Chewing on aging and ageism

What’s your image of a millennial? A coffee shop patron with an open laptop, budding professional, or struggling freelance artist—each with smartphone in hand? A young couple contemplating a first house? Thirty years old, living with the parents or launching a startup? Maybe she’s putting off children while focusing on her career. Maybe he’s making your espresso while figuring out what he really wants to do in life. 

Now picture someone of middle age. Mid-level manager at a big company, thinking about switching careers? A homeowner, if they’re lucky? A parent, juggling kids and a job? Or maybe the kids are in high school, and there’s light at the end of the tunnel. She’s looking for a flattering pair of reading glasses; he doesn’t recognize the names of the hot bands. 

And what do you imagine when you think of “old”? What’s the visual? Many of you will have pictured a bent figure, grey hair, a wrinkled face, walking slowly. Maybe a couple of you have conjured a colorful character, a dash of blue in her grey hair; a free spirit.

My point (finally!) is that we imagine every flavor of younger ages: a diversity of lifestyles, vocations and avocations, families, genders, choices and growth in all kinds of directions. But for old age our images are mostly stuck in a rut: we’re trapped in the culturally-defined perceptions of old folks.

Yes—ageism exists; I’m telling you nothing here you don’t know. But in light of my own snowballing years I’m becoming “woke” to the fact of this prejudice, and I’m interrogating my own fossilized perceptions. Our culture’s narrow view of “old” leaves little room for the diversity of individual ways we age in real life. 

My historical view of aging was shaped by my grandparents (more so than by my parents; I lost my mom too young and my dad’s still going strong past 90; I still don’t think of him as old). My maternal grandpa worked at a big company until he had to retire in his mid-60’s, soon dying of cancer from the cigars and pipes he smoked through his life. My grandma lived well into her 90’s, losing much of her hearing and most of her memory, reflexively flirting with the guys, refusing to tell anyone her age and dying her hair red long after it went white. I think my paternal grandparents just got more and more crochety. 

Being honest, I’m conscious of the thoughtless biases of my immature self. Visiting a retirement home, I thought they were sweet but they smelled funny. My sister and I giggled when we took grandma to lunch, and she immediately insisted that she needed to be home for her afternoon nap. I was embarrassed for the loud old woman you had to shout to; how silly that her vanity kept her from using a hearing aid. Stuck behind a slow-moving older man I’d get impatient. As I’ve snuck up on my own slowing pace and hearing loss, I recognize my clueless younger impatience for the lack of empathy it was.

I tend to read and write my way out of a puzzle (thus, my exploration through these essays of how we age with gumption and grace). A search for “best book on aging” yields 20 million results! (How can so many be the best?) But I’ve found a few good reads that afford insight. 

My current favorite is Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes, who says he’s never believed in God but he misses Him. Barnes has an outsized fear of extinction. But this, he says, is not his biography. His erudite ramblings across the subject of dying and death—calling out his literary favorites: Montaigne, Jules Renard, Somerset Maugham and others—are pebbled with conversations with his philosopher brother and reflections on his patient father and bossy mother. (She said, “One of my sons writes books I can read but can’t understand, and the other writes books I can understand but can’t read.”) Barnes poses conversational questions like, “Would you rather die suddenly, without warning, or slowly, so that you could tie up loose ends, say farewell…” He’s an atheist-turned-agnostic, circling around the possible existence of God. It’s serious, but in an entertaining way; his loose-jointed approach to a sober subject makes it readable. As someone who has turned her back on the religion I was raised with but loves visiting churches in far-away places, I appreciate his musing on whether we can take the religion out of religious art, “aestheticize it into mere colours, structures, sounds, their essential meaning as distant as childhood memory.”

I confess it’s been the perfect book to keep in the bathroom and read a page or three at a time, both because the author’s wry observations and confiding tone sometimes stay with me for hours, and because, in truth, I find it’s best to dwell on death in small doses.

Other books have been recommended: Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End. The Summer of a Dormouse by John Mortimer is on my rather tall ‘read next’ pile. Someone I know loved I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron, and Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s influential book, Aged by Culture, an academic’s look at the many disadvantages of holding on to the narrow view of aging as decline (this one sounds dry but interesting).

But why read books when you can just read the billboards? You know the ones with the upbeat silver-haired boomers, still active in their retiring years? (OK, ads reduce all of us to stereotypes anyway.) Marketers are promoting a stylish image of baby boomers. We see ourselves differently: often still productively working, still active in sports, culture and politics, still trying to have sex. Yes, my cohort is determined to redefine old age, like we’ve tried to reinvent each life phase we’ve entered before. We’re living longer and generally have more education and work experience than previous generations (this according to the Population Reference Bureau). 

Meanwhile, we also want to redefine what we call ourselves. Not “senior citizens,” or even “seniors.” Not “retirees.” Certainly not “elderly.” Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen likes a new label: “perennials.” It says “we’re still here, blossoming again and again [and] suggests a new model of life in which people engage and take breaks, making new starts repeatedly… It’s aspirational.” But Maggie Kuhn, co-founder of the anti-ageism group Gray Panthers, thinks we should just embrace the word “old” and be proud of how far we’ve come. I kind of like that too.

I think it’s safe to generalize and say most of us do feel some fear of growing old and dying—that’s just human nature. At the same time, we’re still mostly healthy and energetic enough to want to live life fully, despite our accumulating limitations and losses. Many of us will age with enough optimism, independence and engagement to bust a few aging stereotypes along the way too. As for me, I plan to grow old disgracefully; please let me die young as late as possible.

Image credit: Vincent Van Gogh, Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate), public domain, scan by user:Mefusbren69, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9517164
© 2019 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved.

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