Travel While Old (and Resistance Notes)

Not Like Them – Those Other Old People (Again)

[EDITORIAL NOTE: This week has been too busy and I ran out of time to write today's post. But that's okay – I could use a day off - and this one, a rerun, caused a good deal of introspection and some differences of opinion in the comments when it first appeared here nearly three years ago.

Let's see how it goes this time.

* * *

Hardly a week goes by that I do not receive a press release or reader email alerting me to a photography exhibit of elders. So much so that it is hard not to conclude that it is becoming a growth industry.

The two most common categories are closeups of wrinkled skin and old people participating in sports - or, sometimes, both in the same series.

It is always better, I believe, so see more portrayals of old people, in any medium, than not. But too many of the photographs are just ordinary and stand out only for having been shot in harshly lit black-and-white which, as any denizen of the internet and certain galleries knows, is the signal that you are in the presence of “art.”

You can choose to reject that designation if your judgment tells you otherwise particularly, in my case, when it seems the photographers' goal is to shock us with the apparent ruin of 90-year-old bodies.

In June, Lillian B. Rubin died. She was 90 years old, a sociologist, a psychologist and author of several useful and well-received books including, in 2008, 60 on Up: The Truth About Aging in the 21st Century.

In reading Rubin's obituary, I was reminded of the opening line in that book,

“Getting old sucks. It always has, it always will.”

Anyone who has been reading this blog for longer than a day or two know that I disagree. But I do know what she was getting at and some of that is contained in an article she wrote for Salon in 2011:

”...old age - even now when old age often isn't what it used to be – is a time of loss, decline and stigma.

“Yes, I said stigma. A harsh word, but one that speaks to a truth that's affirmed by social researchers who have consistently found that racial and ethnic stereotypes are likely to give way over time and with contact, but not those about age.

“And where there are stereotypes, there are prejudice and discrimination – feeling and behavior that are deeply rooted in our social world, and consequently make themselves felt in our inner psychological worlds as well.”

In a short but remarkable section of that Salon article, written when Rubin was 87, she admits to her own prejudice against old people. As she recalled the interviews with elders that she conducted for 60 on Up,

”...I found myself forced back on myself, on my own prejudices about old people, even though I am also one of them.

“Even now, even after all I've learned about myself, those words – I am one of them – bring a small shock. And something inside resists.

“I want to take the words back, to shout, 'No, it's not true, I'm really not like them,' and explain all the ways I'm different from the old woman I saw pushing her walker down the street or the frail shuffling man I looked away from with a slight sense of discomfort.

“I know enough not to be surprised that I feel this way, but I can't help being somewhat shamed by it.”

My own “small shock” and “surprise” and “shame” is that sometimes I catch myself, when I pay attention, feeling like Rubin. Because even though I am hyper-aware, thanks to the work I do for this blog, that I am one perilous fall or terrible diagnosis away from disastrous need of part- or full-time care, I feel different from those who do.

But what Rubin was getting at when she wrote that getting old sucks is not so much the physical manifestations as the emotional and spiritual changes that our culture does not acknowledge even as it is the major source.

Rubin and I share a disdain for the relentless focus on youth, the anti-aging industry, the dubious value of brain games, elders who pretend they are not old.

It is the less than artful photography of ancient bodies I mentioned above that comes to mind when I read part of Rubin's conclusion in her Salon piece:

”...we're living in a weird combination of the public idealization of aging that lies alongside the devaluation of the old. And it isn't good for anybody.

“Not the 60-year-olds who know they can't do what they did at 40 but keep trying, not the 80-year-olds who, when their body and mind remind them that they're not 60, feel somehow inadequate, as if they've done something wrong, failed a test.”

Until we, as a society, find a way to value the late years of elders' lives – all the years, in all their manifestations - there will continue to be old people like Lillian Rubin, me and a certain percentage of you who are ashamed to know that sometimes we feel “not like them.” Until we are forced, one day, to admit, finally, that we are.


You hit the nail on the head with today's post Ronnie. You have said what I have been trying to tell young and old alike when I discuss my disdain when I see photos or videos of old folks being showcased for doing things that, if a 20 year old did it, it would not even be worth the trouble to document it.
It's great if an 80 year old can bench press 300 lbs, or a 70-year -old lady can jitterbug like a teenager, and I applaud their efforts. But to make out as if this is something special and non-stereotypical of what the world perceives the elderly to be, makes my skin crawl.
Yes, we move a little slower, our faces may be wrinkled, and our voices don't have the timber it used to have, but let's make it known that our heads are still screwed on straight, our thoughts make sense and we are still just as viable and important than anybody half our age.

