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Thursday, 24 July 2014

Not Like Them – Those Other Old People

Hardly a week goes by that I do not receive a press release or reader email alerting me to a photography exhibit of elders. So much so that it is hard not to conclude that it is becoming a growth industry.

The two most common categories are closeups of wrinkled skin and old people participating in sports - or, sometimes, both in the same series.

It is always better, I believe, so see more portrayals of old people, in any medium, than not. But too many of the photographs are just ordinary and stand out only for having been shot in harshly lit black-and-white which, as any denizen of the internet and certain galleries knows, is the signal that you are in the presence of “art.”

You can choose to reject that designation if your judgment tells you otherwise particularly, in my case, when it seems the photographers' goal is to shock us with the apparent ruin of 90-year-old bodies.

In June, Lillian B. Rubin died. She was 90 years old, a sociologist, a psychologist and author of several useful and well-received books including, in 2008, 60 on Up: The Truth About Aging in the 21st Century.

In reading Rubin's obituary, I was reminded of the opening line in that book,

“Getting old sucks. It always has, it always will.”

Anyone who has been reading this blog for longer than a day or two know that I disagree. But I do know what she was getting at and some of that is contained in an article she wrote for Salon in 2011:

”...old age - even now when old age often isn't what it used to be – is a time of loss, decline and stigma.

“Yes, I said stigma. A harsh word, but one that speaks to a truth that's affirmed by social researchers who have consistently found that racial and ethnic stereotypes are likely to give way over time and with contact, but not those about age.

“And where there are stereotypes, there are prejudice and discrimination – feeling and behavior that are deeply rooted in our social world, and consequently make themselves felt in our inner psychological worlds as well.”

In a short but remarkable section of that Salon article, written when Rubin was 87, she admits to her own prejudice against old people. As she recalled the interviews with elders that she conducted for 60 on Up,

”...I found myself forced back on myself, on my own prejudices about old people, even though I am also one of them.

“Even now, even after all I've learned about myself, those words – I am one of them – bring a small shock. And something inside resists.

“I want to take the words back, to shout, 'No, it's not true, I'm really not like them,' and explain all the ways I'm different from the old woman I saw pushing her walker down the street or the frail shuffling man I looked away from with a slight sense of discomfort.

“I know enough not to be surprised that I feel this way, but I can't help being somewhat shamed by it.”

My own “small shock” and “surprise” and “shame” is that sometimes I catch myself, when I pay attention, feeling like Rubin. Because even though I am hyper-aware, thanks to the work I do for this blog, that I am one perilous fall or terrible diagnosis away from disastrous need of part- or full-time care, I feel different from those who do.

But what Rubin was getting at when she wrote that getting old sucks is not so much the physical manifestations as the emotional and spiritual changes that our culture does not acknowledge even as it is the major source.

Rubin and I share a disdain for the relentless focus on youth, the anti-aging industry, the dubious value of brain games, elders who pretend they are not old.

It is the less than artful photography of ancient bodies I mentioned above that comes to mind when I read part of Rubin's conclusion in her Salon piece:

”...we're living in a weird combination of the public idealization of aging that lies alongside the devaluation of the old. And it isn't good for anybody.

“Not the 60-year-olds who know they can't do what they did at 40 but keep trying, not the 80-year-olds who, when their body and mind remind them that they're not 60, feel somehow inadequate, as if they've done something wrong, failed a test.”

Until we, as a society, find a way to value the late years of elders' lives – all the years, in all their manifestations - there will continue to be old people like Lillian Rubin, me and a certain percentage of you who are ashamed to know that sometimes we feel “not like them.” Until we are forced, one day, to admit, finally, that we are.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dan Gogerty: Ag Terms in Advertising – Natural Ignorance is Bliss


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Look. Fat people don't want to be fat, and they know fat people are unattractive. Sick people don't want to be sick and they don't want to be around sick people all the time. Poor people don't want to be poor. Ugly people don't want to be ugly. Disabled people would rather not be disabled.

For some of us, old age may be the first time we are experiencing what it is really like to be in an undesirable status. It doesn't mean that people in these categories don't deserve respect, or that they can't be loved for who they are.

But be honest. Given the choice, we'd all rather be rich, slender, healthy, beautiful, smart, talented and young.

I love coming to this site every day. You really are the best at putting out there topics of old age we need to look at and address!!

Today, these are the words that jumped out at me---
"….that I am one perilous fall or terrible diagnosis away from disastrous need of part- or full-time care, I feel different from those who do."

I live in a city where there are lots of old people out walking and as I whip around them with my iPod on and my quick step, I feel happy for me that I am the one rushing by and not "them".

Especially when I hear the song on my iPod by Joan Baez "Hello in There"

Wonderful. I'm off to Comic Con this afternoon, and just for the fun of it, I will attempt to photograph as many elders as I can find. Not all attendees are 21.

I've come to believe -- I'm a healthy 74 and grateful for it -- that the way we feel as individuals about being old depends on how we feel about death, since the state of age inevitably leads to the state of death. (And which is the reason most people fear being old.) If we believe we'll be able to welcome death as the end of a well-lived life, we can enjoy our old age.

I believe (at least to some extent) that you are only stigmatized and shamed if you agree to be stigmatized and shamed.

Remember, everyone, old or young, is merely "one perilous fall or terrible diagnosis away from disastrous need of part- or full-time care" -- or death, for that matter. For we are all human.

It's very much the same philosophy that Susan Jacoby writes about in her book "Never Say Die, the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age". I think 60 is pretty young though, most 60 years old can do the same physical activities they did at 40 unless they were completely inactive for 20 years.

