REFLECTIONS: Health Care
ELDER MUSIC: Some Jazz

Vintage TGB: 14 September 2004

[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

category_bug_ageism.gif 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.”

Comments

I am privileged to help guide our new Bhutanese refugee neighbors take their first paces in Atlanta... after 17 years' living in Nepalese refugee camps, victims of ethnic cleansing... They get it on aging, and to watch the young people honor, truly honor their elders is a delight. How much I learn from them in this and myriad ways. Recently, sharing dinner with a family I have come to call my own, I asked, Where is [18-year-old] Birendra? The reply: He's gone to stay with his aunt whose sons work until 1 AM. Me: Oh, is she old or ill? They: No, it's just more pleasant to have company, and Birendra enjoys providing it. He will be up late at the computer and go to school from there in the morning.

No fuss, nothing odd, nothing imposed. Simply respect and responsibility, learned by example over the generations. I hope that coming to America, they will retain this and other cultural glories. And that we locals... might learn a thing or two.

What a great post. I had not discovered Time Goes By in 2004, so I appreciate this retrospective. We must reclaim the word OLD. Reclaiming OLD is one thing I've included in my (work in progress)musical play on aging, which covers many issues and topics in the area of aging. I have a post on the subject of OLD on my Sage's Play blog, too.

Age is the basket of life,
not the discarded remains of youth.

You are a national treasure, and I resented a commenter earlier this week suggesting that, since you were irked with commercial aspects of the net, that you might want to find another activity. That would be a big loss for all of us.

OK Here goes:

I AM OLD

There I have said it and I did not break or fall apart or go to bed and hide my head under the covers. I am still me. Just me with a few more aches and creaks.
To those who insist on calling me "Young Lady" in a patronizing way, "Damn it I have worked hard to last this long..

Yes I am a lady but I am not YOUNG. I will be 80 in December. God willing and the creek don't rise.

If anyone my age doesn't know that they are old they haven't been paying attention.

Actually, everyone knows you are old and to deny it is folly. To try to recapture youth is stupidity. Enjoy the perks of being old (and there are many) and forget the things you can no longer do, Be grateful you are a survivor and never dwell on the negative aspects of aging and you will find happiness.

This is a fabulous post. You have influenced my attitude about aging in such a positive way. I've incorporated your philosophy and am proud of my 60 years, and what I've learned. Thanks for all your posts.

Thanks Ronni for the wisdom of your posts which I missed first time round. This is as fresh and meaningful now as it was then.

As another person into their seventh decade, I do appreciate the perks that Darlene refers to, one of which is following the old Zen phrase..."don't just do something, stand there"

I've never let go of "old". It's the right word. I say someone is blah blah years old, not blah blah years of age. I also say "died" rather than "passed". Strong words are healthy words. This is my first response to a post here. Thank you to all concerned for Time Goes By.

Great idea to republish post from five years ago!

TGB has really influenced my thinking, and that of all your readers. Let's hope for the ripple effect as each individual reader shares this new attitude towards aging with others.

Thanks for the rerun....It's timeless...

I'm 67 years old -- I love being old, and I love aging. I feel so great mentally and emotionally compared to how I felt when I was younger. Of course, I have physical challenges. But, I've had them since I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at age 36. Physical challenges can be life changing in positive ways, and the ones that have come with getting older are manageable as long as I remember to take care of my body, engage my mind, feed my spirit, and create community.

It's what's between our ears that makes being old and aging either a blessing or a curse. I write about changing the way we age on my blog. Thanks for the reminders, Roni, This is one of my favorite posts.

Thank you, Ronni and commenters...I would rather be old than dead...being here and functioning any which way I can is what it is all about.

I lost a nephew at age 6 and a niece age 35. How can I ever complain about the number of years I’ve been on this earth when two such wonderful individuals never had the chance to grow old. I also feel as JoEve in saying someone has died rather than passed/gone to a better place/expired, etc…
We’re born, and, if we’re lucky, we grow old and then we die.

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