Journey Into Old Age

On a May morning I opened the door of my New York City apartment and stepped nervously into the hall. As an 85-year-old woman, I was apprehensive. I extended my cane, feeling carefully for the first step of the stairs. My legs strained awkwardly. One step ... two ... three ... breathe hard ... four. After 12 steps, I reached the first landing and leaned against the wall to catch my breath.

So far, so good, I said to myself.

And then I stopped. Was I overdoing it? Would I really get away with this act? For I wasn't really 85. Underneath the trappings of my aged body was the real me, a 26-year-old woman.

I was pretending to be so much older because I wanted to find out what it is like to be elderly. As an industrial designer, I'd grown interested in the peculiar problems that some appliances present to older people. Eventually I enrolled in a gerontology course and, still wanting to know more, I finally decided to "become" an older person, to discover firsthand the problems faced by the elderly.

As a start I learned how to "age" myself-a complicated procedure requiring four hours. With latex foam giving my face its folds and wrinkles, a heavy fabric binding my body, and a gray wig on my head, I became 60 years older and ready to set forth on my grand adventure.

My destination that first day was a conference on aging in Columbus, Ohio. Out on the street I tried to signal a cab for the airport. Taxi after taxi flashed past, all empty. Did they feel that old ladies don't tip well? Finally one stopped.
At the airline ticket counter, I found myself in a line of young businessmen. "Good morning, sir!" the agent exclaimed brightly to each one. "Have a pleasant trip." When old-lady-me peered up at him through thick spectacles, however, all I got was a look at my ticket, a mutter of "Columbus" and an abrupt "Next."

The whole purpose of the conference, attended mostly by young professionals, was to study the problems of the elderly. Yet, incredibly, the participants seemed to ignore the only "old lady" in their midst. When one of the young males offered coffee to a group of women, I found myself thinking, What about me? If I were young, he would offer me coffee too.

By day's end, I was angry. I had been condescended to, ignored, counted out in a way I had never known before. People, I felt, really do judge a book by its cover.

The experience was repeated in my neighborhood drugstore when, as a meek and dowdy old woman, I asked for a stomach medicine. The owner merely jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Back there, bottom shelf."

Peering around, I quavered, "Can you help me find it?"

He looked up in annoyance, walked to the shelf and pointed down. I stooped to pick up a bottle and tried to decipher the small type. "Could you please read the directions for me?" I pleaded.

In irritation, he rattled them off, and then dismissed me with, "Okay, that it?" I was afraid to ask him anything more.

The next morning, I returned to the store as confident, 26-year-old Pat Moore.

"Good morning," the owner greeted me cheerfully. "How can we help you today?"

I used exactly the same words in asking for the stomach medicine. "Oh," he said, smiling, "it's right over here." Escorting me to the shelf, he kneeled down, picked up a bottle and carefully explained the directions, the sizes in which it came, and the prices. Then he rang up the sale and wished me a fine day.

As I walked out of the store, my heart cried for the older woman. I could understand how she would become defensive and intimidated.

For three years I put on my masquerade at least one day a week, visiting I4 states, meeting hundreds of people. My experiences were varied-some bad, some good. I'll never forget the woman who held a heavy door open for me at a department store in Kansas City. When I thanked her, she gave me a quick hug and said, "I have a mother about your age in Fort Lauderdale. I just hope someone holds the door open for her."

But once, when I was foolishly walking alone in a deteriorated neighborhood at dusk, I was hurled to the ground by several laughing youngsters who beat me as they yanked away my purse. My mugging left me with a fractured wrist, a deep fear of being out after dusk-and a clear idea of why the elderly often become housebound.

A few months later in a similar area, I was anxiously hobbling to catch a bus that was about to pull away. Suddenly a youngster raced toward me, and my heart stopped. Oh no, not again! Not in broad daylight! I cried inwardly.

Instead he ran up to alert the bus driver, who then waited for me. I felt as if the sun had come out from behind a thundercloud.

Many of my favorite encounters took place on park benches. As an 85-year-old, I could sit down beside an elderly person and easily strike up a conversation. We would just be two people enjoying the moment, the sunshine, the fresh air, without the pressure that I often felt as a 26-year-old go-getter. It made me a little envious that I wasn't a true member of their club.

In just that way I met an elderly man named George, who told me that for a year after his wife died he had sat alone in his apartment and cried. But then a friend accused him of acting like a spiteful child. "God has given you the incredible gift of life," the friend said, "and you're doing your best to make a mess of it!"

"Well," George said to me, "after that I got myself together. I made good friends, began to eat and exercise regularly, and soon I was feeling fine. You know," he said, slapping the bench in excitement, "it's just like I'm beginning to live all over again."

I could tell that George had taken a special interest in me, and it made me aware of a fact that I was to see verified again and again: we never grow old emotionally. We all want to be loved. Our bodies change, but our emotional needs do not.

Ironically, it was a child who helped unlock another secret of a serene old age. One afternoon I arrived at a hotel in Clearwater, Florida. Sweltering underneath my heavy makeup and wrappings, I could hardly wait to get to the beach. As I took my first breath of cool sea air, a tiny voice piped behind me.

"Would you like a cookie?"

I turned to see a little boy of about six. "No, thank you," I said, suspecting that his sand-encrusted sack also carried frogs and other boy-treasures. His face darkened in disappointment. "On second thought," I told him, "I'd love a cookie."

He gave me a Fig Newton. "Do you like shells?" he asked.

"Yes, very much."

"I'll find you some." Then he put his hand in mine and led me down the golden beach. "There's one," he said. I started to lean down. "Oh no, let me." Quickly picking it up, he brushed it off and slipped it into his sack. "I'll carry them for you.

So we made our way across the sand, the little boy bobbing with oohs and aahs at the shells he'd find, I musing about the mystic rapport that can grow between young and old. And I also saw that all of us, as we grow older, need to approach each day with a child's trust and Innocence.

Now, five years after beginning my journey into old age, I have put away the gray wig, the-makeup and trappings. I look at them with affection because I have learned so much through them.

The truly joyful people I met were always open to experience-yes, open to all the inevitable heartaches and illnesses and family traumas-yet they were the ones who faced life positively, proud of their longevity and of the experience and wisdom they had accumulated.

If I should be fortunate enough to become a real 85-year-old someday, I hope I'll have the friendliness and generosity and wide-eyed trust of my little friend on the beach. I'll also take a tip from my grandmother, who never even considered that she was old. As she told me once, "I've just lived longer than most."

by Pat Moore, in Readers Digest November 1984, condensed from Guideposts