It has been more than 20 years since I began reading, writing and thinking about old age nearly every day. Some things have changed: there is a whole lot more to read nowadays than in the mid-1990s, and there is some improvement in cultural attitudes toward elders. But not nearly enough.
Some things have stayed the same: too many of the boring old stereotypes remain in books, movies, TV and online, in journalism, schools, even in science and medicine and certainly in the workplace.
Over these 20-odd years where I've spent so much time in the world of what it's like to grow old, it's been a lot like “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Here then are a few – only a few - of the random conclusions I've reached about old age in which I have some confidence. (Well, some confidence until new information requires revision.)
⚫ Stereotypes are usually mean and often unfair but they are not always without merit. We do not suddenly become sweet, little old ladies or get-off-my-lawn, curmudgeonly, old men on a certain birthday. If we do exhibit these characteristics, we were likely that way all our lives.
⚫ Cultural perceptions of old age have not changed much in the nearly 50 years since Simone de Beauvoir described them in her 1970 book Coming of Age:
”...we have always regarded [old age] as something alien, a foreign species.”
⚫ Contrary to a minor trend among some writers and self-appointed gurus on the subject, old age is not more special than any other time of life. But it is equally significant – it's just that our culture doesn't see it that way. Yet.
⚫ The old are granted less cultural power even than children.
⚫ Movies about old people still fall mostly into two categories: (1) old folks making fun of themselves while laughing hysterically and (2) old people dying in extremis. You will find more varied and honest portrayals of elders occur in supporting roles.
⚫ No matter how much sentimental types try to tell us otherwise, wisdom is not an automatic attribute of old age.
⚫ No two people age in the same way and they grow old at entirely different rates. Elderhood is more diverse than any other stage of life.
The truest thing I know about growing old is that it never stops being fascinating and there is always something new to know:
“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
- Henry Miller