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Illustration by Juliana Neufeld

Recently I heard some people about my age being referred to as “the elderly.” I never have considered myself elderly. Older, yes – I’m in my 80s – but never elderly. There seems to me to be some wide, unpleasant gap between the two. When and how does an older person become “elderly”? What are the signs and symptoms? I’m going to have to be more observant.

Midway through my 87th year, I feel much younger … most days. So many of my family who had been alive in my lifetime have died, including 24 cousins, only one slightly older than I. (A 94-year-old cousin, now the only one in the family older than I, still plays golf. Nine holes, twice a week.)

So, what the heck am I doing here? Why me?, I often wonder. What keeps me here, still getting along, and what is it I am meant to do with this time?

Lately I’ve been dwelling in gratitude more and more. Every day that I have is a bonus, so I like starting the day with that thought. In the early morning, after splashing my face with cold water, I check out the view from my office window. There are the trees and the green swath of this corner of the park, the lake and the beach. It’s either raining or blowing or snowing or it isn’t, a beautiful day or it isn’t, but I’m there to have one more day. I’m grateful. I have things to do; I have music; I have places to visit, our beautiful Northumberland Hills to wander, things to see, people to care about and be with.

There may come a time when I cannot make my own tea or pour my own wine, when I can’t solve Wordle or get to Genius level in the New York Times Spelling Bee, when I know I shouldn’t be driving any more. Then it will be best to acknowledge I might be elderly.

But there are challenges even now, darn it. After years of making a living in the food business, I have little interest in food, unless it’s something I really shouldn’t be eating. Ice cream is so easy and satisfying! If dinner might take longer than 15 minutes to prepare, I lose incentive. Bring on the Shreddies and a sliced banana. Part of the difficulty is that my sense of smell and sense of taste are declining. That makes most food less interesting.

Stairs are steeper than they used to be, of course, and there seem to be more of them. Ten thousand steps a day used to be a benchmark for a daily walk; lately I’m impressed on those days I can reach five thousand. Yoga is quite good for staying in shape, but so often now, getting down to the mat requires plunking down in a heap from that last foot or so, and the getting-up process is not pretty. Legs up the wall is exceptionally comfortable – so much so that I often fall asleep.

Speaking of sleep, that’s a whole other issue. It is easy these days to fall asleep in my chair watching TV or reading or doing crosswords. But intentional sleeping is different. Somewhere between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. is the magic hour. As soon as I move, my cat is there poking me on the nose, encouraging me to walk across the hall to the washroom. That accomplished, the exercise to regain sleep begins: a few mantras, an attempt at meditation, some lines of poetry, a grocery list … something eventually works. Usually.

A few years ago, I heard a theory that going through a doorway in your own house has a negative effect on memory, and I really believe more and more that is true. I have to be careful. If I’m in the kitchen and walk out through that doorway and into my bedroom for example, my reason for being in the bedroom will have completely escaped me. Whoosh … a muddled mission.

I do know that I am very fortunate – I remember the names of friends and family easily … most of the time. A group of friends knew I was bringing someone they had not met to a gathering. And so I began, “Everyone, I would like you to meet my friend …” and her name vanished from my memory into a few seconds’ terrible silence, till someone asked, “And does your friend have a name?” She introduced herself amidst lots of laughter. A person who is old must prepare for such moments.

As I mentioned, gratitude is firmly at my centre. Old age, sickness and death are the inevitabilities. So far as I can tell, I am only at the first step in the process. I am not elderly and every day is still a good one.

Sharon Stevens lives in Cobourg, Ont.

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