[EDITOR’S NOTE: A new story, Gifts For Elders on Your List has been posted on my Blogher blog.]
A week ago The New York Times, which has lately been covering the “aging beat” with increasing depth and frequency,” published a QandA with Dr. Robert N. Butler. The man has a remarkable resume which the Times enumerates in its introduction:
- a founder of the National Institute on Aging
- founder of the department of geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City
- founder of the International Longevity Center
- Pulitzer Prize winner for his 1975 book, Why Survive? Being Old in America, which is one of the bibles of this blog
He also coined the term “ageism,” and this list does not begin to cover Dr. Butler’s lifetime contributions to the field of aging.
The Times QandA is too short and at least one of the questions is awesome in its stupidity:
“Q. Your report mentions that the elderly are left out of most emergency planning. Why is this important?” [emphasis added]
Being more a gentleman than I would be in the face of such ignorance of the obvious, Dr. Butler patiently explained:
“Because most of the people who died in New Orleans were older. Following 9/11, my wife, Myrna Lewis, who was a social worker and who died in 2005, went to seek out the elderly in the neighborhoods around the World Trade Center. She found lots of older people who were really neglected in the emergency. They went without medications. Home health aides couldn’t get through to them. Some were living in feces.
“Both events should get us thinking about what happens to older people in assisted care and nursing home facilities during emergencies — tornados, blackouts, hurricanes. Society is not sensitive to the fact that old people are not as able to survive under perilous circumstances. Homeland Security needs to be considering this.”
No kidding. But I was interested too when, in response to a question about ageism, Dr. Butler, who will soon turn 80 and works full-time, focused on a word that comes up more frequently these days in my life: retired.
“I’m fairly vigorous. I have financial resources. And I’m the boss here, which certainly protects me from ageism,” said Dr. Butler.
“But there are two things I’ve noticed. One relates to the ‘R’ word, ‘retired.’ When I stepped down as the chair of geriatrics at Mount Sinai to build the Longevity Center, people began referring to me as ‘retired.’ I quickly realized that ‘retired’ was not a good word. If you are applying for grants from the N.I.H., you don’t want to be perceived as ‘retired,’ which seems to be a synonym for ‘over the hill…’”
Personally, I choke on the word “retired.” On the rare occasions I have used this term to describe myself, I’ve seen the same kind of veil come over the eyes of people who ask what I do as I saw on the faces of young interviewers (before I gave up looking for full-time work) when they saw how much older I am than I sound on the telephone.
In my job search, that veil meant I didn’t have a chance of being hired. Now, when I use the word “retired,” it is amusing (or would be if it weren’t so infuriating) to watch the other person searching for a way to politely extricate him- or herself from our conversation.
Apparently, in the eyes of the culture, as is believed about elders in general, retirement causes stupidity and hence, retirees couldn’t possibly have anything of interest to say, let alone contribute society.
Like almost every elder I know who qualifies as retired through having no full-time work and/or having reached the age of receiving Social Security benefits, I have never been more intellectually engaged in life and in the world around me. And if the thousands of comments and discussion on this blog over several years now is any indication, I am hardly alone.
Still, it is language again - in the kneejerk, negative response to “retired” - that isolates elders from the mainstream. Even a man as eminent as Dr. Butler falls afoul of it.