Mindy Greenstein Ph.D.

The Flip Side

50 Years Already?

Thoughts on the arrival of big round birthday number.

Posted Nov 30, 2012

Recently, I submitted an essay to an editor at a women’s magazine.  She loved it. But, she hated to tell me, the magazine was skewing younger these days, a lot younger, like 23. I’ve been hearing that a lot lately.  As if to underscore the point, just a few weeks later, this 40-something editor got axed herself, after years of wonderful work. Magazines that used to cater to 40 year olds started caring instead about 30 year olds.  And why are employed 40-somethings already getting AARP cards in the mail? Now, even Oprah wants younger readers—like 20 years younger— according to The New York Times. And here I am, having the bad taste to turn 50 in just a few days, wondering who will want me as a reader.   

I guess I should be feeling pretty bad about getting older.

I don’t.  I didn't always feel this way.

One bright summer’s day in June 2006, I found myself stuck behind an elderly woman  as she hobbled down  Riverside Drive. She must have been in her late 80’s or maybe 90’s, small, frail and hunched over her walker with tennis balls squeezed around the legs to make them glide more easily.  It was taking her a very long time even to get to the corner of the block.  I was in my early forties (i.e., the new late twenties) at the time, and used to walking at a brisk clip. Normally, I sprinted past slow walkers in the standard New York City I’m-in-too-much-of-a-hurry style, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that to this poor woman, so I forced myself into a tortuous creep at a respectable distance behind her, as I waited for the right unobtrusive moment to move ahead.

I was thankful when she reached the corner and turned left onto the side street, allowing me to pick up my pace to my usual trot. I felt bad for her. How I would hate to be that woman taking a half hour to walk a couple of blocks.

One week later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wouldn’t know for weeks whether it had spread, or what my chances were for a cure. I didn’t know if I’d make it to 50. And I thought, oh, to be that lucky woman! What a privilege to be able to creep along the avenue, knowing I’d made it through the decades ahead.  And when my treatment was over, and I was left to go back to living my life, that feeling only got stronger.

Besides, old age doesn’t always mean slowing down. I started to collaborate with Dr. Jimmie Holland’s geriatric psychiatry team, devising group and phone therapies for elderly cancer patients. Dr. Holland and I are now working on a book about the experience of aging. She’s 85. I’m holding on to my forties, if by a sliver. And I can barely keep up with her.

We often think of growing older as part of the Faustian bargain of life.  We don’t really think of it as growing at all, but as deteriorating. And, just as I once had feared, my waistline isn’t what it used to be, my looks aren’t what they used to be, even my walking speed isn’t what it used to be. But, oh, what I’ve learned.

I’ve learned to be grateful to even make it to 50! And to look forward to the privilege of, hopefully, 60 and 70 and 80 and 90. I’m happy to get the tennis balls ready, if necessary.

This morning, I found myself walking behind a woman in her twenties. She was teetering in that style of platform stilettos so popular now, the ones that remind me of something Herman Munster would have worn if he’d become a transvestite hooker. I could have tipped her over with the slightest nudge, but just sprinted past her instead. Now, there was someone whose shoes I really didn’t want to be in.  

Click here for my book (an O: The Oprah Magazine Title to Pick Up; with Foreword by New York Times columnist David Brooks): The House on Crash Corner and Other Unavoidable Calamities—about the sad, hilarious and meaningful ways we deal with the crises in our lives.