*image from Toronto’s anti-ageism campaign
Believe it or not, fellow Baby Boomers, we are headed for old age. Even if we’re still fit and active and don’t feel old yet, our bodies are getting weaker and more frail and no exercise, vitamin or anti-aging regime can save us. So we had better re-think old age if we want to make the most of it. We may already have overcome ageist attitudes about our current stage of life but if the prospect of getting really old is grim and frightening and we can’t see anything good about it, we are still under an ageist spell.
Many years ago, when I turned sixty, I didn’t realize I was on the front-line of a generation that would transform aging. All I knew was that the demeaning jokes and attitudes I’d always heard about little old ladies would now apply to me. The thought of it made me cringe. I did not feel like a little old lady and certainly did not want to be treated like one.
I wasn’t alone. As more and more Boomers entered their sixties, we realized that, as a group, we were not over-the-hill or out-of-it or any of the other negative stereotypes our culture tried to pin on us, we were a new breed, more fit and healthier than people our age had ever been. And we had something else going for us. The liberation movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, not only raised our awareness of racism and sexism, but also primed us to recognize another form of oppression: ageism.
We did not take to the streets as many of us had when we were young, but in a non- confrontational, more (ahem) mature way, we broke free of our culture’s anti-aging spell and began to appreciate our stage of life. We traveled, postponed retirement, started new careers and enjoyed sex and romance. “Sixty is the new forty” became our refrain, but in many ways, sixty was even better than forty. Beyond being almost as fit as we were in middle-age, we also had decades more experience and a broader perspective plus the freedom from work and family responsibilities that forty-year olds could only wish for. It was a dynamite combination and it had never existed before, not on this scale.
Personally, my former involvement in the Women’s Movement helped me see parallels between a male-oriented culture that negated femaleness and a youth-oriented culture that negated age. As a well-indoctrinated ageist, however, I couldn’t immediately see anything good about turning sixty. To enlighten myself as well as others, I decided to put together an anthology of positive memoirs, stories and poems about older women and placed an ad in a writers’ magazine calling for submissions. My plan may not sound that impressive but, for me, it took a lot of nerve. I’d had some stories published but knew nothing about publishing a book. Nor had I ever edited another writer’s work, certainly not any who might be more accomplished than I. Yet there I was at sixty, daring to take on the project. And I had no doubt I could succeed. That sense of confidence was the first benefit of aging that I discovered.
I soared through my sixties and early seventies, shedding ageist ballast as I went. Granted, I ceased being an object of sexual interest (which has some advantages) and had more aches and pains, but there were emotional gains that surprised me. Not only did I have the confidence it took to get my anthology published, I was freer, more open, less self-concerned and life, in general, was more fun. Who knew getting older could be fun? It became my mission to tell anyone who would listen not to dread their sixties. I even looked for opportunities to call myself “old” because people invariably assumed I was demeaning myself. “You’re not old,” they’d protest. “Don’t say that.” To which I’d blithely respond, “What’s wrong with being old? I like it.”
I could say that as long as I didn’t feel old. Then I turned seventy-five and everything changed. I have more pains and less energy and have had to limit activities like yoga and hiking that I used to enjoy. And it will only get worse: I could become physically incapacitated, lose people I love, maybe even lose my mind and then I’ll die. And when I look in the mirror, there she is, the Little Old Lady. Surprise! I’m old—really old. I thought this would never happen to me. Ha!
Compared to what I’m facing now, the years between sixty and seventy-five were “old age lite.” Science may eventually reverse or stop physical deterioration but so far the dreaded decline has merely been postponed, not eliminated. It is still hard for me to see anything good about physical diminishment, loss or death. At least I’m not fooled. My image of what may lie ahead is so totally negative, I must be under an ageist spell.
Eventually, we will no doubt define a more life-affirming view of this next stage but once again, I find myself on the front line of the effort to see beyond our own ageism. I have to consciously flip each negative assumption over to find the positive hidden below. For example, when I watched my ninety-one-year old neighbor arduously hobble down the street with her shopping cart, my automatic ageist reaction was to focus on her physical weakness and think, “I hope that never happens to me.” Only on second thought did I also appreciate her determination to remain independent and admire her strength.
Here’s what else I’ve found so far.
Negative view: The losses of old age are terrible and terrifying.
Flip: Dealing with loss is one of the challenges of old age. Every stage has challenges, that’s how we grow. I’m inspired by the compassion, courage, acceptance or inner peace that people can develop in the face of adversities like cancer or death of a loved one. Our culture does not value such achievements as much as the achievements of youth but they may be some of the most significant of our lives.
Negative view: Old bodies are repulsive.
Flip: This idea still seems true, particularly when I look at my own body. But I’m working on it. I tell myself that inner, not outer beauty is what counts now and that it’s ridiculous for a woman my age to be judged by standards for twenty-year-olds, even more ridiculous to be ashamed that I don’t meet those standards. But who thinks of my inner beauty when they see my sags and flab. Not me.
Negative view: Old people are out-of-it and irrelevant.
Flip: I don’t find being “in it” all that compelling anymore or relevant to what matters to me. True, I’m falling more and more behind popular culture but it feels like a choice. I see people racing ahead in relentless pursuit of “more” and “better” and am not tempted to join them. Achievement and progress may matter to younger people but old age may be the time to be present- rather than future-oriented. I am reminded of the 1970’s book, Be Here Now, and wonder if I’ll finally be able to heed Ram Dass’s call to presence now that I’m old.
Negative view: It’s morbid to dwell on death.
Flip: It may be morbid for younger people but death is one of the most significant issues for elders. It’s still hard to believe I’m going to die but I have noticed that the closer some people are to death, the more joy and gratitude they feel. I can also imagine how empowering it could be to be unafraid of death. Of course, our culture fails to recognize or benefit from those who achieve this realization.
This is as far as I’ve come in my effort to counter the spell of ageism. Knowing that a tidal wave of Boomers is beginning to enter this stage of life gives me hope that I, and elders in general, can make the most of our remaining time. Before long, elder values and perspectives may even bring balance to a culture that is super-charged, hyper-materialistic, and obsessed with physical beauty and power. And maybe I’ll be able to simply put on a bathing suit and go for a swim.