Think About It: You’re only old once

I thought it was funny. I thought it would amuse these two wonderfully involved and thoughtful people. We were talking about developing a small project to reach all ages and persuasions in the community.

I was looking for a place in the project and said brightly, “I could be the token old person.” The funny part to me was saying “token old person” in Greater Sequim is like saying spaghetti is a token food in an Italian restaurant.

The formerly animated discussion went strangely silent, but not as strange as the looks on their faces. I assessed the look as being that pain one feels when one is called upon to comment when they would rather not.

One said something like I wouldn’t and the other said pointedly, “You’re not old, Bertha.”

I was just as bad at responding to their observations as they were at responding to my comment. Still, we are friends and moved easily beyond it.

I walked away thinking what fine friends they were to defend me even to myself.

I walked away promising myself never to put anyone in that position again.

I also walked away wondering what it all meant. I was joking or was I? They were protective of me, them or all of us? Does it matter? Is it important?

The pursuit of aging

I didn’t come to old age as a free spirit, that is, with an easy attitude of comfortable acceptance. For all my professional work around the health care continuum for aging people, I knew very little about the healthy natural process of aging.

I knew a lot about the pathological processes of aging from my work and from my own family. Father, mother and brother died of chronic diseases that ended after years of gradually diminishing quality of life. So far, I have outlived my mother by 10 years and my older brother by 26 years.

The only sensible path for me was to do what I do best – apply my planning skills to preparing for the journey to and through this final important phase of my life. Among the questions I sought to answer were:

What should I pack; what should I leave behind; what do I no longer need; what will I still need and how much room do I save for new things?

I would start by finding out everything I could about healthy natural aging. I would research the science of aging, the cultural environment for aging, and the old and new wisdom of aging and life phases.

I listed the characteristics and categories of aging and I outlined each category. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was writing a book on aging for women like me.

I found myself lonely in the process. I longed to talk with other women. What if my assumptions were uniquely mine and all or part out of sync with most realities. I developed a questionnaire around the categories I selected and sought women interested in being interviewed.

The journey took a long time – 3-plus years. I interviewed over thirty-five women between the ages of 55 and 75. I interviewed experts in medicine, gerontology, dermatology, sexuality and nutrition. In the end, I finished a book on aging for women which I’ve titled, “You’re Only Old Once.”

I made what I thought were grand attempts to market my book commercially and received numerous rejections and one request for a book proposal. I wanted to share it but I stopped when I learned that I had an inadequate platform. In other words, I had to convince literary agents that I had an audience of at least 5,000 people who would buy my book.

Friends encouraged me to self-publish which I could still do. What I did do was enter onto the cusp of old age armed with an understanding of what was important for me, what I could expect, what I could avoid and what I could not escape.

Anyone moving into getting old or in old age will tell you that it’s not easy; in fact, tell you at great length if you have time. For some, it is the classic complaints of stiff joints, less endurance, gravity generated pot bellies, and diminishing senses like hearing. For some, they are befallen with complicated, difficult, possibly irreversible medical conditions. It could happen any day to anyone.

Whatever state we are in, it is hard won and shouldn’t be denied.

What can I get you, young lady?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T (thank you Aretha). Don’t call me “young lady.” I’m not. Don’t stand next to me and my husband in the line for wine, wink and suggest we be carded. I like to think people are well meaning but what is, at best, kind or at worse, funny about the denial of one’s very essence?

There are occasions that I feel my nonviolent nature tested, but mostly, I get weary. Then, I am more understanding. Some things you don’t know until you’ve been there.

I am lucky to have yet another perspective. I have the wonderful advantage of still being with my much older “trophy” husband for 46 years. He doesn’t think nearly as much about this as I do. He simply pays attention to his body, does what he can, struggles that he can’t do what he used to and lives each day.

Every morning that we greet each other is the best day of our life. Many of you know exactly what I mean. Those that don’t yet, will.

Most people crave acceptance and love of who they are. Very little room for denial at any age in that very human aspiration. We know what to do.

If readers want to talk about aging, Bertha Cooper is available to facilitate group discussions on aging and women based on her unpublished book “You’re Only Old Once.” Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. She has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years. Reach her at

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