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Luskin: Defining Elderly

I was enjoying an article by political historian Michael Kazin in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine about the term “populist” in American political history - a term that this election cycle has been applied to both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

I love language and history, so I was enjoying Kazin’s romp through presidential contests, which has tagged such diverse politicians as George Wallace and George McGovern as populists. But my enjoyment was brought to an abrupt halt by Kazin’s characterization of Sanders as “elderly.” Sanders is seventy-four years old; he’ll be seventy-five on Inauguration Day. Donald Trump would be seventy; Hillary Clinton, sixty-nine; Kasich, sixty-four; and Cruz forty-six.

Unquestionably, Sanders is the eldest of all the candidates, and would be the eldest ever elected, just ahead of Ronald Reagan. But being the eldest isn’t the same as being elderly. Thirteen of Sanders’ peers in the Senate are older than he is, including Patrick Leahy, who just turned seventy-six.

The dictionary defines “elderly” as “being past middle age; approaching old age,” and “individuals over 65 who have functional impairments.” By this definition, Michael Kazin, the author of the article, would qualify as elderly. He’s about to turn sixty-eight. I think a better definition of “elderly” would rely on a person’s functionality rather than age. In medicine, functionality is measured by a person’s ability to perform the Activities of Daily Living, which have to do with personal hygiene, and by the Independent Activities of Daily Living, which include higher functions, like the ability to prepare meals, manage finances and use a telephone.

In our current era of unprecedented longevity, the threshold for being middle aged has been creeping upward as our elders maintain not just their ability to perform the measurable basics, but also more challenging tasks, like campaign for president. I’m younger than all the candidates save Cruz, and doubt I could keep up their pace – even assuming I’d want to be U.S. President, a grueling job that requires the knowledge, character and wisdom that often comes only (but not necessarily) with age.

There are cultures that revere their elders; ours is not one. Ours is a youth-obsessed culture that typically attempts to deny aging and defy death, which is the only way I can account for the almost sixty-eight year old Michael Kazin calling the not-yet seventy-five year old Sanders “elderly.”

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator.
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