“We women had a sense of exuberance when we talked about what we wanted to do with these bonus years. The men had a sense of hopelessness.”
- - Washington Post, 12 April 2005 [pay archive]
Abigail Trafford, the reporter who frequently writes about aging in her weekly “My Time” column at the Washington Post, was speaking about two sessions at a Baby Boomer conference she attended - one about what women want as they enter their later years, the other addressing the same question about men.
According to Jed Diamond, another conference attendee who is the author of The Irritable Male Syndrome, “men are in decline” because they have lost their traditional place in society and they are confused about what to expect from life. So debilitating is this problem, according to Trafford, that the highest suicide rates in the country are among men 65 and older.
On the other hand, women in that age group account for only one-tenth as many suicides and unlike many men, they face aging with sense of excitement, glad to have graduated from carpooling the kids and eager to get out of the house for work and play.
Diamond goes on to blame men’s depression on loss of their job titles through workplace turmoil and change in traditional male roles. In other words, lack of status.
Trafford suggests that the difference between men’s and women’s attitude toward getting older is a new gender gap, and her solution is a call for “…a new agenda for compassionate feminism: to lead the attack on a culture of decline that is sinking too many men.”
That “culture of decline” is the very definition of aging in America which treats elderhood as a disease to be cured. It stems, according to Dr. William H. Thomas (who believes, as I do, that old age is a season of life distinct from adulthood), from the notion that to be old is to become an object worthy only of fear and pity:
“Once vibrant adults who can no longer conceal the effects of aging are relabeled as ‘the frail elderly.’ Former masters of the universe are scorned for being ‘infirm.’ No longer able to command a share of social resources, the aged come to rely on the noblesse oblige of adults who cannot imagine growing old themselves.”
- - What Are Old People For?, William H. Thomas, M.D.
Even though some women seem to have deeper resources than some men for the challenges and enjoyment of our later years, this declinist view affects elders of both genders. But, says Dr. Thomas, it is gradually being confronted by a
“…growing number of people who are willing to challenge the doctrine of youth’s perfection directly and on their own terms.
“These efforts are united by a search for meaning in old age, and they rely on the assumption that there is life beyond adulthood.”
Which is precisely what Time Goes By was created to investigate. Right now, mid-life adults hold all the power in our culture and they define old age only as decline and a drag on resources. But the joke’s on them: they will join us soon enough.
Wouldn’t it be a fine legacy – and give those lost and confused older men a reason to be - if we, the first generation in history to have been granted the gift of longevity, prepared a better kind of elderhood for those who can’t or won’t yet imagine being old themselves?