Looking eye to eye, 65 appears a lot different from the stolen glances on my journey made it appear. The dissonance between what I expected and what I am experiencing is both internal and external. Neither my feelings nor the world around me are what I thought they would be.
To put it plainly, I expected my arrival at this milestone to resemble much of what I saw growing up. In my childhood, 65 was the age when workers, mostly men, celebrated their retirement, received their “old-age pension” and began to live a very different life. Many, due to the nature of the jobs they held, were physically damaged in some way and, regrettably, did not see 70.
These oft-repeated dynamics caused me to anticipate that I, too, would be physically worn down and within a stone’s throw of the end. That I, too, would have some kind of celebration, complete with sarcastic remarks about being officially old.
Instead, I find myself wrestling with just how differently I feel and experience this moment in life. I’m not frail and nearing an end. I feel vibrant and lead a very active life. As for my feelings, I don’t feel relief. Instead, my feelings are a mixture of survivors’ guilt and foreboding, as the responsibility that comes with my truth weighs on me.
Sixty-five is my rite of passage to elderhood, a place of willful obligation to family and community. The benefits I have been blessed to receive come with an immense obligation to the others around me. Anything less would be the epitome of disrespect to those who walked this journey before me.
The world around me isn’t quite what I expected either — and it has caught me off guard. I did not expect that all these years later, matters of race and justice would be as paramount now as they were all those years ago. I did not expect that systemic inequality would not only remain firmly fixed but would do so courtesy of a worldwide pandemic. I did not expect to be part of a generation that is not leaving the world better off for those coming behind us. No, this is not what I expected.
And so, I have had to make adjustments in order to make the most of this pivotal moment. In my own life, I have adjusted to an aging parent, personal health concerns, and the need to ensure financial stability for the future, all of which have demanded more than I ever imagined. As is the case with so many of my fellow travelers into this stage of life, I am nowhere near retirement. Instead, I’m learning to master the transition built into this place in life; 65 is a part of the journey, not a destination. There are new horizons to embrace, with the advantage of having witnessed a few sunrises along the way.
I’m adjusting to the unexpected pleasures, too — the benefit of years of building social capital and resilience, the vast array of experiences I can draw on in ways helpful to my community, the freedom to explore things that bring me joy. Moments feel as though they matter more these days. I recognize that I really don’t have time for frivolous pursuits. These days are precious, and I am compelled to invest myself fully in things that really matter. I have come to realize that the half-my-age crowd really matters. The concept of intergenerational relationships is without question one of the most important takeaways from year 65. The sense of reward from wisdom-sharing with the next generation is almost incalculable for me.
I am blessed to have a large number of friends and colleagues who are from other generations. Many of them are doing amazing things, and they allow me to share their energy and passion. I can only hope the richness of these connections is seen as reciprocal. And I am grateful, too, that birthday number 65 marks 11 more years of life than my father experienced. I dare not squander such a sacred gift. I go boldly into this stage of life because I am immeasurably blessed to be where I am, to have what I have and to do what I do.
Raymond A. Jetson heads the Baton Rouge nonprofit MetroMorphosis. He is an Encore Public Voices Fellow and a PBS' Next Avenue Influencer in Aging.