A Nasty Little Credit Card Surprise

Celebrating Old Old Age

category_bug_ageism.gif Donna Woodka of Changing Places sent me this brief AP story about Nobel laureate, Rita Levi-Montalcini, who will celebrate her 100th birthday on Wednesday. She works at her namesake brain studies center - European Brain Research Institute (EBRI)–Rita Levi-Montalcini - near Rome, and she is a senator-for-life in the Italian Senate.

I like what she has to say:

"Above all, don't fear difficult moments...The best comes from them."


"I am not afraid of death — I am privileged to have been able to work for so long. If I die tomorrow or in a year, it is the same — it is the message you leave behind you that counts, and the young scientists who carry on your work."


"At 100, I have a mind that is superior — thanks to experience — than when I was 20."

The last statement undoubtedly has as much to do with genetics, health and plain dumb luck as anything else, but I do believe keeping as active as possible – mentally and physically – helps us maintain into old age.

But there is much more to Senator Levi-Montalcini than the fact of her triple-digit birthday. She has led a fascinating life which you can read about briefly at Wikipedia, in her own words in her Nobel autobiographical sketch and in a longer interview at nature.com concentrating on her brain studies work.

It is becoming commonplace for there to be news stories about people of great age who are “still” doing something – usually physical, such running marathons, participating in swim races, playing golf or bowling, flying an airplane – or, as in the case of a 114-year-old Nigerian, being arrested recently for having 254 bags of cannabis in his home.

In the early years of this blog, I made a point to mention some of these stories about old, old people. I believed it contributed to others' understanding that being old is not synonymous with being decrepit, demented or helpless. Then, a couple of years ago, I squirmed when I ran across one which mentioned in passing that an 85-year-old woman “still” cooks her own meals. I had a great aunt and a grandmother who did that until they day they each died at 90 and 92.

And, there are a growing number of octogenarians and beyond who keep house, drive, shop and do whatever else the rest of us do – maybe with some help for heavier chores. We even know some of them: Millie Garfield of My Mom's Blog, Mort Reichek of Octogenarian, Darlene Costner of Darlene's Hodgepodge, Chancy of driftwoodinspiration. Well, almost, in Chancy's case. (Please let me know who I've left out.)

So I squirmed again when I read the headline on the AP story about Senator Levi-Montalcini: “Italian Scientist, Turning 100, Still Works.”

The discomfort, I have come to see, is due to how such a statement diminishes the person. It negates and demeans an entire life, as though the fact that she works at age 100, and not the work she does, is the most important thing about her. Should I live to an old old age, I really don't want someone saying, “she still turns out a blog post every day.”

It's not that I don't think it's nice to celebrate those big, round-number birthdays. Nor that when someone reaches advanced age, it is not interesting to know how they view their long life and all they have witnessed. I relished a story around election day last November about a 100-plus-year-old, woman, the granddaughter of slaves, who voted for Barack Obama; she is a vivid, living connection to our country's past.

Generally, however, news stories about the old old only serve to separate them from the mainstream of life, marking them – and younger old people too - as other, different and apart from everyone else. There is so much more to everyone than just the number of our years, as Senator Levi-Montalcini's life - when I looked further than the AP story - is.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson writes about a special packet of letters in A Red Frayed Ribbon.]


I find it demeaning when people think that a woman my age has no business being interested in technology.

My hope is that all of us get up in the morning and do what we want with our day--whatever that is, and whatever our age.

I, too, lament the depiction of very old people as remarkable and removed when they are able to perform the basics. So I was thrilled to read of Rita's accomplishments and to see her hauteur-like pose in NatureNews (nature.com), while strutting her stuff--in high heels.

Thanks for the inspiring post.

No Way. Really? She's 65 and she still breathes? On her own? Holy pumpa doodle. And her mom, who is 87, STILL wears jeans? I'm staggering. Dude. Come on, man. That's just whack.

Poke a hole in it. That thing. That ridiculous measuring stick that attempt to shove us all into one "sameness."

That job I applied to without mentioning my age? They asked for more & I sent them more.

No response. I guess they figured why would someone like me, at 65 "still" be looking for a part-time job.

