Beats the alternative

We're all getting older -- some of us faster than others -- and older folks are slowly taking over the world.

The United Nations convened an assembly a few years ago to study the world's aging population. The UN discovered that, whoa, you can't turn around without bumping into a senior citizen. Particularly at Wal-Mart.

Today, the UN estimates, one of every 10 people is 60 or older -- a total of 629 million people worldwide. By 2050, the UN projects, one in every five will be 60 or older. By 2150, the ratio will be one in three.

These numbers immediately suggest two things:

1) We should run right out and invest in companies that make walkers, adult diapers and Botox. Also, in any restaurant chain that carries a dish called Sunset Senior Value.

2) Traffic will move much slower in years to come. By 2050, it'll take half a day to drive across town.

Beyond those superficial initial reactions lie more serious considerations: How will we provide medical care and housing and snack food for the growing number of senior citizens? And will all those birthday candles intensify global warming?

The UN assembly found that the world's aging population will place great demands on our international society. After much study and discussion, the assembly voted to buckle down and actively do more research on this important issue.

One question they should ask is: How does aging happen so gradually, yet seem to come upon a person all at once? Perhaps we could make better policies about getting older if we weren't so taken by surprise.

One day, you're in your twenties, a party animal. The next, you're a grizzled veteran, telling today's party animals how much fun everyone used to have in the good old days. Before long, you're in a rocking chair, trying to remember the good old days.

It happens so slowly, yet so all of a sudden, that it's difficult for researchers to track.
The physical transformation should be easy to study. For example: When does a man officially reach middle age? When he has to grunt to get up off the sofa. That's a quantifiable phenomenon that could keep highly paid researchers busy for years.

The mental and emotional shifts are harder to measure. Through our middle years, we're all terribly busy with children and careers and homes and ambitions. We don't notice the years slipping away. We wake up one day and we're old.

I recently turned 51. Well into the "grizzled veteran" stage. I'm out of shape. I'm terribly busy with teen-agers, career, etc. My hair's graying. Clerks call me "sir."

I knew I'd reached "middle age" when I noticed all the people I met in daily life -- doctors, dentists, barbers, mechanics, bank tellers, other people in positions of trust and responsibility -- were younger than me.

When I was young, everyone was older and seemed to command respect. Co-workers seemed ancient and wise. I called waitresses "Ma'am," not "Miss." Our family doctor was a gray-haired gent with rimless glasses and twinkly eyes. (He was probably about the age I am now.)

Now, you see doctors so young, they can't remember "Marcus Welby, M.D." from TV. Do I want such a whippersnapper operating on me? What if I show up at the clinic and the doctor is a young hipster with tattoos and a nose ring? The fact that I worry about such things proves I'm getting old.

This younger generation eventually will grow old like the rest of us and they'll undoubtedly be just as surprised. Before you know it, they'll shed their body jewelry and join our aging throng. We creaking oldsters will have the rest of you outnumbered.

Then just try to drive across town. We dare you.

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