[Each Saturday, a past story from the Time Goes By archive is published here. They correspond to a date of approximately five years ago – sometimes updated, sometimes not. Updates are noted with strikethroughs. Now and then, as time allows, there will be, instead, an edition of This Week in Elder News.]
A Remarkable Transformation
The idea for this blog, “what it’s really like to get older,” came about several years ago. Time and tide being what they are, its birth was postponed until sometime in March 2004. The number of entries picked up in April and May, and by June, it had become a functional, five-day-a-week publishing venture fully committed to by me and my
cohort alter ego, Crabby Old Lady.
We two old women brought to this project a lot of ideas and enthusiasm with a soupcon of controlled rage and years of research into aging and ageism. The stacks of books around our house and piles of paper overfloweth.
What was not clear, in the beginning, was our own freedom from belief in the stereotypical myths about age perpetrated by the youth-and-beauty police, those oppressive imperatives so deeply embedded in the culture that even Crabby and I might be unaware of their insinuation into our subconscious and behavior.
In writing about getting older five days a week for the past few months, Crabby and I have made a conscious effort from day one to use the words old and older (no matter how much we might desire a few more synonyms), rather than such cutesy euphemisms as golden ager, third ager or oldster and certainly not the downright offensive such as , coot and biddy.
And now a remarkable thing has happened: we have lost the internal association with disparagement the words old and older invoke in the culture at large. By the relentless use of these words, we have removed from our consciousness their power to devalue, and we have discovered for ourselves what all marketers and advertisers know: repetition works.
Language is powerfully symbolic and the repeated use of verbal memes over decades hardens perception – for good or ill. When I have had reason, on occasion, to answer a question with “Because I’m old,” the knee-jerk reaction from the other person – of any age – is “Oh, you’re not old.” It never fails; it never varies. Sometimes, nowadays, I use that answer when I don’t really need it just to test how deeply planted the culture’s fear of aging is. It is so great that everyone feels the need to reassure me, as though their own eyes deceive them.
Crabby and I dislike it when people tell us we are not old. We are well into our seventh decade and we’ve never been this old before. We find it fascinating, perhaps because old people, in a society that makes a fetish of denying age, are mysterious. We are determined to lift the veil.
Many people in my age group tell me, “I don’t feel old.” But that, Crabby and I believe, is a habitual reaction to a lifelong bombardment of the use of the word old as a pejorative. Of course, they feel old, particularly physically. There are aches and pains they didn’t have ten years ago. They can’t run for the bus as fast as they once did. They tire more easily.
What they really mean when they say they don’t feel old is that they still become excited about something new in ways that feel similar to childhood. They still fall in love – and out of it, sometimes – as they did in their youth. They feel the pull of their passions as fully and strongly as they always have.
But until they admit to themselves that they are old, until they free themselves from the cultural stigma of the language, they can’t rejoice in what getting older is really like. It is a time when a splendid, new sensibility creeps in, after about age 50, and continues to grow as the years pass by: Crabby and I have never felt more vibrantly alive, more assured of our self-worth, of our ability to contribute. Ideas are more exciting than they have ever been. We have a newly-found sense that this time of our life really is better than it’s ever been.
And isn’t that how life should progress – if our culture didn’t fall victim to viewing age as only a period of debility and senility?
Being old is an exhilarating, new experience. But the language of aging, if we do not improve it, will deprive every one of us, as we get older, of our ability to recognize and savor it.
Part of the solution is to strip our language of the negative association we attach to words that describe aging and older people. We can each be responsible for that in our lives and the lives of those around us. As the marketers know, if you say it often enough, it becomes true.
It is working for Crabby and me and it’s fun to watch now, as I throw around the word old as easily and un-self consciously as the word young, the surprised look on the faces of people who haven’t made the remarkable transformation yet.
Crabby Old Lady and I would like to leave you today with a statement [PDF] Dr. Robert M. Butler made to Congress two years ago this month. Dr. Butler is a professor of geriatrics at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, the man who in 1968, coined the term “ageism.” After an impassioned plea to the senators at the hearing on changing the image of aging in America, he ended his statement thusly:
“…our nation must alter our deep-seated fear, our shunned responsibility, and harmful avoidance and denial of age. Our conscience should be burdened by our obligations to those who have gone before us.
“Strict legislation and enforcement against age discrimination and elder abuse are essential but insufficient. We must change how we think, feel and behave about late life. We must help people deal with their fears of aging, dependency and death. We must have a sense of the life course as a whole.
“Our family life, our educational system and our media must help transform our sensibility, and moral values held by each of us must drive this transformation of the culture and experience of aging in America, and beyond.
“We are in the midst of a wonderful new world of longevity. It is in our power to make it a celebration.”