Thing is, I already have a good job, and am only researching my pet peeve (ageism) and writing about it.

Am I crying? Nah. I'm "still" standing. And working.

My 87 year old mom says she misses having a car. She also says boomers with money should be inventing some kind of vehicle solely for seniors, as the toughest part of getting older, for her, is the loss of freedom. Even though I drive her everywhere she needs to go, she darn well misses her car! I get that.

"Above all, don't fear difficult moments...The best comes from them." boy is this ever profound and for me, this is the best quote ever.

As to age and ability to perform at maximum level....people forget that age is not an indicator of what you can or cannot do. It's the person not the number. Growing older is growing better. Amen. Yes certain things occur to our bodies and minds as we age, but to a certain level, we can control those by taking care of ourselves (and for having good genes). Never be limited to what you can do by your age....always go for it!

Great story. Here's to celebrating the ongoing contributions of many older adults....

Recommend The Mature Mind by Gene Cohen MD PhD....Cohen has worked with thousands of older adults and has presented new findings regarding the aging brain that combined with findings of other related researchers dispell negative misconceptions that still plague our culture. All that learning and experience adds up to the elder advantage--we knew that, but seems that others need to get the message, and hopefully they will.

I understand what you are saying Ronni. The articles you refer to seem to marginalize the old by treating their accomplishments as unusual, even slightly freakish. However I think these articles probably are better than no articles at all!

It is helpful for all of our society, younger and older, to read of accomplished seniors. It sort of helps us all have hope for our own personal futures, I think. And often articles profile the accomplishments of the quite young in much the same way. Those are uplifting in a different way because they give us hope in a new generation.

More maddeningly for me, is the relative lack of images in newspapers and magazines of older females of accomplishment. What do older women wear? How do they accessorize, how do they do their hair? This information is out there for the younger, but not so much for the older. The lack of photos reflects widespread and unexamined ageism. Older women are not deemed beautiful or interesting or worth observing.

I think I learned about the blog Advanced Style from you, Ronni. It is one of my daily pleasures.

Well! I saw a very nice pic or Sen. Levi-Montalcini. She is a stunner. A smart woman looking smart.

And this by Tina Brown:


This is an article about the Susan Boyle phenom. I like the bit about the invisible women.

I agree with Sophronia, I kind of like the articles celebrating really old people doing what might be considered ordinary at a younger age. I recently watched a video at Kate Thoughts blog, about the 88-year-old mayor of Mississauga. It is a bit too cutesy but to me, inspiring. My parents died in their 70s, I'm not sure I'll make it much past that, but if I do, I want to be healthy and active. I see plenty of disability and ill health among my own age cohort, I'd like to dream of an active old age. I probably won't end up mayor of anything, but I sure wish and hope I can be as feisty (and healthy)!

The media tells us what a large percentage of us are going to end up unhealthy, disabled and demented in our old age, I think we really do need healthy role models showing that decrepitude and madness are not our only fate.

Anne - regarding your last sentence: I'm trying. I'm trying on this blog every day.

My in-laws are in their late 80's and still doing all the things they did 30 years ago. Unusual? No, but to a 20- or 30-something,amazing.

As you have said over and over, Ronni, the news media is saturated with the very young who have no conception of what life is really like for the very old. That one can function at all past 50 is mind-blowing to them!

And the statement, "Above all, don't fear difficult moments...The best comes from them." is spot-on for these times. I have to keep reminding myself that these difficult times are an opportunity rather than a disaster.

Such a huge percentage of "aging" is culturally enforced stigma! It's true that you may slow down (or not), or have a few physical problems (or not), or have different tastes than when you were younger (probably, but why is that bad). SO? People change--one way or another--at every age.

The rub comes when "out of it" is imposed on you--the "invisibility" of women our age is relentlessly enforced in dozens of small, cruel, everyday ways.

Susan Boyle is a great example, with her ordinary looks and stunning talent. Much has been made over her "awful haircut." I'm guessing they mean the short, butchered bangs and the fluffy sides. But guess what! That haircut is one of Three (or so) Official Old Lady Hairstyles you automatically get over 40 at most "salons." It doesn't matter what you want, what you need, or what you like. You get what old ladies get, which is a modified 20s bob--out of style for decades before most of us were even born. But hairstylists "know" this is what old ladies should have. And if they sit down in that salon, it's what they're gonna get.