Your comments have really hit home for me. I am ashamed to be old, to need a cane to walk, to need help getting out of low chairs or up steps with no railings. I fear greatly the time when I will need a walker or end up in a nursing home. I not only fear the lose of abilities, but the shame I will be feeling because I am no longer young and strong, and the contempt others will feel toward me because I am old.
A part of me was aware that those feelings are wrong, that looking at old people with disdain who had more problems than I had was wrong, but contempt for the elderly is so much a part of our culture that I did to others what I would not want done to me. This post is a wakeup call. Time to get on my head on straight.
Thank You Ronnie for reposting this, I have learned so much about getting old from TGB, I hope you are still posting when you are 100. I need your thoughts and your wisdom and I am sure many others do too.

Thank you for a very well written commentary. Since I started reading your blog less than a year ago, this is a new one to me. I am reading a terrific book on Macular Degeneration and was stopped short hearing that many people are ashamed to have low vision. To the point where they won't leave the house. I am 75 with AMD which still allows me to drive. And have TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). But I hope to God I never feel ashamed of being old or having limitations. I feel very much like a strong survivor. I use every part of me that still works to learn and to be of service.

I've lived in senior housing for a year now, and I still think I'm "not like" the other old people I pass every day in the hallways and the lobby. After all, I'm reasonably fit; I have blue streaks in my hair (for which I go to a good salon and pay too much), and I'm still able to think clearly. Sigh.

My friends think I'm premature in expressing my thoughts on aging. I'm 53, and as one of my older readers once said regarding my aging-related blog posts "She thinks it's tough now - just wait, she's going to go through an awful lot of ink!" I'm glad you are writing about the process. I wish more folks talked candidly about it. Thanks, I continue to enjoy your posts, past and current.

Thank you Ronni. I have followed you for years and you never disappoint. In my experience of gains and losses, it all depends on where you choose to focus. Old age is a gift, you just have to learn how to unwrap it.

I believe that our disdain of other old people is like our reluctance to talk about death. Both subjects make us aware of our mortality and to see a feeble old person tottering along makes us fear that soon "there go I". And we do not want to face that uncomfortable possibility.

To talk of death makes us fearful that our demise is not far away. Therefore we avoid the subject with the hope that we can postpone the inevitable.

To see a person in as bad, or worse shape than we are makes us try to believe that I am not like that, for fear that we soon may be.

I love the quote by Rabon Saip "Old age is a gift, you just have to learn how to unwrap it." I hope that's my philosophy because I am truly grateful for these unexpected years that I have been granted.

Oh yes, Ronni. I alluded to this in my last post (I think), when I said I have berated myself for not wanting to do what I did twenty years ago, when it was hugely easier! I believe I could truly enjoy myself if I could allow it--in that I could happily live the way I'm living now within my limitations, which are, luckily for me, fortunately few at the moment. But the disinclination to torture myself with air travel, to be terribly social, to jump out of planes (!) etc. is just fine. (A friend celebrated her 70th birthday jumping out of a plane and broke her leg in two places.)

I look old therefore I am. However, I try to stay out of pictures that I know will end up on Facebook. I'm still a kid in my head so, that's what counts.

Current versions of old age are, in many if not most cases, the result of medical advances that are keeping people alive long past what would have been their natural end points. We are expected to be grateful for this, but not allowed to have the medical assistance we might want when we feel ready to exit. There are a lot of financial interests in keeping people alive for years and years after they have anything in the way of quality of life.

There are reasons for the feelings of distaste mentioned (or rather confessed to in an embarrassed manner) in some comments above. Many (most?) people do not want to be dependent on strangers for food, bathing and toileting (I believe this is the polite term for a$$ wiping), not to mention the inevitable condescension of nursing home staffs (honey, sweetie, dearie etc). Old age is the signal that things are winding down, and people should be allowed to decide just how far they want to wind down before being able to decide their next move. And everyone should be allowed to have their own feelings about the ravages of aging and not be shamed into apologizing for a natural response to "the decline, falling off, the beginning of the end." (Samuel Beckett)

It is also the case that people with children would like to be able to leave something for them, instead of paying $10,000/month (current Seattle prices) on a wretched prolonged existence in a "nice" nursing home. BTW, $10,000 was the monthly price 15 years ago in the "nice" New Jersey places we looked at for my Mother (who outlived her money). I can only imagine what those cost now, and how much the Seattle prices will go up in the next ten years -- I'll bet on $20,000 a month by 2027. That is not were I want whatever money I have left to go, but that's where it will go because my husband has Alzheimer's (which does not qualify for end of life assistance despite wishes expressed and notarized years earlier).

