At 69, Candy Schulman struggles to find an age-appropriate tennis clinic.
I wondered if I’d be the oldest one in a new tennis clinic. I’d been playing since my early twenties, but that day I felt jittery as if I were taking the SAT’s in a classic anxiety dream where I couldn’t locate the room number. Would my classmates politely humor me, at 69, as a codger they had to contend with? Or feel annoyed that they had to share the court with an “old lady?”
One of life’s greatest ironies is that as children we yearn to speed toward being older, unable to wait for milestones like getting a driver’s license and reaching legal drinking age; then one day we notice our neighbors, once vibrant and robust, using walkers to go to the supermarket, and we realize: that will be me. Sooner rather than later.
Usually I felt younger than the number of candles on my birthday cake, known as “subjective age.” Scientists have discovered that people who feel younger than their chronological age are healthier and more psychologically resilient, Emily Laber-Warren reports in her New York Times article from 2019, “You May Be Only as Old as You Feel.”
Would my classmates politely humor me, at 69, as a codger they had to contend with? Or feel annoyed that they had to share the court with an “old lady?”
Yet once I hit 65, I began to feel conspicuously aged. I recalled a retired physician in the workshops I teach as a writing professor, introducing herself on the first night: “I’m getting used to being the oldest one in the room.” I nodded sympathetically, as if I understood. I didn’t. Now I do.
“People who feel older than their chronological age are more at risk for hospitalization, dementia and death,” Laber-Warren continues, claiming that people who feel younger “perform better on memory tasks and are at lower risk of cognitive decline.”
Three times a week I swam laps at my alma mater’s pool, where retired professors backstroked next to students. I walked from the showers to the communal locker room with a towel covering my 60+-year-old body, hiding my orthopedic scars and breasts that had sagged since pregnancy. No longer surprised by the students’ tattoos, envious of their perky breasts and flat stomachs, I began to shamelessly parade around buck naked as if to say, “This is who I am. This will be you someday.”
When I was 6, my brothers taught me a dirty trick. Every time they’d ask, “How old is Mom?” they goaded me to cheerfully say “50!” even though she had 5 years to go before hitting that milestone. They rehearsed it with me until I was ready for my début. At the dinner table, in a living room full of guests, on the street to the grocery store, How old is Mom?
“50!” I gladly proclaimed, foolishly beaming.
“I am not!” my mother retorted.
My brothers never tired of the joke. I always responded on cue, their Pavlovian puppy.
On her actual fiftieth birthday, my mother announced she was aging in reverse from now on. She told us, “I’m 49 this year. No arguments.”
One of life’s greatest ironies is that as children we yearn to speed toward being older, unable to wait for milestones like getting a driver’s license and reaching legal drinking age; then one day we notice our neighbors, once vibrant and robust, using walkers to go to the supermarket, and we realize: that will be me.
Decades later I published an essay about her falling in love with a man after my father died. I identified her age as 78. She called me up, distraught, and confessed she’d lied to friends about her age. Revealing her subterfuge was one of the worst things I could have done to her.
And now I hoped no one would guess my true age when I enrolled in a tennis clinic with women who could have been my daughters. My teacher was in his fifties, which consoled me, as if he were the bridge between our generations. Rick’s rigorous drills made my heart palpitate. It had been awhile since someone pushed me to a higher physical level.
In Laber-Warren’s New York Times article, she cites a 2018 South Korean study claiming that when healthy older adults felt younger than their age, they had “thicker brain matter and had endured less age-related deterioration.” So what if my knees ached? I imagined my brain matter thickening with each cross-court backhand.
Once when I missed a short shot, Rick claimed, “If you’d started earlier, you could have made that.” Truth was my reflexes were not as sharp as my millennial daughter’s anymore. I couldn’t run as fast as the women in my class.
“Keep your eye on the ball,” Rick kept reminding me. Sometimes I spaced out for a few seconds, despite trying hard to concentrate. Certain realities of aging are beyond our control, like forgetting the names of the women in my tennis group.
