“I’ve always wanted to be older,” said 19-year-old Ella Mae Dixon, the cabaret singer who grew up in Wellfleet, in a recent story. “I can’t explain it.”
Jennifer Senior writes in the April Atlantic about “subjective age” — the age you feel you are in your head rather than your actual age. Senior asked her mother, who is 76, how old she is in her head and the answer was 45. Senior herself is 53 but feels she is 36.
Researchers have found that “adults over 40 perceive themselves to be, on average, about 20 percent younger than their actual age,” the Atlantic reports.
These same studies found that people under 25, like Ella Mae, tend to feel older than they are, not younger. Young people in our culture may want to be older, but I don’t know anyone who wants to be “old,” either in our heads or in reality. Yet more and more of us, especially on the Outer Cape, are old — and the experience of aging, for many, is far from easy.
Last week Christine Legere reported the results of a study on aging in Eastham, where almost two-thirds of the residents are over 50. A striking finding of that research, conducted by UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute, was the number of respondents over 50 who said they are providing care for older family members and friends. It’s not easy, they report, to keep up a job and do caregiving at the same time. And nearly one-fourth of those needing care are living with dementia.
Eastham officials also noted with surprise that 10 percent of the survey respondents said they had experienced food insecurity in the past year.
The discrepancy between actual age and one’s internal sense of one’s age, says Senior, is greatest in the U.S. and Western Europe. In Asia and Africa the gap is much smaller. “Elders in collectivist societies,” Senior writes, “are accorded more respect and have more extended-family support” than in individualist countries like ours.
The affordable housing crisis that is the topic of so many of the stories we have published is intimately linked to the difficulties of growing old here. The lack of housing has pushed out working people, and the shortage of nurses, doctors, home health aides, physical therapists, and even people who can help maintain homes is increasingly acute.
This makes elders here doubly vulnerable. They can’t expect to grow old among a tight network of extended family and friends because moving away for work or retirement is so common in America. And yet an overstretched workforce also cannot provide the care that extended family offers in other countries.
We tend to think of the problems of young and old people as separate and distinct, and in some ways they are. But Eastham’s findings show us one more way in which we’re all in this together — how resiliency is intergenerational, and how strengthening community can help all of us survive.