Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Those golden years

Richard Sobel
Kibbutz Revivim, Israel

Image of painting, The Golden Years by Joseph Burrough
The Golden Years
Joseph Burrough

“I’ve only ever had one wrinkle, and I’m sitting on it.” Jeanne Clement was one hundred ten years old but cheerful and lucid when she made that remark during an interview. She may still have been smoking: she stopped only when her vision became too poor to see the cigarette well enough to light it. Then, there is Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Roman Senator for Life and a medical scientist. She shared a Nobel Prize with Stanley Cohen—(and Victor Hamburger, another centenarian, should have been included)—for the discovery of Nerve Growth Factor. This indomitable woman was still active in her laboratory when one hundred years old. No doubt there are ninety-year-old stevedores still tossing around fifty kg crates as though they weigh no more than a child’s helium-filled party balloon and eighty-year-olds running iron man races. Magazines for old folks, and that seems to mean anyone over fifty, are invariably filled with inspiring stories about elderly people who, except for their wrinkled hands, seem—with a touch or two of botox—to have defied aging, and others whose daily schedule would exhaust most thirty-year-olds.

Being eighty years old myself and fortunate in many ways, I could testify to the pleasures and advantages of old age but I could also list a litany of the sad, unpleasant, uncomfortable, frustrating, and just plain old tragic experiences that also are often part of old age. As at any age, it is a mix of the good and the bad but the older one gets the more the scale tips toward bad news. The day starts out fine once you put yourself together with eyeglasses, hearing aids, medications, and a cup of strong black coffee—but then you get news that a close friend is hospitalized with a stroke or a malignancy. Emails begin like medical reports from the battle-front with news of deaths and casualties even if they end aiming for cheerfulness by announcing a grandchild’s upcoming wedding, a birth, or a child’s success of one sort or another. An unanswered email sent to a friend who usually answers promptly is a source of concern: death, disease, or a progressive dementia are more likely explanations than a sudden end in the friendship.

When I started this piece, my intention was neither to praise being old nor to whine about old age, but to share with you my annoyance with the label Golden Years, a misnomer and inapposite term if ever there was one. Whatever the upside, there is no way that the term Golden Years can refer to a stage of life when buying a green banana is high risk behavior.

When was this term introduced? In my limited search for the term’s origin I found many references to the song, “Golden Years” but the lyrics have nothing to do with old age and the term was in use years before this song by David Bowie was first presented in 1975. It seems more likely that Golden Years was spun out of Golden Anniversary. The custom of recognizing a fiftieth year wedding anniversary by giving a golden wreath to one’s wife dates back, at least, to medieval Germany and possibly to the days of the Roman Empire. Anyone celebrating a fiftieth year anniversary will be retirement age. So, with a bit of conflation, Golden Anniversary mutates into Golden Years: the Golden Years would be the age of celebrating a Golden Anniversary. I suppose the term could tie in to the practice of giving a gold watch to retirees: a fifty dollar watch for fifty years of work, a dollar a year of thanks from the boss. Or, perhaps a well-meaning social worker, geriatrician, or retirement village CEO introduced the term in a pep talk or article for the elderly. The Golden Years: whoever introduced this condescending term for old age erred badly.

Gold, the seventy-ninth element in the Periodic Table is identified as Au 79: Au refers to Aurora, the goddess of dawn, of the morning glow, of the fresh cool morning breeze. Could there be a less appropriate goddess for old age? We need a mythological figure representing dusk, evening, the damp chill wind of night, autumn, or winter to represent the final stage of life. Selene the goddess of the moon could be a candidate.

Ancient people regarded gold as the perfect substance. Aureate artifacts dating back 5,000–6,000 years have been found in Bulgaria and in Egyptian tombs. Gold is the most malleable and stretchable of metals, a lustrous substance that does not tarnish in air. These properties make it a poor choice to represent the age of senescence. It should be an element that is fragile, rigid rather than malleable, an element that tends to corrode with time and sometimes to suddenly disintegrate.

Only old age has been given a judgmental term, a term promising the best of times, a promise that may become a sad mockery of reality for many elderly people. The nomenclature for the other stages of life is neutral and simply identifies fuzzy-edged periods of the life cycle. Infancy–literally to be without speech, childhood, adolescence, adulthood: babies become kids and morph into teenagers who, to the shock of their parents, become adults. Some of the words have a moral nuance, e.g., juvenile or puerile when applied to an adult, or a positive lilt, e.g., cherubic, or somehow do not seem to be compliments, e.g., menopausal or andropausal.

Well, what shall we do with “Golden Years?” Should we retire the term, replace it, or pass it on to some other stage of life? What bothers me with Golden Years is not the “Golden” part; it is the promise of “Years.” Every stage of life has golden moments, days, weeks, possibly months but to anticipate entire years of golden days even in young adulthood is too much to expect. The first steps an infant takes are a golden moment but so are the first steps a nonagenarian takes at home after a prolonged hospitalization. With a good deal of personal effort and a fair share of good luck, one can look forward to many golden times during the entire life cycle—times to treasure—but sadness and grief are part of everyone’s life as well. It is enough to speak of Golden Times. Life is not a fairy tale.

What then shall we Ancient Mariners call ourselves? We are the elderly, the old, and the old-old. There is nothing nasty about those words.  Does “aged” have a negative feel or is it neutral? Senior may link too easily with senescent and senile but it is a reasonable label. Golden Years annoys me but as an octogenarian who does not feel aged, the labels elderly, old-old, and senior do not sit quite right either even though they are accurate and appropriate.

Rusty may be the word I am looking for. I am in the Rusty Years but having Golden Times despite some squeaks and malfunction. Everything works reasonably well but some oiling is needed here and there, some screws tightened a bit, others loosened, a part or two might need replacement but no big deal—pretty much like my grandson’s twelve-year-old car.

RICHARD SOBEL, MD, is a retired physician. His 50+ year career combined tertiary academic medicine with small town and kibbutz primary care.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 6, Issue 4 – Fall 2014

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.