My most recent ChangingAging blog post, Dick and Jane Grow Up, inspired some very interesting comments. One in particular, from a man named Richard (no last name provided), gave me pause for further reflection. Here it is in its entirety:
Ok so you are an exception to the average senior. Yes there are senior athletes, and employees working well past their designated retirement age, but please look around and take inventory of the average senior. Many have chosen a lifestyle of low activity, poor diet and high alcohol. Dick and Jane have grown up but they have to realize how hard it is to fight the aging process. I see it daily in my clinic, the repeated expression, “where are the golden years”. These are people who have lived good lives and now have bad knees, hips, need stents, hearing aids etc. If you are in good shape then thank you for your efforts and please encourage others.
Richard brings up two good points: 1) Many older adults have chosen counterproductive lifestyle behaviors that are now affecting their health, and 2) they are not working hard enough to reverse the effects of those behaviors.
But two other issues in Richard’s comment gave me cause to reflect.
First of all, his use of the phrase “in my clinic” leads me to assume that he is a health-care professional and is assessing “the average senior” based on his daily experiences with those whom he serves. And so I wonder about the sample population from which he’s drawing his conclusions about older adults. After all, since the people he sees have a need for his medical services, they are a self-selecting population. We might assume that there are many older adults whom Richard doesn’t see (or sees only for routine checkups), precisely because they are active and fairly healthy. Although the aging process does take somewhat of a toll on the human body, as a population, today’s older adults 65+ are healthier than were previous generations of elders. And this should give us cause for optimism.
More importantly is another issue: how those disillusioned elders in his clinic are defining “the golden years.” The phrase seems to evoke the idea of well-earned leisure, a time of rest, relaxation, and reward without cares or the obligation to maintain a level of economic productivity that defines young and middle-age adulthood.
But let’s look more metaphorically at the word “golden.” Gold is a relatively rare and therefore precious metal not usually applied to most everyday practical uses. Pure gold is soft and malleable, sensitive to pressure and able to be manipulated easily by external forces. It is lovely to look at and never loses its shine. It is desirable to possess, mainly because it is an exceptional material and takes us out of the realm of the ordinary.
And because of all of these images, I think “golden” is an inappropriate word to describe our later years. Many elders continually experience the pressures of social and economic marginalization and isolation. They may be treated as fragile, superfluous, and, most disturbing of all, infantile. It takes powerful mental and emotional constitutions on their part to reject the stereotypical impulses of others and instead insist on contributing their time, wisdom, and talents to others and being included in everyday affairs and treated with respect. It takes a willpower that has been strengthened over a lifetime of challenges and adjustments to loss and change of all kinds. It takes guts to deal with ageism and to maintain dignity and self-esteem in the process.
In the immortal words of actress Bette Davis, “Old age is no place for sissies.”
And so I’d like to suggest that in our discussions of the later years of life we substitute the image of gold with another metal: steel. Rather than being a pure and precious material, steel is an alloy that has been tempered by repeated exposure to changing environments of heat and cold. It is a substance from which everyday, useful things vital to society (cars, ships, planes, and skyscrapers) are built. That’s how all of us should aspire to be as older adults –– people of steel who are necessary to supporting and maintaining the structures of culture, environment, and society.
As Richard suggests, we older adults should take responsibility for keeping ourselves as healthy and vital as possible. But I’ll go a step further and say we should also take responsibility for changing social misperceptions about the “golden years” of old age and instead “steel ourselves” to forge a newer and better reality of elderhood.
Only then will we no longer need –– or want –– to ask “Where are the golden years?”