Oh yes, I am not like those old people...........until I woke up Monday morning and realized I had had stroke during the night. Welcome to the real world.

There is a shelf of leaflets inside the entrance to my favourite library.

Everything you desire to know about services in the community, is there for your perusal.

Only the tops of these leaflets can be seen, as they are neatly tucked into little slots.

A certain leaflet draws my attention. Every single time. An eye magnet.

It's a black and white headshot of a senior woman.

She looks Sad. Frightened. Alone. Vulnerable.

Drawn to her face, I promise myself I will never be that woman.

I vow to push back on everything that photo shouts at me.

I could pull up that leaflet and see exactly what it is about.

But I won't.

I'm not ready to get into that boat.

I'll whack that thing with a garden shovel, say I, to myself.

I feel like a guilty coward, not pulling that leaflet.

What am I afraid of?

Fear is supposed to be a good thing, we are told to march right into it, to feel the fear and do it anyway..


Yesterday at the Ranch (ILR) where I volunteer serving lunch and busing tables, a resident watched me take a bite out of an apple.

"I can't bite into apples any more," he lamented. "My teeth can't do it."

Last week, after a record breaking amount of snow, that same man staggered into the dining room puffing like he had gone ten rounds with George Foreman.

"I just shovelled my car out," he said.

The man has a pacemaker.

So, to summarize: old age sucks. Always has, always will. Lillian Rubin was right.

I'm 80 now--3 years older than when I first read this post. My thanks to Cassandra from the Seattle area (as am I) for setting me straight on the current costs of nursing homes here. I was stuck back in the '90s when I casually estimated $70K/year in a recent post. Who but the very well-off among us can pay $120K/year (or even $70K) for very long?! It sounds like she and I also hold similar views on ending our lives in such a facility.

I consider myself fortunate to live in a death-with-dignity state; however, what if the time comes and I cannot "qualify" under the strict rules and regulations associated with the law? If it looks like I'm going to experience ongoing serious (but not "terminal") health issues or simply decline and need increasingly more assistance, what then? Even with some long term care insurance and other income, I probably can't afford even a not-so-nice nursing home. And the Repugs want to take a meat cleaver to Medicaid. . .maybe I'll need to come up with "Plan B".

Debbie Downer, here. Sorry!

Thank you Debbie Downer for resisting upbeat messages on aging. Please don't apologize!

I love Ronnie, but she is relentlessly positive and she has no dependents. If I were in that situation I could control my exit with pills saved over the years from multiple surgeries. (Big hint: save those pills for when you will really want them!) But I can do nothing about my once wonderful husband of 45 years except to become an AZ caretaker, observe his decline and wait for the slow excruciating finale in -- one decade, or two? or three? .... My husband's doctor cheerfully assured us that his own mother was "doing fine" in a nursing home with AZ at age 96. So I guess I'm supposed to look forward to these next 30 years ... though I assume the doctor can afford the "home" better than I can. I really can't believe he decided to "share" that info with us. My own mother lived to 96 with all her marbles but the last six years or so were difficult and expensive, nothing I'd want for myself.

Obviously some people do better than others, and I'm doing better than my husband, diagnosed in his early 60's with AZ, eliminating all our ideas for the coming years. But even though I am healthy, I am dragged down emotionally, geographically and financially. There are no prospects for me except increasing limitations, round the clock care taking and gradual impoverishment (I am continuing to work, now in my 70's and hope I can keep that up but I was never the one with the good income, plus I need to contribute to keeping two mentally ill siblings off the street).

Let other people enjoy their aging if they are able, but let them realize that they do not have the whole truth on their side. A large part of the truth is that (some/many/most?) people become increasingly decrepit with age and it is generally not a pretty picture. Plus there is a lot of collateral damage beyond any one's personal decline, like that to what's left of my life, and the fact that our son will probably have no inheritance as, in a few years we will have to sell our house to pay for an unwanted nursing home. I truly hate the thought of this, but there it is. Please support expanded Aid in Dying for AZ patients who have requested this before they reached non compos mentis status.

I hope everyone has read by Roz Chast, the New Yorker cartoonist . And if you have the stamina for old age in 19th C. France, try by Emile Zola (Penguin translation) -- really long & brutal but unforgettable.

