Age, Pickleball and Assorted Related Thoughts

Karen Gross
7 min readJul 8, 2023

Of late, I have been spending lots of mental energy reflecting on age and how we define who is old, who is a senior, who is “past their prime.” (We know one media person who lost his job for failing to see that “prime” isn’t just a number.)

We see discussions of aging everywhere we look. There are articles on the age at which one should get certain vaccines. I just got a notice, for example, that I was a candidate for an pneumonia vaccine (been there; done that). There are articles on whether the age to access Social Security should be changed (as in raised). For the record, I waited but have accessed the system (first as a widow and then on my own). There is constant debate about the age of our elected officials, from the top down. (Yes. some jobs have life tenure but not the job of being a Senator.) There are articles on the rising injuries among “older” folks playing pickleball (I play) and the increased costs of these events to our healthcare system. In a word, there are complaints (in addition to noise) that pickleball in going to lead to rising premiums for everyone, not just pickleball players.

How We Determine Age

At present, we generally determine age based on chronology. Above a certain predetermined age (determined by whom I have been wondering), one is considered older. OK, I get that we age. We have birthdays as evidence of our moving forward in time. But, here’s the kink in the argument for me. Chronological age homogenizes individuals. We treat everyone who is 60 or 70 or 80, respectfully, in the same way. But, look around. Not all 60, 70 and 80 years olds are identical. There are some 70 year olds who are more like 80 and some 80 years olds are more like 60. Just go to any 50th reunion of anything, and you will see this clearly. My mother is 95 and would that I will feel and look and age as well as she has; she worked until she was 87; she lives in her own home; she exercises; she goes to concerts and plays; she reads. In short, she’s amazing.

Recently, someone said to me: Why does it matter? Who cares about age? The quick answer: it matters a lot. Why? Because for reasons I will explain, we look at chronological age as the sine qua non of accuracy; we would be wiser to look at more than chronology. We need to look at physical age (both inside and outside absent plastic surgery enhancements) and psychological age (as in mental acuity and memory capacity and reflexes). So, there are at least three ways in which we should calculate age — chronology, physical ability (or lack thereof) and psychological wellness/sharpness.

This multidimensional approach will enable us to stop homogenizing and begin individualizing.

Examples Galore

There are many examples of ways in which different age calculations would make a sizable difference in how well our society functions and ways in which its functioning could be improved.

Start with driver’s licenses (and ponder all licenses). Currently, chronological age alone is not a reason for a state to not renew an individual’s license to drive. (I suppose older politicians don’t want to lose voters or their own licenses….Just saying….) But, some states place restrictions on renewal procedures after a certain age (shorter renewal times; in person appearances; eye tests). Surely we can agree that some older drivers with licenses should NOT be on the road. We know that chronological age is NOT a sure measure. There are people who are 80 who can drive well and some at the same age who should be removed from the road. And, if someone has early onset Alzheimer’s Disease or other memory deficits, driving should be prohibited (despite protestations from the person driving).

Consider mandatory retirement in certain fields. Again, chronology seems like too blunt an instrument. Might we want to consider mental acuity of the relevant person? Does it make sense for all pilots to retire at age 65? Air traffic controllers need to retire even earlier (age 61 is the upper limit). Federal law enforcement officers must retire by age at age 57, with exceptions for those with less than 20 years of service. And just to add a highlight to this: Sully Sullenberger who safely landed the plane on the Hudson River was aged 57 at the time. He is now 72. I’d let him fly me anywhere. Call it trust. Call it judgment. Call it experience. Call it what you will — I want someone who is like Pilot Sully when my life is on the proverbial line.

Now there are states that have mandatory retirement ages for judges. By way of example, all judges and sheriffs in New Hampshire must retire by age 70. All state Supreme Court justices must retire at age 70 in Florida. We have no such rule, as we all know, for the Supremes (as in Supreme Court Justices). Hum.

So, we can have surgeons operate ad nauseam (absent being stopped by their institutions and recommendations for review from appropriate professional organizations) but pilots have to pack it in at age 65. Might we need a finer measurement tool than chronology?

