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Susan Cheever: Whether you love it or whether you hate it, old age is a brand-new thing, and it's a luxury we're all lucky to have. A few generations ago, no one had to face the problems or the delights of old age. There was no old age.

In the last century, because of modern medicine, the religion of personal safety, and hundreds of advances in science and technology, our lifespan has increased more than 30 years.

I just spent five years researching my book American Bloomsbury, about the 19th century American thinkers and writers - Thoreau, Emerson, the Alcotts, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and their friends. For them, old age was a rare and precious commodity. Thoreau died at the age of 45 of an undiagnosed disease. Doctors thought that the cure for disease was to purge the system with huge doses of mercury, a cure which killed many of their patients. When Louisa May Alcott sat down to write Little Women, she was a disappointed, sick, and aging spinster of 36.

Old age is not just new. It's also largely for the rich. As an American woman, my life expectancy is 80 years. For men in some African countries like Botswana, life expectancy is still as low as 36. 43 in Zimbabwe, 49 in Kenya. Old age is the ultimate luxury.

I have taken full advantage of the era in which I live. I put off having children until I was 38. I have been spared illness by medicine and saved from death by surgery, and I am grateful.

Old age isn't always fun. My skin isn't smooth, my feet hurt, but as I sometimes dimly remember, youth wasn't always that much fun either. Given the choice between complaining about getting old and rejoicing in getting old, I'm old enough to know which to choose.