Lost the titles when posting:

Roz Chast

Emile Zola (The Earth) in Penguin edition (at least 500 pages).

Not sure why this wouldn't post.

Roz Chast "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?"

Please, dear God, enable Death with Dignity exit for those who are ready to get off the life roundabout.

That said, your Prez is 70, Pelosi is 80+, one third of Congress is 70+, and this in a land that worships youth. SMH.

Sorry, if I didn't make it clear. I'm a widow, kids are adults and settled down, don't really want me unless they need a babysitter - I see no purpose in my life. Happy to go any day now, while I am still relatively healthy. Just find it pointless wasting money/health resources on me.

At present I'm reading " Being With Dying," by anthropologist, Zen priest Joan Halifax. Without glossing over what is for many an extremely hard, difficult time, she offers the Buddhist non-religious view, which can be refreshing. "Wisdom, said one Zen teacher, is a ready mind....the mind that does not rely on facts or knowledge, or concepts. It is deeper than our conditioning. It is the mind that is not attached to fixed ideas about self or others."
My conditioning is that it is awful, pathetic to live alone, no family, no children, no "security. " I still fall into that trap, with attendant fears. And I've come to find that when I "dwell in the still reality of how things are," as opposed to how I think or wish they might be, I am, at the least, at peace.
And thanks, whoever mentioned stock piling pills...........will have to research which kind, how many, etc. Now there's a topic!

Stockpiling pills was a new thought for me too. Salina, I hope your research includes not only which pills might work, but also what are the effects of being beyond the expiration dates.

I'd hate to see something work half way and find someone worse off than before.

Wow - you're right about years. It's been a long time since I've
seen your name. I hope you're well and life is good. I'm hanging on
to that lovely last sentence in your note.

Thank you for the kind words about TGB,

Ronni Bennett
Phone: 212.242.0184
Blog: Time Goes By

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Thank you Ronni. I have followed you for
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experience of gains and losses, it all
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Old age is a gift, you just have to
learn how to unwrap it.

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Glad to find at least a couple of TGB readers who agree with Lillian Rubin and me about old age. Staying positive is great, and I try to stay in that zone most of the time. I recognize how fortunate I am in that my husband is alive and relatively healthy at 87 and that we have sufficient financial resources to pay our bills--for now.

Still, IMO it would be a tremendous relief if elders at the end of life could be assured of some control over the time, place and means of their departure, IF they so choose. I wish that access to the means were less restrictive (a gradual stockpiling of means may be part of "Plan B" for some--lots of research needed here, for sure).

I fully realize that the freedom to designate when and how to end one's life could be abused, especially if non-competent or unwilling elders could be coerced to "choose" death for other than their own compelling reasons. I also understand that some elders would reject this freedom for religious reasons. That's their absolute right. The key word for this option is "VOLUNTARY". How to provide freedom of choice while assuring freedom from abuse would need to be addressed by law.

On balance, speaking strictly for myself, being old, sick, broke, totally unable to meet my own basic personal needs and being forced by circumstances to reside in an institution surrounded by strangers and regimentation isn't "living"--it's existing. An amoeba can do that.

Catching up with columns and/or comments I had not gotten through before, and wanted to say that, in addition to the thoughts shared here, how much I enjoy reading others' recommendations of what you are reading or watching or doing.

I so enjoyed the Roz Chast book that Cassandra mentioned, "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" Chast's words and illustrations were so well done. I would like to undertake the Zola book too, but 500+ pages may be a bit too ambitious for me right now. Maybe next winter.

Doctafill -- you have produced quite a poem here. I especially love the line about whacking that thing with a garden shovel. Brilliant!

Ronni, thank you for this beautiful article.

Western society's preoccupation with youth and the associated stigma against ageing is both ridiculous and sad.

I have only just come across your work and it is clear I have been missing out. I look forward to reading more.

I was disappointed to see the Netherlands voted down a bill that would have allowed older people to chose to die at the time of their choice and it didn't have to be terminal.
Stock pilling pills might not work unless you knew what, how much etc. I have thought of purchasing a gun and taking lessons. The fear is that no matter what method you chose, might be impossible to do if you were mental or physically incapable.
Religious people stick their nose in this that should be our freedom to chose our own time and place for the end. And money plays even a bigger roll as many businesses get rich by keeping us alive. It forces us to take matters in our own hands. This is so cruel and unfair. Advanced Alzheimers should be considered terminal because it is.
I am a widow with no children and have a huge fear of being sent to a nursing home to lanquish and die in deplorable conditions. I cannot let this happen. It is barbaric!

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