To be sure, some surgeons know they are passing their prime so to speak and retire. Dr. Mayo (of the Mayo Clinic) stopped operating of his own accord at age 67 because, as he said, he wanted to choose his end point (which occurred after a successful surgery). (Doing this isn’t easy. Ask athletes who retire well past their prime sadly.) I know one surgeon whose last operation was his worst. He wasn’t as good as he used to be and there were complications. And, I know one surgeon whose last patient was his wife and let’s just say her face lift was terribly botched and anyone other than his wife would have sued. (Why surgeons operate on family members is well beyond the scope of this blog post but don’t get me started on the “I am the best” there is justification.)

Pickleball and Aging

I understand the new pickleball injury data — and I want to focus on what we do collect and report upon as opposed to what we don’t measure. Yes, older folks play pickleball, some of whom have not exercised in ages (so to speak). And they get hurt. (Hey, professional athletes get hurt all the time. Just think Mike Trout and his hamate bone and apparently had it (or part of it) excised!) Some older pickleball players are not warming up properly (or warming down properly). Some aren’t hydrating well enough. Some fall. Some push themselves. Some had weak knees to start with or other conditions, including heart problems. Some aren’t particularly agile or flexible; some have arthritis.

But here is what we are NOT measuring against the rise in injuries: the rise in exercise, the rise in socialization, the rise in activity, the rise in joy, the rise in pleasure, the rise in teamwork, the rise in conversation, the rise in friendships (including some romances). All of these are known items to improve both health and longevity. We know that exercise matters as we age. We know that social isolation is a risk factor. We know that having a partner (as in romance) improves one’s lifespan. We know that friendship and connections enable improved mental wellness.

So, why are we not quantifying these positives against the costs of rising healthcare? What’s the cost of loneliness and isolation and what are the cost savings if we eliminate these risk factors? What’s the cost of no exercise versus getting injured? What’s the cost of no companionship? The answer to all these questions: high. The cost is high although I haven’t seen studies which offset the rising costs of healthcare due to pickleball with the benefits and savings it provides by promoting mental and physical wellness.

My Point

In education (and I am an educator), we recognize the many ways students learn. And the better educators use different pedagogies to reach all children. Sadly, some educators teach as they were taught or how best they themselves learn. Bad news. We need to recognize as Howard Gardner pointed out now decades ago that we have multiple kinds of intelligence. Homogenization of students does them a disservice.

So, we would be wise (something that is an aging positive) to consider more expansively how we measure age. Now, in truth, part of the rationale for this blog is that my chronological age seems to me to be overstated. I don’t feel (and I hope I don’t act or look) my age. Or, phrased differently, how we view those who are over 70 doesn’t comport with how I view myself.

One answer people espouse is: “So what. Be whatever age you feel.” Would that it were that easy. Society and its rules and norms puts a governor on that. And, in the interest of full disclosure, as a widowed person now just over 70, I was not delighted when a prospective matchmaker said: “I get that you feel and look and act like you are in your fifties (and you do) but men your age want to be with women who are in their late 50's/ early 60’s, which leaves you with men in their 80’s.”

At least she was honest.

So I found another matchmaker. And she matched me with a remarkable man who is about my age and stage and looks amazing and is as astute as can be and plays pickleball and skis and has a capacity to and interest in learning that matches that of someone decades younger. And, while some would call this a “late in life” romance, I prefer thinking about it as a romance that is about life, that is about the future, that is about the now.

And, for the record, many of the age stops we have in our rules, laws and norms are based on decades old understandings of aging and illness and its cures. Our laws and culture have not kept up with the aging process and the science is still evolving. Some older folks are younger and some younger folks are older. Time to see each of us for who we are, where we are today.

Summed up, I want a new measuring stick that allows for wisdom and recognizes the complexity and nuance of age. Blunt instruments are like using a cannon to kills a mosquito. Who needs cannons? Subtlety is a vastly better and wiser weapon.

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Karen Gross

Author, Educator, Artist & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor