Having recently turned 50, I scheduled a spate of medical appointments, at the urging of my children, to make sure I wasn't falling apart. It seems, in fact, that I was. At the end of each exam, virtually every doctor sat me down, looked me in the eye and said: "As we age..." in that patronising voice that doctors often adopt. As we age? You don't need to tell me that everything is not in smooth working order. I can look in the mirror for that update. It's when your husband croons: "I love you just the way you were," that it really hurts.
We live in a youth-centred society. Someone over 50 recently complained to me that although she has a lot of institutional memory, a terrific work ethic and a great deal of work experience, she’s routinely passed over for much younger colleagues when applying for a job. She can’t prove it. She just feels it.
To this ageism, I spit out the words in Leviticus: “You shall rise up before the grey-headed and honour the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the Lord,” (19:32). In the Jewish tradition, we revere the process of ageing into wisdom. We regard it as a blessing, as we find in Proverbs: “A grey head is a crown of glory; it is found in the way of righteousness” (16:31). As we learn from our mistakes and hopefully grow in wisdom, we open ourselves to the possibility of greater piety and understanding.
I once asked my class to name one feature of ageing that they really enjoyed. Not one could name a physical change they appreciated, but they had no trouble identifying emotional benefits. There was the relief of expressing oneself more freely, understanding personal needs better, ridding oneself of baggage that had been carried for decades. They told me that they prioritise better and invest long-term in what they truly care about. They know who’s loyal. They know who their friends really are. This made me think of the prophet Isaiah: “Even to your old age I will be the same, and even to your greying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; And I will bear you and I will deliver you,” (46:4).
These verses and observations are not about the body but about the mind. In a universe of the body beautiful, it’s hard not to see age as a dent in the dream. But in a universe of scholarship, it is usually the young who are at a disadvantage, just as we read in Job, “Wisdom is with the aged. With long life is understanding,” (12:12).
And just as I was getting myself good and depressed that everything may not be in the same working order, I read this story. In January of this year, Amy Craton, a 94-year-old woman living in Honolulu, earned a college degree online from the University of Southern New Hampshire. She started college in 1962 but married, had four children and needed to work. She never finished. Online learning allowed her to study where she lives. She finished up with a perfect 4.0 GPA — a first.
Being in her nineties and in a wheelchair, she couldn’t receive her diploma in hand at the graduation. It’s a demanding flight. Instead, the university’s president, Paul LeBlanc, flew to Hawaii (hardship duty) and gave it to her. She’s their oldest graduate. In one photo, the frail Craton looks up at LeBlanc with gratitude for this momentous occasion.
“It feels good to graduate, but in many ways I feel I am still on the road; I have more to learn” she told a journalist. “If you’re thinking about going back to school, do it. You’ll open up a whole new life.” She is now studying for her Masters.
It’s a heartwarming story but, in our tradition, not unusual. As people of the book, we revere those steeped in learning. We don’t ignore the physical changes of ageing.
At the same time, don’t ignore Maimonides — philosopher, legalist and physician — who believed that only a sound body could produce sound ideas. It is the sound ideas that, in the end, offer us deep meaning and grounding long past the time when our bodies may let us down.
Jewish education of the young has always been about offering study skills to protect our minds when we’re old. Maybe it’s time to replace “ageing” with “sage-ing” and set new mental challenges for our golden years.