We live in a society where money matters. People are ranked by income, power and status. But aging levels the playing field. Growing older reduces life to the basics and diminishes material, artificial and superficial distinctions and differences among people. As actress Jamie Lee Curtis once explained, “Getting old means pairing yourself down to an essential version of yourself.” In the later years of life, we finally understand that we are all more alike than different.
I realized this again while watching “41,” an HBO documentary about the life and career of George H.W. Bush. There was a past U.S. president and formerly the most powerful man on the planet, in retirement, admitting an acute fear of falling and describing his tendency to study the terrain while walking to determine how hard or soft a surface might be to fall on.
Wow! These same thoughts and fears are shared by all of us over 60. Who would have guessed that a rich and famous political icon would end up sharing the same fears with little old ladies in Minneapolis and elsewhere? Aging has a way of bridging what was previously seen as divisions between us.
You see this phenomenon at class reunions all the time. At the 10th reunion, appearances, posturing, status and bling are still important. At the 20th reunion, not so much. And at the 40th reunion, cliques and class distinctions have disappeared; and you may find yourself joking and talking with people that you wouldn’t have spoken to or eaten lunch with in high school.
I guess age is a friend of authenticity. As we become more accepting of ourselves, we become more accepting of others. As years go by, petty distinctions, economic disparities, material differences and contrived social separations lose their significance.
As older adults, we all have similar aches and pains, face possible knee or hip replacements and share the same worries about whether or not our money will last as long as we do.
After 60, rich men and poor men both fret about their legacy and how their grandchildren will turn out. They both worry if they’ve done enough or done the right things in life. And they end up sharing the same priorities—family, friends and meaning over bank accounts and possessions. As it turns out, old age is as close to a classless society as we ever get.
In the final third of life, what you did for a living, how much money you made, where you live or what kind of car you drive doesn’t matter so much. What kind of person you are does!
Maybe that’s what they mean by elder wisdom.