Skip to main content
the boomer shift

Globe and Mail journalist John Allemang asks himself, ‘Am I old?’Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The Globe and Mail's week-long series on baby boomers and how their spending, investing, health and lifestyle decisions could affect Canada's economy in the next fifteen years. Is Canada ready for the boom?

As I get older, I have much less tolerance for meetings. Call it a baby boomer thing, if you like. I won't take too much offence. I'm a few days away from turning 64, so everything I do is a baby boomer thing. To the rest of the world, I'm a walking, talking stereotype.

But in my own mind, shaped in the formative, rebellious, proudly self-centred 1960s, I'm still one of a kind. And it's in that individualistic spirit that I let my mind drift during those predictable corporate gabfests and try to understand the aging process.

By which I mean that I try to understand myself. It's true what they say: It is all about me. And here's what I want to know – and perhaps what you will eventually need to ask, young ones, once you realize that youth won't be yours to gloat over forever: Am I old?

There's no end of optimistic reports and studies that insist people like me are going to be living longer, healthier, more secure lives, a privileged generation having it our way through to the pampered end, a clamouring voice imposing its immortal musical tastes ad infinitum. There are more of us than there are of you, so sheer numbers and an inbuilt feistiness give us an advantage in remaking the rules and going out on our own terms.

But being the kind of baby boomer who believes the single defining characteristic of my generation (or at least the part of it that is me) has been to resist prevailing wisdom, I hesitate to put faith in all this good news. I got tired of Mick Jagger in 1970, and eventually switched to the crazy hugeness of opera, like a proper grown-up. I really don't want to hear that the future is an endless loop of Jumpin' Jack Flash, with a side order of high-fibre wheat flakes.

The reality of individual aging is a much better test than any optimistic study. Lacking a road map for the next stage, knowing that I can't look back to my long-dead parents for a model of how to do this thing, I fall back on the next best option: I look around the room.

And there it is, oldness, staring me in the face. As the meetings drone on, I do what I've always assumed everyone of my statistical cohort does to while away time. I take all my own insecurities about getting older and I turn them on my colleagues, studying their decaying bodies, listening to their self-involved monologues, noticing the food stains on their clothing that have escaped everyone's notice, because no one cares how you look when you hit a certain age.

Am I old? It's all relative. My 360-degree scan should be a reassuring assessment that I'm not so far out of step in my ever-gradual decline. At one of these meetings, I casually mentioned that I was monitoring everyone in the room above a certain age for the signs of early Alzheimer's, assuming that all of us did likewise.

There's the over-assertive woman who constantly intrudes into group discussions and turns every topic back into a meandering personal anecdote. The guy beside her seems to have lost his usual zest and now submits weakly to the dictates of the managerial bullies. The person who's long assumed the role of cut-through-the-crap critic now just seems undirected and pointlessly angry. The overly friendly workmate smiles in a vacant way and keeps talking vaguely about hockey, forgetting that I stopped playing 10 years ago.

People claimed to be shocked and told me I was being awful. But surely the greatest proof that you're getting old in a bad way is when you lose this heightened awareness of how you and your contemporaries fit into a constantly rejuvenating world, full of youngsters who have it in for you, if they notice you at all.

I'm hardest on myself – the rest of those almost-seniors are just my benchmark. And what I see in them, in their baby boomer inability to self-edit, to hold back on their certainties, to resist the vulnerabilities of aging because they're schooled by ego and habit to ignore them, is a reflection of my own unavoidable conflict between who I was and who I must become.

I gave a farewell talk for a departing colleague recently – too many of my contemporaries have jumped ship, heightening the sense of lonely isolation. When I was finished, one of those circling vultures of the next generation sidled up to me with a smile and said, "That was amazing." I basked for a moment in my aging baby boomer innocence. "You talked for 28 minutes straight and no one interrupted you."

My early-Alzheimer's moment, in other words – I'd lost complete track of time, and my audience. A few days later, I casually mentioned the telltale word Scarborough, unaware that just by pronouncing the name of a Toronto suburb where I was heading for a weekend walk – two syllables, clipped in the English style, shortish O's – I had marked myself out as an antique.

It's nothing. It's just a word. It's slow death in miniature. My 24-year-old colleague laughed in my face, mouthed it according to his idea of the right way (three syllables, long O's, sounding unbearably hickish to me), and then repeated back my Victorian elocution in an interactive display of ridicule.

At least that's the way I felt it. There I was, talking the way I'd always done, not even realizing that I'd become outdated. Surely that's the very definition of old age and the fears that surround it – the fact that I took offence at his genial mockery simply enhanced my outmoded aura of crankiness and doom.

It's the sudden revelation of these flaws and failures, however tiny, that makes a once-brash baby boomer lose confidence – and without that confidence, you stop being an effective, omnipotent baby boomer. You may think with your extreme sense of solipsistic introspection and non-stop external scrutiny that you've got things under control. But it's all too apparent in the real world that some variables are beyond both you and the Statscan know-it-alls.

Sure I'm healthier and younger-feeling than my predecessors. My father died at 65 after several years of debilitating lung problems. My mother suffered a devastating stroke when she was 62. They both smoked heavily and caroused without concern for the faraway future. At the same stage in life when their bodies gave out, I'm running brisk miles on the treadmill, sweating out hills on the stationary bike, almost duplicating the number of chin-ups and dips I did when I was 20, and walking farther and faster than I ever did when I was young. I have life expectancy, if not a life.