Looking around, I'd have to say it's even not the ugliest possible variant. The glitterati don't know that, of course, because they never "see" any women over 40. They also don't "see" how their own experience in a salon might be drastically different from someone one chair over who is presumed because of age or weight to have no style, no sex life, no job, and no future.

Well, NOW they won't have those things for sure, because they're stuck with one of those hideous haircuts!

Her dress, about which much snark has also been heard is--HELLO!--what's available as "dressed up" in most stores to non-size 2 and non-rich customers. Again, not a world TV folks would know.

As several other posters point out, there remain essentially no role models for being a stylish real female person over 45 with a real life. One way or another, we all vanish.

It's almost like "they" plan it that way. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean your enemies aren't designing "Better Sportswear" (NOT!), available at any department store near you.

What does Susan Boyle's haircut, dress or terrible selection of song have to do with her incredible talent? Petty criticisms irk the heck out of me. That goes for being old, too. I hate it when someone says, "At your age, yadda, yadda, yadda."

I do nearly everything I did when I was young, but there are three exceptions. I no longer drive due to poor vision and an accident (could happen at any age), I no longer do my floors due to breaking my hip (could happen at any age), and I do as little cooking as possible. (Not that I can't; I just don't want to.)

Yeah, I am much slower at those tasks, but I still do them.

Thanks for another insightful essay, Ronni. As usual, it made me think about all kinds of things.

One thought I had was about today's centenarians, people who were born AFTER the airplane and the automobile were in common use. When I was a boy in the fifties, those old old people had been informed by the experience of the Civil War (or War Between the States, if one is still holding on to that little bit of southern charm). They voted for (or against) people like Teddy Roosevelt. They were already in their late seventies by the time of the great depression. When I was a boy, after the Korean War and before Vietnam, the perspective of the old old included living through two World Wars as adults, remembering a time before houses were wired for electricity and gas lamps provided evening illumination. Those people were grown-ups before broadcast radio came on the scene, and they were respectably old by the time their neighbors bought the first TV sets.

There's a college that does the short view about the life experiences of entering freshmen, for example: "The class of 2012 has never know a time when radio stations were required to present both sides of public issues." Over the last few years they've about run out of remarkable factoids and they have to pad the list with Harry Potter references and such.

Somewhere along the line I lost track of that wonderment I felt about the depth of history our old old people represent. Time flew by and now only the oldest of the old were born in the 19th century. The last time I remember thinking about this was in the early seventies when the older people had lives that began before the airplane was invented and were still going strong when man first walked on the moon.

Thanks for triggering this for me.

I, too, am annoyed by so-called compliments prefaced by "still" when they're applied to older people. But I doubt that the Italian press phrased their praise quite that way; women in Italy (and certainly in France) are allowed and encouraged to age intelligently and attractively, so the 100-year-old Nobel Laureate probably is being applauded at home for her accomplishments without qualification.

Paula's "rant" about fashions and haircuts in the comments above made me laugh. There does seem to be an expectation that women must cut their hair short when they get older. Having done so awhile ago, I'm letting mine grow out again. I finally noticed that the only people who seem to be happy that I cut it are other women over fifty. Maybe misery loves company!

I had originally intended on going off topic (and still am going to, sorry!), had a good page or so written up on a hypothetic topic... but writing that page or so helped me clear up some personal issues on aging and death... so I've decided to just post an open ended question... open to anyone that happens to read it...

What would this world be like, if people did not die from old age? (or age at all beyond their early 20's)

Think about it... I found it to be quite the useful thought experiment...

What do you have against decrepitude and madness? ;^)

I enjoy a bit of wabi-sabi, and a little madness can be a very good thing, too. Sometimes the Altzheimers patients I meet at therapy work are the most fun of all -- they always enjoy meeting their new friend Darwin again for the first time!

I'm vacillating on this one. The "still working" one. I hear what you're saying, but...

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