We all have a general understanding of the word old. I have an old dining room table. My house is old. No one would dispute either of these facts. They are based on age and time.

But when it comes to people, the line blurs, and there are innumerable shades of gray. There are many different ways to be old, grow old, feel old, act old or be perceived as old.

There is nothing wrong with growing old. Time brings with it experiences and knowledge. The phrase “growing old” itself should be a positive term. It contains the word “grow,” which indicates a continued movement forward and upward. Growing old should lead to increased respect, dignity and glory. Growing old should be good. But it isn’t always perceived this way.

For instance, when someone says, “I’m old,” it’s practically never a positive statement. It’s self-deprecating. “Shucks, don’t expect too much from me now. I’m old.”

Likewise, unfortunately, people whose bodies have grown old are sometimes not given the recognition they deserve. People who have grown old have seen and experienced life moments too innumerable to mention. They have things to share that we all could benefit from knowing, but people who have grown old don’t always warrant our full attention.

We live in a culture that swoons over an everlasting quest for youth, so this should come as no surprise.

However, growing old and becoming old are two different things. It’s all about semantics. We all will grow old (hopefully). Growing old is a state of being and should be linked with the respect and dignity referenced above. Elders deserve our respect because they have lived longer than us. Period.

Growing old has to do with our physical body.

Becoming old is a state of mind.

You can be physically old, but still young at heart. Growing old is compulsory. Becoming old is not.

What is surprising (to me at least) is that if we fight the “O” word, as so many of us naturally do, why are there people who seem to choose to or are simply okay with becoming old before their time?

I’ve witnessed a number of instances of this in my life, and while growing old is directly related to age, becoming old has no age requirement. People can become old at heart and mind at age 30 or 80 and anywhere in between.

I’ve known people of a relatively low age who approached life from an old perspective: “I can’t do that anymore.” “I never learned to [fill-in-the-blank].” “Women my age shouldn’t wear a bikini.” “Men my age shouldn’t have a beard because it would be gray.”

Likewise, I’ve had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of people who were born long ago, but who have managed to keep a youthful outlook on life. Their attitude defied their age and they were anything but old. Quite the contrary.

Growing old happens gradually over time. Becoming old is almost like turning a corner. One day a person sees themself as young; the next they make a quick claim to old.

It’s perplexing. To not wish to be young at heart and mind. To see oneself by the things you can’t do, versus focusing and building upon the ones you can. To not care that life paths are no longer open to you. To embrace the idea of old because maybe young seems too much of an effort.

Everyone will grow old, but becoming old is a choice — as is remaining young at heart. Sometimes, we don’t think we have the choice. We put our days on autopilot and don’t realize we are in control. But control is definitely available to each of us. The choice is ours and ours alone.

Make one you won’t regret. Don’t let a number define you. And go ahead, buy that bikini or grow out that beard. And keep it young — young at heart — no matter what number defines your “age.”

Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright, author and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.