Picture: 123RF/LEEA VISION
Picture: 123RF/LEEA VISION

“Age is just a number,” the front of the card said. When you opened it, the word “Wrong” screamed at you, followed, in smaller print: “Age is a word”.

Another card read: “Age is just a number we count until we’re old enough to know it doesn’t count.”

Yet another: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

There was one with a white-haired, facially lined woman on a motorbike, her head thrown back as she raced along saying: “It’s never too late.”

None of them fit the spirit, the energy or the lifestyle of the 80-year-old friend whose birthday card I was selecting. She’s just not old.

She never — and I mean never, ever — mentions age. She just lives and runs her multi-million-rand company and travels. She recently spent six weeks in Spain and South America sourcing product for her hugely successful shops. She told how she traveled on a bus for nine hours, broke the journey by spending a night in a makeshift hostel-type rooming house, and then got back on the bus for another nine hours to get to a village she wanted to source a particular fabric from.

Her birthday invitation read “Come Celebrate a BIG Birthday”. No age given, although she’s never made a secret of how old she is.

I have never heard her share a story of physical pain, though I’m sure she must creak, like I do, when she gets out of bed. Her aches and pains, if she has them, are borne silently. She is slender and healthy and physically strong and (this bit kills me since I gave them up at 30!) is comfortable in heels.

Is that what the new 80 looks like for women?

Prof Stuart Kim believes that the person who will live to be 200 has already been born. He’s so sure of it that he’s placed a million dollar bet on it with gerontology scientists around the world and points out that just in his lifetime, the average life expectancy has increased by two and a half years every decade

A friend from university who is my age (60) recently started dating an 80-year-old, a man who is still employed, who travels extensively for his work, who is suave and charming and ambulatory enough to play a rousing game of tennis, and whose strength skills on water skis are remarkable.

After an initial gasp from us, her friends, his age has melted into meaninglessness and we are all a little exhausted trying to keep up with him. He, too, never makes any reference to age.

Is this what the new 80 looks like for men?

One of my favourite cousins turns 60 this month. I offered to spend her “BIG” birthday with her, maybe throw her a 60th birthday lunch? She was aghast. Goodness, she said, what big birthday? Nobody knows how old I am, people think I’m years younger … why on earth would I announce that I was turning 60? Is that how the new 60 (unlike me who trumpets my age and ageing constantly) behaves?

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote what, for me, have been these prophetic lines: “Probably the happiest period in life most frequently is in middle age, when the eager passions of youth are cooled, and the infirmities of age not yet begun; as we see that the shadows, which are at morning and evening so large, almost entirely disappear at midday.” But then French poet, novelist and dramatist of the Romantic Movement, Victor Hugo counters that: “When grace is joined with wrinkles, it is adorable. There is an unspeakable dawn in happy old age.”

From what I am seeing around me, apparently not.

Death, be not proud

You know how Uber distrupted the taxi industry; how food trucks disrupted sit down restaurants; how Airbnb disrupted hotels? Well life, it seems, has disrupted death. Life is the new disrupter, taking over from death, if you want it to be. You can still catch a taxi, or use Uber. Its your choice. You can book into a hotel or spend your holiday in an Airbnb. It’s your choice. You can live to 200 or you could die. It’s your choice.

A scientist who specialises in aging at Stanford University, Prof Stuart Kim believes that the person who will live to be 200 has already been born. He’s so sure of it that he’s placed a million dollar bet on it with gerontology scientists around the world and points out that just in his lifetime, the average life expectancy has increased by two and a half years every decade.

Of course we’re living longer. Just think of the effort that has been put into medical science just in the area of reducing infant mortality. More babies, more adults, more chance of growing old.

We know why we’re able to grow old. Over the past century or two, there have been astonishing improvements in nutrition and clean water and better sanitation and the application of medical science to tackle disease.

People (mostly rich people with access to all these age improving factors, it must be said) are being allowed to reach their potential lifespan. So people who would have died earlier are living longer. The world’s oldest, verified, person was Jeanne Calment, born in 1875 in Arles, France, and died 122 years and 164 days later in 1997.

We now learn from age researchers that what we’ve been told about old age and death being programmed into our genes is not necessarily true. Experts believe we age because we have not had the advantage of being genetically coded for a very long life.

So, we need only reprogramme our genes, eradicate illness, banish disease and live — well — forever.

British biomedical gerontologist Dr Aubrey de Grey wrote: “I call it longevity escape velocity — where we have a sufficiently comprehensive panel of therapies to enable us to push back the ill-health of old age faster than time is passing. And that way, we buy ourselves enough time to develop more therapies further as time goes on.”

The secret, I am learning, about how to grow old gracefully is to not talk about it, to just get on with it. To live.

Now all I need is a way to fund my 100th birthday party.