Declinism vs. Developmentalism
“Are the old really human beings?”
Simone De Beauvoir
Back in the 60s when De Beauvoir asked this question, she answered it by examining how the old were viewed in many cultures. In the US she found that they were invisible and treated as less than human, making her an early articulator of the declinist view of aging.
Here is a poem in which one woman cries out to be seen, affirming De Beauvoir’s observations.
What do you see, nurses, what do you see?
Are you thinking, when you look at me —
A crabby old woman, not very wise,
Uncertain of habit, with far-away eyes,
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply,
When you say in a loud voice — “I do wish you’d try.”
Who seems not to notice the things that you do,
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe,
Who unresisting or not, lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill.
Is that what you’re thinking, is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse, you’re looking at ME…
I’ll tell you who I am, as I sit here so still;
As I rise at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of ten with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters, who love one another,
A young girl of sixteen with wings on her feet.
Dreaming that soon now a lover she’ll meet;
A bride soon at twenty — my heart gives a leap,
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep;
At twenty-five now I have young of my own,
Who need me to build a secure, happy home;
A woman of thirty, my young now grow fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last;
At forty, my young sons have grown and are gone,
But my man’s beside me to see I don’t mourn;
At fifty once more babies play ’round my knee,
Again we know children, my loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead,
I look at the future, I shudder with dread,
For my young are all rearing young of their own,
And I think of the years and the love that I’ve known;
I’m an old woman now and nature is cruel —
‘Tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body is crumbled, grace and vigor depart,
There is now a stone where once I had a heart,
But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells,
And now and again my battered heart swells.
I remember the joys, I remember the pain,
And I’m loving and living life over again,
I think of the years, all too few — gone too fast,
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last —
So I open your eyes, nurses, open and see,
Not a crabby old woman, look closer, nurses — see ME!
This poem was found among the possessions of an elderly lady who died in the geriatric ward of a hospital. No information is available concerning her — who she was or when she died. Reprinted from the “Assessment and Alternatives Help Guide” prepared by the Colorado Foundation for Medical Care.
The protagonist is asking to be seen as a human being, which is a developmental point of view. She is treated as one of many like her, who need to be fed and clothed but are not recognized as still living. We advocate for a new cultural view of aging which recognizes that human beings don’t stop growing and learning until they die. This view is called developmentalism. The following poem appeared in a book by Leon Zuckrow, a 91-year-old in a senior community who exemplifies the developmental view.
the sigh and tears and moans
because she has gone where
body is stripped to bones.
frivolity? and mirth?—
so scandalous after
that consignment to earth!
But she decrees it! Then,
when I come from above
we are masters again
of joy as well as love.
In revelry, not grief,
she and I will resume,
robbing time, that old thief,
as a new bride and groom.
Nancy, Mary, Carolyn and Boo Group 1