Three times a week I swam laps at my alma mater’s pool…No longer surprised by the students’ tattoos, envious of their perky breasts and flat stomachs, I began to shamelessly parade around buck naked as if to say, “This is who I am. This will be you someday.”
At first my classmates ignored me like the invisible older woman many of us fear we’ll become. One morning, waiting for class to begin, I sat by myself. A classmate arrived, sitting at the next table without acknowledging me. Two more women arrived, and the threesome chatted amiably, not inviting me into their conversation. I was back in high school. Or perhaps some of us never really leave.
Every week the rudest woman in the class refused to greet me. During a drill game, I placed myself on a team opposite hers. I aimed at her feet, leaving her off balance and flustered. Finally she conceded, “Great shot.”
Every week my tennis improved. But confidence in my subjective age flip-flopped when I took my place on the court next to (what was her name again?) wearing see-through white Lululemons, a visible thong line, and a crop top revealing her belly button. I felt older than my age, in a stodgy traditional tennis skirt. It was often impossible to escape the influence of our youth-obsessed society.
I began to feel more relaxed when one classmate cheerfully called to me, “See you next week.” The rest wordlessly dashed out faster than I could. As we age, it’s a blow to our sense of self to realize that we can’t sprint the way we once did, and never will again. We can either give up, or make the best of our limitations. Or strive to reach higher levels, enjoying the endorphin rush after rigorous exercise, and the satisfaction of improving after all these years. Yes, this aging player could still learn new tennis tricks. I wrote Rick’s instructions down, so I wouldn’t forget.
After feeling uncomfortable with the younger students, I noticed a flier, Programs For Seniors. I showed up at noon, free of anxiety, knowing I wouldn’t be the oldest in this group. I was at least a decade younger than everyone, the only one who still had a job. The teacher wore knee supports on both legs. Her mantra was “take your time,” kicking balls out of the way so we didn’t have to waste our energy. She applauded like an exuberant preschool teacher when someone hit a decent shot. She let us hit the ball after two bounces. I didn’t work up a sweat. My performance level sank, and I patiently listened to a woman as she recommended which racket was kindest for her husband’s shoulder after rotator cuff surgery. I helped her find her tennis bag; she couldn’t remember where she’d left it.
Where did I fit in? What was the developmental word for “tween” at my age? Using my senior half-price Metrocard on the way home, I chuckled noticing that one senior player, who hit the ball only when it came directly to him, had beaten me to the bus stop. Senior Tennis was fun for many players. Yet I felt as if I’d just visited a retirement community activity center long before I was ready.
In our thirties, my husband and I used to secretly make fun of a group of seniors who played next to us in a weekly tennis game. They gossiped between points and talked about knee surgeries while they adjusted their tennis elbow bands. We were convinced we’d never be them. Now I felt remorse for giggling behind their aching backs.
Senior Tennis was fun for many players. Yet I felt as if I’d just visited a retirement community activity center long before I was ready.
Still not ready for Senior tennis, I re-enrolled in the original clinic level, refusing to give up. Between classes, I swam laps. I watched a woman in her eighties shuffle onto the deck just as I was finishing my mile. She could barely walk. I expected her to swim in the “very slow” lane at the edge of the pool, a lane (or label) I avoided. Instead she slowly ambled over to the diving well. She climbed up to the low board, inching toward the end. Pausing, she took two steps backward, bounced a little on the board, then walked to the edge and took a dive. Her form wasn’t great, but she rose to the top of the water with an expression of joy, slowly emerging up the ladder of the deep end. Then she did it again. And again.
I was mesmerized, admiring an octogenarian, while the lifeguards looked more bored than usual. The college kids probably thought the “old” diver was foolish, even laughable. I felt guilty having pegged her as someone needing the slow lane.
Even though there are losses as we age—physical decline, illness, deaths of loved ones—there are also advantages. “Older age is a time that we can actually look forward to,” says Dr. Tracey Gendron, a gerontologist at Virginia Commonwealth University in the New York Times article. “People really just enjoy themselves more and are at peace with who they are. I would love for everyone to say their age at every year and celebrate it.”
I’m working on it. My birthday is in July. I’ll be 70. Going forward, not in reverse.