"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Old Age—The Numbers Don’t Add Up

Mathematics of Aging

In my younger years, I loved mathematics. Problems have solutions! Complex problems require more complex mathematics, but the result is the same: clarity. Rational, organized, systematic thought yields answers. What a narcotic! The world, with effort, can be ordered and understood. I spent many years being pulled deeper into the mathematical rabbit hole in a quest for clarity in this disordered world.

As I aged, however, I learned that the clarity brought by mathematics only applies to a very narrow set of problems. Indeed, many of the problems in this disordered world not only resist rational, organized, systematic thought they ofttimes are exacerbated by it.

Or so I thought. I never could have imagined that I would revisit my early mathematical knowledge (most of which I had forgotten) to make sense of my journey through old age. Every day I find myself making calculations, observing patterns, reacting to situations that draw on my prior mathematical training. I have discovered that unlike standard mathematics, in “geriatric numerology” the numbers don’t add up. Standard mathematical definitions take on new meanings in the mathematics of old age. I offer this “dictionary of redefinitions” as a guide for navigating this new math.

Statistical Concepts

Mean (Standard Math): The mathematical average of a given set of numbers.
Mean (Geriatric Numerology): How often I am able to coherently express what I mean.

Median (SM): The mid-value in a given set of numbers (i.e., 50% are higher and 50% are lower).
Median (GN): What I try not to drive on.

Mode (SM): The most frequent number occurring in a given set of numbers.
Mode (GN): The settings for my hearing aids.

Probability Distribution (SM): The likelihood of an event occurring across a range of possible outcomes.
Probability Distribution (GN): The likelihood that I will find my lost phone across a range of possible places in my house.

Symmetrical Distribution (SM): A regular, bell-shaped curve. A normal distribution.
Symmetrical Distribution (GN): When rotated 90 degrees clockwise, the shape of my belly. A normal distribution among people of a certain age.

Positively Skewed Distribution (SM): A bulge in a distribution curve positioned to the left of center. Not normally distributed.
Positively Skewed Distribution (GN): When rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise, the shape my backside. A common distribution among people of a certain age. But not a positive distribution.

Random Number Generator (SM): A device that generates a sequence of numbers with no predictable pattern.
Random Number Generator (GN): My brain that generates a sequence of thoughts with no predictable pattern.

Risk Assessment (SM): Calculation of the relative potential for harm and damage from a course of action.
Risk Assessment (GN): Risks accompany me when I take my regular walks in our quiet, little trafficked neighborhood: Should I walk in the street, which is smooth but where I might be hit by a car—a low probability event that would likely incur substantial harm? OR walk on the sidewalk, with its uneven surface and higher likelihood of tripping and falling, but a lower probability of very serious harm? Factors that enter into the calculation: Day or night? Rush hour? Gated street? Weather? Very complicated.

Number Theory

Prime Number (SM): A number that can only be divided by 1 and itself without a remainder.
Prime Number (GN): The number of prime things I can do in a day. The number is 1. There are many “prime things”, including MD appointments, dentist visits, physical therapy, chiropractor visits, medical tests, pharmacy visits, medical insurance disputes, dental insurance disputes, Medicare disputes, orthotic fittings, reading glasses adjustments, reading glasses replacements, CPAP equipment repair and replacements, hearing aid adjustments, legal advice for wills and medical directives, advance funeral arrangements, etc., etc.

Real Numbers (SM): All the numbers on the number line, including rational and irrational numbers.
Real Number (GN): My age.

Irrational Number (SM): A number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers.
Irrational Number (GN): The age I would like to be.

Imaginary Number (SM): A number without a definite numeral value. An unreal number (i.e., √-2).
Imaginary Number (GN): The age I think I am. An unreal number (i.e., “I still feel like I am 35.”).

Negative Number (SM): A number whose value is less than zero.
Negative Number (GN): My age. “Holy shit, am I’m really this old?!”

Positive Number (SM): A number whose value is greater than zero.
Positive Number (GN): My age. “Holy shit, I’m this old and still alive!!!”


Addition (SM): The process of summation of two or more numbers.
Addition (GN): The process of accumulating medical conditions, diagnoses, aches, pains, medications, age spots, wrinkles, weight, bunions. Also, increase in humor, patience, gratitude, generosity, perspective.  

Subtraction (SM): The taking away the amount of one or more numbers from another.
Subtraction (GN): The taking away of my brain cells, hair, sensory acuity, muscle mass, dexterity, strength, energy, teeth, friends, family, loved ones. Also, less ego injuries, impatience, self-importance, pop culture awareness, emotional drama, fashion sense, fashion concern.

