Learning to Be Old

Another year has gone by… a bittersweet year as it saw the deaths of my first teenage love and the childhood friend who celebrated the same birthday as I. Still not retired, but thinking more and more about the changes retirement offers rather than what I will be giving up. I take that as a sign of getting-readiness that wasn’t there last year. Jumping in, however, makes me think of the fear felt the first time standing on the edge of the deep end of the pool and convincing myself I was ready to step off.

As I ponder when to take that step I’ve been thinking also about how to be old. A “quiz,” posted by a FB friend, promised to tell me what kind of old person I will be; I was seduced (confession, sometimes I also read horoscopes). My quiz answers predicted that I will be a “thoughtful” elder. I will “take time and assess the implications of something before doing it” making me a “highly efficient human being.” When I took the test again – another time, another day — I will be “ambitious” “smart, passionate, and driven,” an old woman with “amazing goals” I “honestly believe” I’ll “achieve.” Many of my FB friends are my age and these predictions stroke the egos of those of us wondering how we are perceived as we age – competent? incompetent? kindly? crotchety? a saint or a crone? valued or useless? Yesterday three people I do not know called me “dear” as they held a door or found a store item I was looking for. This morning I was “sweetie” at the coffee shop. Titles that diminish stature while asserting another’s youthful superiority. (The mother of the toddler standing in line behind me was not sweetied.) The use of such terms of endearment may be a southern cultural thing – I do live in Virginia, after all. But it’s the patronizing tone that grates; there’s more pity than respect in those voices, certainly more pity than compassion as their words serve only to distance the speakers from being old. Makes me want to sneer back, “thank you, you sweet young, foolish, inexperienced thing who will one day also be a ‘dear.’” As I learn how to be old, I hope I will not learn to appreciate these words that roll so easily off the tongues of those younger than I.

Some of these thoughts have been prompted by Margaret Cruickshank, whose book Learning to be Old (Rowan & Littlefield, 2nd.ed., 2009) I’ve been reading over winter break. While not denying the biological experiences of aging, Cruikshank looks at age as a social construction, a learned role that shapes our expectations and our behavior as much if not more than biology. And she’s particularly interested in old women, so I find the book a particularly relevant read. The social construction of youth is familiar to the historian of childhood; what it means to be a child we’ve shown to be framed by meanings attached to race, class, and gender, by the needs of the economy, by politics, and by the medico-psychological and education professions…and that list is far from complete. The institutions (Cruickshank calls them “teachers”) that define how we are old are not so different. Her villain (for her message is that old age does not have to be what it’s become in the early twenty-first century) is the pharmaceutical industry that promotes the use of drugs to combat physical frailty, loss of mental acuity, crankiness, and depression, medications that, she suggests, create a host of new problems in the bodies of the old, necessitating even more medicines and even more “evidence” of the weaknesses of the old. In her view, however, big pharma is supported in constructing hopeless and helpless elders by government policies and by media representations of aging.

Cruickshank finds especially galling the news stories that applaud the experiences of a few aging icons who seem to defy physical and mental infirmity; their remarkable accomplishments make those of us who age less remarkably suitable candidates for drug intervention. Often the stories are of physical accomplishments – mountain climbing or marathon running – but they also applaud the creative work of older artists of various renown. Witness the continued interest in Betty White, more than 90 years old and “still” an acting phenomenon. Being simply “dear” and “sweetie” marks the rest of us as unexceptional.

The changes they see in our physical appearance and mental ability must make younger adults fearful of the future and mindful of the inevitability of aging and death – thoughts to be banished in the cultural landscape I seem to inhabit. But “exceptional” sets an impossible standard. It prevents young and old alike from applauding the everyday faces of old age. And, it hides the competence and creativity of we who are just ordinary.

Did I “sweetie” and “dear” when I was younger? If so, I must now apologize for my ageism. And I wonder how, or if, ascribing age characteristics, age expectations, to all “seniors” can be undone. For sure, it’s not something each of us can do alone. Change demands the sort of activist commitment that has made acceptance of difference a commendable goal and racist and sexist language intolerable. An unexpected conclusion to my ponderings in this post, but fitting as we mark the legacy of Martin Luther King this week. I must see “Selma.”