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On Asking "the Question"

When is it ever acceptable to ask a person’s age? In other words, when is the question relevant?


“How old are you?”

I was asked this question recently at the end of a presentation I gave called “It’s All in Your Mind! How to Keep Your Brain Fit and Strong” to elder residents of an independent living community. The query caught me by surprise. You see, I’m rarely asked about my age these days.

As children and teens, most of us are asked this question a lot –– and are proud to answer it. That’s because asking a younger person’s age is usually a conversation-starter, right after “What’s your name?” And the exchange is a joyful one. Adults want to form a quick connection by allowing youngers to give exacting responses that show how “grown-up” they are: “I’m six and three-quarters.” “I’m almost 10.” “I’ll be 18 in March.” But as the years pass, we become aware of the serious implications behind the inquiry.

Like questions about any other topic, the ones we ask about aging and the ways in which we choose to answer them reveal what we believe and care about.

When is it ever acceptable to ask a person’s age? In other words, when is the question relevant?

As I see it, the only condition under which knowing a person’s age is important is an external one, based on the need to administer a program or a law. Chronological age determines our legal ability to drive a car, vote, sign a contract, marry, enter military service, and qualify for Medicare and Social Security. It also determines who is considered a juvenile victim or perpetrator under our penal code. Administrators need cutoff points for each of these situations, otherwise there would be no other way to set practical limits by determining who is eligible and who isn’t.

But that’s it. Legal programs and services aside, there’s no reason why a person’s chronological age should limit his or her ability to do anything. Or to be considered to do anything.

And yet, we constantly apply internal perceptions of chronological age as qualification standards for a range of experiences. At what age should a person retire? Stop driving? Give over his or her decision-making powers to adult children or to others? At what age is it improper to apply for a job? To go clubbing or back to school? To wear a hoodie or miniskirt? To engage in sex? To run for President of the United States?

We get into trouble when we hold onto stereotypical ideas of what a person could or should do at a certain age and thus confuse chronological age with an individual’s ability to contribute to and benefit from society. Often it is only when we ourselves reach that age and hear those limitations placed on us by others that we are caught by surprise. And then we become frustrated and maybe even angry.

All of us, no matter our age, should be having these reactions about the limitations we place on older adults.

There’s only one social instance in which raising the question “How old are you?” is an appropriate reaction: when we are exposed to a group that is generationally homogenous without a good reason. I’m not talking about meetings of a teen club or a hiking outing for residents of a retirement community. If, however, there are very few (or no) older adults at a public meeting discussing problems and solutions regarding a community’s schools, transportation system, public health policy, and other issues, we need to call attention to this situation and rectify it. Older brains should be picked and older voices heard. Conversely, older adults should consider opening up some of their social experiences to people of younger generations. Think about the diversity of ideas, learning experiences, and friendships that can be fostered by intergenerational book clubs, neighborhood projects, café salons, and other events.

We need to be aware of a lack of age diversity in social contexts where chronological age should not be a factor. By working to bring generations together, not only do we break down physical barriers but psychological ones as well. We create a fluidity of perception based on individual experience rather than the turning of calendar pages. We make telling our age a positive –– and even irrelevant –– statement, no matter how old we are.

As for that age question posed to me at the independent living community, my response –– “I’m 64. And damn proud of it!” –– caused smiles among the elders gathered to hear me talk about brain fitness. But as I spoke, I looked around the lecture hall and made a mental note to approach the activities director with a question of my own:

“How about inviting younger people in the surrounding community to join us next time?”


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