I see the major health issues starting in people's 70s and almost nobody gets through their 80s alive, the ones that do are the losers, not the winners.

I'm struck by these words from your post: "Racial and ethnic stereotypes are likely to give way over time and with contact, but not those about age."

It seems to me that some of the problem is, younger people don't have much contact with elders, so they can't help but stereotype. If ethnnic and racial stereotypes give way with contact, why not those about age?

Accepting that I am "old" at 77 is very much a work in progress. Being born female, this isn't my first experience with being in an "undesirable" status, but I was able to contribute in some small ways to changing perceptions when I was in my 20s-50s. Without getting into racial or economic disparities, younger women today are generally respected throughout most realms of society, whereas old people are not.

Thus, I cannot help but agree with Nan, who says, "given the choice, we'd all rather be rich, slender, healthy, beautiful, smart, talented and young"--or at least many of us would. As I've said before, I'm not sure that distaste for aging is always related to fear of death. For me personally it's more a fear of the six "D"s: decline, disability, disrespect, disdain, deprivation and dismissal by the larger society. These are the conditions I intend to fight for as long as I can.

I agree; most of us have not come to terms with our inevitable deaths and as we get closer to it it's hard to resist the constant scramble to look and act younger. I always disliked the show Golden Girls, where women, rather than act their ages would joke about who they were going to bed down with next. Years ago, when I put my father in a nursing home, I stood in the dayroom next to him, looking at all the elderly residents who were half aware, and I said, THAT is NOT my Dad, when of course, it was. He was one of them, just as I'll be in years to come. And I was saddened...

I do have the occasional feeling that I'm not like those other old people. And when I read that many people in their 60's or 70's say they exercise very little or not at all because they don't have time, I feel critical and judgmental.

I wonder what can possibly be more important than taking just 15 or 20 minutes to go for a pleasant walk. These days, however, many people of all ages look as if they're not taking good care of their health.

There are many assisted living complexes near my area and the residents are bussed to the grocery store. It seems like I always get there shortly after they have arrived.

If they are an example of elders I don't wonder that we are stereotyped. Based on the fact that this is the only contact some people have with elders it's no wonder that some do not have a favorable opinion of the aged. Many of them are not considerate, polite or pleasant. Perhaps some elders create an image that the rest of us have to live with.

I realize this is true of every age group. Do you notice how elders talk about the young? I have to admit it is not flattering.

I do my best to try to create a good image by smiling, being thoughtful and polite. Nonetheless, I think some only see me as a very old wrinkled person who is unable to walk very well. And I am that. What they don't see is a fact that I still do all of my housework and keep my house presentable.

No one person fits a stereotype. I am, I suppose, decrepit in a young person's eyes, but I am still a functioning person. Superficial images never tell the whole story. I can be feisty or sweet depending on the situation. (But that was true when I was young.)

I fear I am rambling. Could this be a symptom of getting old?

Once again I'm in agreement with Darlene. Some elders do need to change their behaviors & attitudes. My mom used to talk about going out to lunch with the crowd from her complex & they would leave with pockets full of sugar, sweetener, jelly & hundreds of napkins!

However, that said, like others here I'm old, (77) I know it & I feel it but I DON'T like it one bit. I feel that I have no purpose altho' I'm a caregiver, I still feel superfulous & not necessary & I have many bad days, but I keep on plugging along. Don't ask me why, but that's what mom did 'til she died in May at age 99 & 3 days. Dee

Your blog constantly raises my awareness about myself and how I and others relate to me and other elders. That is a gift for me. Thanks!

I like what Elizabeth Rogers said.

Do you notice how stores help create that relentless sense of urgency.

Hurry up and get your stuff right now or you will miss out.

Halloween candy and costumes are already in stores.

We aren't even half way through summer, but oh, yay, here comes Halloween.

It's like we're cars rolling off an assembly line.

Why can't we slow this thing called life down to a reasonable pace?

What, are we sled dogs or humans?

I hope to remain helpful and relevant as long as possible.

Who wants to think about the what if's?


I go to the senior center and when I look around I have to remind myself that I, too, am "one of them." I don't feel old even though I look it and move like an old person. But my brain power, world view and other intrinsic things I value are the best they've ever been in my life. I look around while with my peer age group and wonder how many others in the crowd don't feel as old as the rest of us. Is that a prejudice against the elderly or denial that I, too, really am one of them?

Instead, maybe we can look to see what do those "old people" know.

Whenever I get cocky and think I'm not old, my childhood friends, Snap, Crackle and Pop, return. They just love my neck!

My own attitude toward old age was informed by the four elder generations in my family - with all five generations living within 1 or 2 miles of one another WIWAK. My family comprised those who were of various ages, those who were missing a limb, those whose mental and physical conditions caused them to be labeled "afflicted", etc. I don't recall that age was ever really discussed (except for babies). Neither were the various physical and mental configurations.

Each person accepted whatever their age, whatever their mental and/or physical condition, and the rest of the family did, too. I suspect that the only reasons I am aware of age as much as I am, now, are finding Ronni's community a decade ago and having a 31-year-old granddaughter who has always loved old people - working with them in nursing homes since age 12 (when she volunteered). The discussions at Ronni's place are intelligent and interesting, but I sometimes have a hard time relating. (I am not one of "them" - am I?!!!!)

I do get disgusted with a few of my acquaintances of 50 years' standing who continue to think/espouse that our group of women are so much younger/smarter/better looking than the rest of those other elders in our community.

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