Multiplication (SM): A mathematical operation indicating how many times a number is added to itself.
Multiplication (GN): A process no longer likely to happen to me—thankfully!

The Number Zero

Zero (SM): It is nothing that creates everything. It is neither a positive nor negative number but defines the boundary between them. It is not a rational, irrational or imaginary number. It adds nothing, subtracts nothing, leaves nothing when multiplied, and destroys everything when divided by. It is a place holder: 10, 100, 1000, etc., but it holds nothing.

The concept of zero made the modern number system possible. It was developed in India and corresponds to Hindu and Buddhist understanding of “being empty.” Being is a “presence” and empty is a condition of being. Nothing is something; a pregnant void that gives rise to everything.

Zero (GN): I emerge from nothing with nothing. Except with my life, my being. And at the end of my life, I return to nothing with nothing. Zero. I am of nothing, return to nothing, and this gives rise to everything.1



  1. Nothing that is something that births everything applies not only to the number zero and to me, but to everything. Most of the universe is empty. In the space within atoms and between stars—nothing. This nothing is a pregnant void, a roiling quantum froth where infinitesimally small, ephemeral virtual particles flash into and out of existence. It is believed that the Big Bang, which gave birth to everything, exploded from this fecund, frothing nothing.


  1. Sharon Louise Poe

    Hilarious! Thank you, Brian

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Sharon. The idea came to me on a walk in my neighborhood, trying to decide whether to walk in the street or the sidewalk—a very practical rumination that is quite funny. . .and sad.

  2. Richard Codding

    Thanks Brian
    I admit that I do not read all your ramblings but this time I was glad that I did. Your math connection to geriatrics – Brilliant!

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thanks, Rich. This is one of my favorite ramblings as well, which is in neither the street nor the sidewalk. Virtual rambling with virtually no risk.

  3. Kate Murphy

    Brian, Love your blogs! I relate to all you shared, and nice to find the humor in all this:).

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thanks, Kate. I am glad you liked it and it is good to hear from you.

  4. Dominick

    Well thought out! A combination of humor and truth. As I approach returning to nothing I contemplate the “everything” in my life. Our friendship through the years is high on the numerical scale ascending in a positive direction!

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thanks, Dom. I have been fortunate to have your humor, gentle kindness, and passion in my life for these many years. While my life is bracketed by nothing, this is a very meaningful something.

  5. Mike Palmer

    Damn…I gave a didactic presentation to our internship group today on confronting ageism in healthcare. Wish I’d read this first, I would have plagiarized the you-know-what out of it! Good stuff, Professor.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      It is gratifying to know that you stand on the front lines of treating the trauma and travails facing vets, many who are old, and passing your wisdom to the next generation. I also know that you do this with your unique style of of humor and good will. I am delighted that you would flatter me by “plagiarizing” my blog—-plagiarize away, Mike.

  6. Linda Biegen

    Started to read and thought “Ugh-Math”. Continued and laughed my head off. I recommend you bring this to the “Senior Comedy Tour”. You might make a few bucks and improve your “bottom” line .. since that portion seems to be sliding in the wrong direction. **** 4 star review

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Linda. I appreciate your 4 stars. I am living the “Senior Comedy Tour”, knowing that, in this case, the difference between comedy and tragedy is a matter of perspective. And yes, as you have no doubt noticed, my bottom line is sliding in the wrong direction, along with much else.

  7. aden burka

    Such humor goes to the heart of the aging matter. Our out-loud laughter released all the pent up emotional adjustments we deal with as we get older. This blog reminded Cathy and me of her being your prize statistics pupil over forty year ago. Her grade was the mean, median and mode all in one. We’re still thankful for your tutelage in statistics and for life in general. Keep us laughing, learning and appreciating. AB

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, AB. As I recall, Cathy also was at the top of the class, scoring at the 100 percentile!

      I had great fun writing this, laughing-in-tears throughout, because it is too true. I got idea for the post while walking in my neighborhood trying to decide whether to walk in the street or the sidewalk, when the absurd humor of my “calculations” seized me. These are the calculations of a toddling old fart simply going for a walk?! Really?!

      And I am grateful that I can still walk! And laugh! And for your friendship!

  8. Joan W

    OK, so this post made me laugh so hard, coffee almost came out of my nose. I really like the way you think.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Joan. This is the highest compliment!

  9. Claude Bernard

    Love this. My favorites are the positive and negative numbers, and the risk assessment.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thanks, Claude, I’m glad you liked it. The idea for this came to me as I pondered the risks while walking in our neighborhood. Applied mathematics at work!

  10. Gary Morse

    Thanks Brian! I enjoyed the humor and laughs (though some GNs hit so close to home that perhaps my response was more of a cry than a laugh).

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thanks, Gary.

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