How Old Is Too Old to Be President?

Folks are gonna hate on me for positing what many will consider to be an ageist question, but as someone who has worked professionally in the field of aging*, I think it is a question voters should absolutely be considering.

From youngest to oldest, Elizabeth Warren is 70, Joe Biden is 77, Mike Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders are both 78, but Bloomberg comes in at 5 months younger than Sanders.

Four of the remaining six viable Democratic presidential candidates range in age from 70 to 78 years old. That number alone should not give you pause, but other factors about certain of these candidates should. But first, let’s get a wee bit of historical perspective of how old our past presidents have been.

To date, only 3 of our 45 presidents have served in office over the age of 70. They would be Dwight Eisenhower, who turned 70 just a few months before leaving office in his second term, Ronald Regan, who turned 70 just a couple of weeks after his first inauguration, and our current POTUS, Donald Trump, who was well into his 70th year at the time of the 2016 election. If re-elected, Trump would finish a second term at age 78.

I don’t know about you, but I find that surprising. I guess I have always imagined our Presidents to be old men, and they have, but given shorter life expectancies, old men were perceived as older at younger ages through our nation’s history. My point being, for 2/3 of viable presidential candidates to be in their 70s and a full half to be much closer to 80 is, in fact, an age related aberration for a presidential candidate pool.

That is significant and something we should be talking about. Now let’s get more specific.

The oldest of the Democratic candidates is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. He suffered a heart attack just after his most recent birthday, which was confirmed in early October of last year by his campaign. While he had previously stated that he would release all of his medical records as a candidate, Sanders and his campaign are now walking back that pledge, maintaining that releasing medical records is a bit of a slippery slope and wonders where the requests for information will end.

I don’t know about you, but that gives me significant concern. There is online chatter that a heart attack does not matter, that even if Bernie dies or becomes incapacitated while in office, his VP will assume office. Except we don’t know who that VP is or what the health status of that person might be and the risk of subsequent heart attacks after a first one are significant. That said, Sanders appears robust and healthy on the campaign trail.

But speaking of VPs, let’s talk about former Vice President Joe Biden. No heart attacks in his health care closet, but you don’t have to look hard to see that 2020 Joe is a far cry from 2012 Joe, or even 2016 Joe. As someone who has worked with older adults professionally, I see a few red flags with Biden, but three are especially concerning for me.

One is his language. Biden’s language is disrupted and it appears to be getting worse. One of the primary and earlier signs of dementia is a change in language capacity. Aside from the “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” comment he recently made in Iowa, there are other signs of language disruption separate and apart from his well known issue of stuttering. His pauses are longer, his words and responses not always relevant to questions he is being asked. He is increasingly off topic and unresponsive and not completing sentences.

The second one is an uncharacteristic anger and loss of filter. These things are common when an older adult is struggling with changes in their frontal lobe, the part of our brain that acts as an innate censor for all of us. Biden appears angrier than his usual relatable, jovial self on the campaign path. Calling voters (plural, as this has happened more than once), not Trump or fellow candidates, a liar is a red flag for me. It is an impulsive, unfiltered response to stimulus he does not like. And it is a marked shift in personality.

Finally, there is a vacancy in Biden’s affect or expression, which is unmistakable for me. He looks lost more often than he looks in command of things. His wife, Dr. Jill Biden, is present and at his side much more often than in previous campaigns. Is she acting as cover? Is she a conscious or unconscious guide, helper for her loving husband? This is very possible and very common for older couples when one is starting to require more assistance.

These factors I have identified with Biden are nuanced and easy to explain away. Folks can become defensive when it is suggested and that is understandable. And let me stress that I am responding as someone with experience with an older population, but all of my feedback is anecdotal. That said, I can’t help but think of a current story arc from This is Us where the character of Rebecca has just been diagnosed with MCI, mild cognitive impairment. Her story line has encapsulated much of what I observe with Joe Biden and is consistent with my previous experience.

And lest folks accuse me of being ageist and discriminating solely on age, let me argue the opposite. I have seen no signs of alarm related to age from either Mike Bloomberg or Elizabeth Warren, again, both in their 70s, though Bloomberg does have a history of cardiac stent placement.

The thing about aging is that it happens to all of us, if we are lucky, and no two folks have the same experience or path. There are folks in their 90s running marathons and folks in their 60s living in nursing homes. But it is undeniable that being older puts all of us at greater risk for change, including changes in health status, and sometimes those changes are slow and progressive and sometimes those changes are sudden and acute.

It would be irresponsible not to consider the age and health of these candidates. And now, not after a candidate is chosen for the primary, or elected to office.


* I am trained as a clinical social worker and spent twelve years working in health care settings with older adults. First at a hospital in a program geared towards older adults and then at a retirement community where I was responsible for helping individuals cope with aging and the losses, cognitive and physical, related to aging. For eight years I worked alongside a geriatric psychiatrist who provided training in the neuropsychological assessment of older adults.