Of course when I was young, I didn't spend hours of every day walking or bragging about walking. I had better, more necessary things to do. You know you're getting old when you take something natural and forgettable such as moving from place to place and turn it into a virtue, a sign of superiority.

I'm a relentless age-denying boomer – I walk everywhere. That in its own way is already an acknowledgment of aging's grip on me, that I'm so preoccupied with such a mundane activity. But the more telling am-I-old revelation came to me suddenly when I realized I was staring down at my feet every time I came to a curb, that I was forming advance plans about any bump in the road likely to trip me up.

This is an old person's behaviour, and I'm now doing it as if it's the most natural and logical thing. Caution makes sense, says the old person – a fall in your 60s is harder to recover from than a fall in your 20s. And if you want to get old really fast, the best way to do so is to immobilize yourself in an accident and lose the regenerative powers of daily exercise. I've fallen a dozen times in the past few years, far more than I did at a younger age (at least when sober) – was it because my stiffening corpse had lost its high-stepping capability, because I was taking on challenges I could no longer handle, because some precursor of dementia was clouding my judgment and reining in my motor skills, or simply because I wasn't paying attention?

Opt for the last possibility, because it's least demeaning, because distraction isn't limited to the old – and suddenly you're channelling your inner 80-year-old at every opportunity. Not only do I walk down stairs at a geriatric snail's pace, fearing the worst, and walking even more cautiously because I've become fearful, but I even find myself discussing the hazards of stair-walking with grey-haired coevals. The fact that we joke about it doesn't undo the sense of ongoing degradation, but it at least has the merit of turning old age into a shared conspiracy, with a much-needed laugh track.

At the big-picture level of reports and forecasts, this woe-is-me routine is utter nonsense. Aging is bound to happen and my experience so far is the luxury version – I haven't had a stroke, I'm still agile when required, I'm not burdening your health-care system, I can string out sentences for 28 minutes straight and I don't back down when the young dogs bark.

It's awful to see myself turning into a cliché of the grumpy old man – did I have to tell the Somali kid in the gym to turn down his hip-hop music? Yes, because the silent suffering of stoic old age still eludes me. But at any given stage in life you're bound to feel out of step, and the whole raison d'être of the baby boomer is to fight against the established norms and prevailing idiocies, no matter what insults the insecure conformists throw back at you.

Granted, it's harder to be the one who knows best when old age approaches and the twinges of self-doubt turn into jutting pains. When you become dismissible in the eyes of the world just for being slow-moving and wrinkly, it's little consolation to know that this is the world's fault much more than yours. But even if the much-younger hockey goon lurking within my battered body is still spoiling for a fight, the reflective side of my aging brain has to admit that it wouldn't hurt to move on.

In the past year, I joined a reading group that specializes in the great works of epic poetry. The joy that this pause in the week brings me would have been unimaginable a decade or two ago. But maybe because I feel as if I'm almost done with the busy part of my life, the close study of Homer's Iliad, so unlike the preoccupations I carry around in my imperfect world, turns out to be a complete joy.

In a few months we'll be moving on to The Odyssey, so in one sense I have my life's wandering course mapped out more clearly. We're a mixture of young and old in our group, but age hardly seems to matter. There's a sense of timelessness in this temporary, concentrated life of the mind, and that's an incomparable feeling I can carry into my later years if all else fails.

But why give up so soon? When the week's reading is done, I head to the gym. There are chin-ups to be counted, stationary hills to be climbed and miles to run before I sleep.

For more, visit and on Twitter at #GlobeBoomers


What does modern aging look like? Some milestones to remember (while you still can)

Age 40: Fine print gets fuzzy. Presbyopia, the loss of ability to see close objects clearly, starts around now. Stock up on reading glasses (and don't expect to find them when you need them).

Age 40: Erectile dysfunction affects about 40 per cent of men this age (even if no one will admit it).

Age 45: A woman's chances of getting pregnant without in-vitro fertilization drop close to nil. Even after a round of IVF, the chances of a live birth are less than 3 per cent.

Age 50: Prostate cancer screening starts for average-risk men. That means a rectal exam followed by a blood test.

Age 50: Women at average risk for breast cancer should book their first mammogram.

Age 51: Congratulations – you've reached the average age for hearing loss, a disorder once associated with old age. (Blame it on amped-up earbuds and the heart-thumping rock concerts of your youth.)

Age 52: Women, say goodbye to your period and hello to drier skin, weight gain and bone loss due to plummeting estrogen.

Age 65: Acquaint yourself with the words "adult diaper." One in 10 people your age has urinary incontinence, from mild leakage to uncontrollable wetting.

Age 67: Stiff joints? Aching pain after a short walk? You could be in the market for a hip replacement or new knee joint.

Age 71: Prime time for a heart attack (up from 55 half a century ago). Let's hope you've exercised portion control and eaten plenty of vegetables, whole grains and olive oil all your life.

Age 75 to 79: One in four has Type 2 diabetes, the highest rate of any age group and the sixth leading cause of death in Canada.

Age 79: The average Canadian man cashes in his chips.

Age 80: If you keep asking for the same information over and over, or can't remember how you got somewhere, it's not just a "senior moment." You're at the mean age of dementia onset.

Age 83: The average Canadian woman's time has come.