Doing time well past their prime

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By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ashen-faced was the way the press described Brooke Astor's son when he heard the jury's verdict convicting him of defrauding his mother of tens of millions of dollars as she lay dying of Alzheimer's disease. Barring an appeal, Anthony D. Marshall, 85, will be sentenced in early December. He faces at least one and as many as 25 years behind bars. (Astor, a New York philanthropist, was 105 when she died in 2007.)

Marshall looks old, with his white hair and delicate patrician lips. After a certain age, could a relatively short prison term amount to a life sentence? Just as the Supreme Court is reviewing the question of whether certain juveniles may be too young to serve out a life sentence, others wonder if perhaps some at the other end of the age spectrum might be too old.

Before we go all gooey about Grandpops going off in chains, we'd better take another look at what it is to be old today. Our concept of youth may be stable, but old age is not what it used to be. The new old age is more vibrant and varied. Octogenarians run marathons and fall in love -- and there are more of them. The fastest-growing age group in the United States is those older than 85. While we lag behind other developed countries in life expectancy calculated at birth, for those of us who live to age 65, life expectancy is the longest of any nation.

Older people are healthy, too. In government studies of the general population -- adults who live in the community, not in institutions -- the majority of men and women age 75 and older say they enjoy good to excellent health. While many report medical problems from heart disease and arthritis to cancer, overall they give high ratings to their functional health.

Aging is not all roses, of course. Death hovers on the horizon. Many people struggle with illness or injury. Yet, disability rates among older people have plummeted in the last 30 years. In a snapshot of the general population of seasoned citizens, old is no longer synonymous with sick or frail or finished.

At the same time, there's little agreement on what makes us old or even when we become old. That depends largely on the age of the person answering the question, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. In this national sample of nearly 3,000 adults, people ages 18 to 29 say a person is old at 60; but people who are 60 don't believe that. Those who are 65 years old say they won't cross the line into old age until they turn 74.

The same disagreement exists over the markers of old age. A hefty 44 percent of young people think those who retire are old. But only 10 percent of men and women 65 and older -- the ones in the R Zone -- equate official retirement with being old.

Having grandchildren? Nearly 30 percent of young people think that's old. But for many of us, having grandchildren is discovering a kind of fountain of youth. Only 10 percent of men and women older than 50 in the Pew survey see grandchildren as a sign of old age. And as for sex? Nearly half of young people agree that a person is old if he or she is not sexually active. That view fades quickly. After age 30, the proportion drops to around 30 percent.

Meanwhile, chronological age is very different from "felt age," point out Pew's demographic researchers. Young people feel about the same as their chronological age. But people in the last half of life feel younger as they get older. Nearly half of men and women 50 and older say they feel at least 10 years younger than their chronological age. What's more, a third of those 65 to 74 years old report that they feel more than a decade younger, and some boast a youth bonus of more than two decades. On average, an 82-year-old feels like a 71-year-old.

It's hard to know how "old" Anthony Marshall really is, apart from his chronological age. His attorneys will try to keep him out of prison. Many factors are taken into account when a judge sentences a person to prison: the nature of the crime, the circumstances of the defendant, including health status. But age by itself should not be a decisive factor.

Besides, judges are known for staying on the bench well into their later decades. Four U.S. Supreme Court justices are in their 70s, and one is almost 90 years old. If they can do their job, there's no reason people of a similar age who are convicted of a crime can't pay their debt to society behind bars.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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