Our Moment in the Breeze

I remember it so well, like it was yesterday, like it was this morning. Our front windows overlooked the athletic fields and tall trees of St. Scholastica, a venerable but now no more Catholic girls high school. It was rare to look out on greenery living in the city, so I always felt lucky that this view, this green, was ours.

I was a new mom, a working mom, a part-time working mom, and this moment was on a day that the world was working, but I was at home with my baby, my Donna. You were under a year, but soon to be an infant no more. Like me, you loved to look out the windows where the sun shone and the trees bloomed. They faced east and it was not yet noon, so the light was bright and warm. It made everything better.

I loved those mornings. We had walks and errands. We were newish to home ownership, just a few years in, so things like dish washers and washing machines were still new, still novel, still made me feel fancy and adult, accomplished.

That morning was for puttering. I cleaned and tidied, you played and explored. We ate our breakfast together. I probably made the beds and folded the laundry. That was before those things felt like burdens. Those things were still gifts to be cherished. They made me feel responsible and competent, satisfied and full. Life was lovely, full of love that I gave and received. Lovely.

You still had very little hair, but what you had was blonde and warm and held the promise of curls. Your eyes were bright blue almonds, your lips pink pillows. Your skin was so soft, still new, perfect. You were perfect, my Donna, and brought me such joy. You were the balm I never knew I needed.

I walked into the living room and the windows were open, the air flowing. You were standing on the bench, giving you height to see, that freedom to look at the world outside. Your tiny hands clasped the window sill and your chin was upturned and you were bliss personified. You welcomed that breeze, made it your friend, invited it into your home.

I admired how the sun shone on you, your shoulders bare, your tiny, fine, baby hair catching the light. I watched you bask in that sun and that breeze and that warmth and that light. I watched you and then I joined you, raising the window open higher — more breeze, more trees, more light.

I hovered over you, following your lead, closing my eyes, and taking it all in. I remember, Donna, just how lucky I felt in that moment. My chin resting on your head, the breeze, gentle and warm, blowing all around us. You smelled of baby shampoo and all good things.

The world stopped in that moment, for just an instant, enough for me to imprint it, to really be present, to feel its joy and overwhelming bounty. I was overcome with a sense of luck and gratitude — for you, for the breeze, for the sun, for being able to experience all of that with you.

How lucky we were, my girl. How lucky I am on this cold winter day, to remember. To have shared it with you. To have known that moment. To know it still.

No “One” Can Save America

I haven’t written about politics here in a long while, so God save me as I dip my toes back in the treacherous political waters we all find ourselves in these days. And mind you, my absence in expounding on political matters is no reflection of waning interest or a suggestion of apathy. To the contrary, I care more than ever and have been following the political climate closely these past few years. Heck, I even learned how to use Twitter to follow the stuff.

It’s just so very noisy out there. Everyone has an opinion, everyone is happy to shout that opinion from the rooftops, and I have yet to find that reading an opposing opinion changes my own. We’ve all sort of doubled down, I think. I don’t know if that is good or bad, it simply is. As a nation, we are deeply, troublingly divided. I’ve read the phrase “cold civil war” and it rings true.

This morning I was scrolling through Twitter, which is generally the first thing I do upon waking. No doubt that isn’t the healthiest, most productive way to start one’s day, but Twitter has replaced the kitchen radio for me, in terms of how I access news and stay informed.

This was one of the first things I saw on my feed:

Mark Ruffalo, a man whose politics I admire and who I find is lovely to look at, refers to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as “the one.” “The original progressive,” Ruffalo says of Sanders.

A few hours later, lo and behold, President Trump tweeted his own missive, which looked and felt eerily similar to me:

I am the only one,” Trump writes.

I find both of these tweets equally troubling, indicative of the cult of personality that we as voters and Americans have enabled our politicians with that is ultimately harmful to us as citizens and as a nation. When we expect a glorified, romanticized “one” to save us, whomever that “one” may be, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of being an active, engaged citizenry.

Donald Trump cannot save us. Nor can Bernie Sanders. We need to stop expecting them to, as that responsibility is ours, collectively. I will leave it to the political scientists in the room to define our government as a democracy or a democratic republic, but if 2016 taught us anything, it is that there are very real consequences to elections.

When we stop voting, when we disengage, telling ourselves that politics is ugly and corrupt, when we rely on the premise that the ship will right itself, we are adding to the problem. When we get angry and withhold our votes if our candidate lost, we are adding to the problem. When we put blinders on to the plight of others because our 401Ks are doing just fine, we are adding to the problem. When we tell ourselves that politicians are all the same, so our input, interest, and participation are irrelevant and unnecessary, we are adding to the problem.

There is no “one” to save us, so don’t believe the hype. If a candidate suggests himself or is comfortable when others suggest that he is the “one” or the “only one” to save America, I hope you know that that is a political tactic, as old as the hills, employed by politicians who heed their egos over the needs of many. Bad men work to convince you they are the “one.”

Remember that as we head into primary season in a few months. There is no “one” that will save us from ourselves. Only we can do that, by voting, engaging, reading, thinking, and understanding that we have an obligation and a duty to stop expecting old men with big egos to save us.