picnic and realize that running is now a painful process.
Even young people feel old. Take Matt McDermitt for instance. He recently turned 31. He bought a cup of coffee at a Starbucks at Duquesne University where he works as a social media manager. The barista called him "Sir," which was something his mother taught him to call older people when he was young.
He doesn't much like his birthday either, because with each one he grows farther from his days of youth. At the tender age of 10, he still remembers his uncle telling him it was the end of his single digit years. He didn't know what it meant then but he does now.
When someone says they feel old, it's generally not a good thing since "old" is applied widely and disparagingly. If a car is old, it's a wreck. If a skirt is old, don't get seen wearing it.
Laura Carstensen is a professor of psychology and founding director of the Stanford Center for Longevity. She says, "There is almost no way of saying 'I feel old' to mean 'I feel great.'"
According to her, people come to feel old for two reasons – one physical and one social. On the physical side, hairlines recede and a doctor prescribes heart medication. On the social side, the cue often comes from others, either directly like a, "You're too old to wear that" comment from a friend, or indirectly by comparing ourselves with others or the faster and leaner days we enjoyed long ago.
Dr. Carstensen is 63. She says feeling old matters. If you feel young, regardless of age, you tend to live longer than if you feel old, as in tired and sick. She says, "Subjective age predicts how long you live."
Bill Thomas is an author and geriatrician. He believes that people don't mind feeling older when it's in the context of being more capable and competent.
He remembers one time when he was playing with his fifteen year old son and realized his son was stronger than he was. "I was no longer the dad who was stronger," Mr. Thomas said. He says he's a big person who has always prided himself on his strength. "That time is gone from me and it's not coming back." He had to shift his ego strength from physical to emotional and intellectual strength.
He says, "Feeling old isn't bad. But it is really complicated."
At Trinity University in San Antonio, Carolyn Black Becker is a professor of psychology. She surveyed more than 900 women between the ages of 18 and 87. She found that more than half of the 18 to 29-year-olds worried about looking old. In part, she blames the proliferation of anti-aging products and procedures. They send a message that aging is bad.
Ms. Becker says that she celebrates age. Even though her birthday isn't until January, she says she's 50. Nonetheless, she was taken aback a bit when she received a mailing saying she would soon be eligible for senior discounts. "I'm not dying to be 28 again but even I found that it feels a little old to be a member of AARP.
A 2009 Pew Research Center study found that 60% of adults 65 and older feel younger than their age, with the gap between actual age and "felt age" widening as people grew older. Nearly half of those aged 50 and older say they feel at least 10 years younger, while a third of those 65 to 74 feel 10 to 19 years younger.
The Reverend Beatrice Lamonte turned 101 in October. She continues to preach at the small church she founded in North Versailles, PA. She traveled to Africa when she was 97 and recently passed her driver's test. This summer, she made her national TV debut on the 700 Club. She says people who spend their time talking about being old and sick feel old and sick, so she avoids it. "I haven't seen my doctor for about a year now," she says, "and the only reason I go to see him is because I like him and I have good insurance."
Jon Banuelos is a musician. Age hit him when he was about 35 and moved from flat Texas to hilly Pittsburgh and went for a long bike ride. "I came home and passed out for like five hours. I thought, 'What is wrong with me?'" Now 40, a friend recently asked him to play tennis. "I can't, man. My knees are hurting," he said. But the recent birth of his son has made him feel young and determined to stay fit. "I need to be ready for when he's 2 and 3 and running around."
Ellen Langer is a Harvard psychologist. She says that awareness of age isn't necessarily a bad thing. Appreciating that time isn't endless helps set priorities.
She believes that people feel and act old because that's what they are expected to do when they reach a certain age. That's because of things called cultural markers, like senior discounts. If anyone over 50 is sore after gardening, they tend to blame age rather than spending 45 minutes in an awkward position, she says. Dr. Langer was recently reminded of her own age after scrolling down an inordinate number of years on her computer to log in her 1947 birth date.