The Retirement Bookshelf: Two Uppers and a Downer

Approach something new and unfamiliar…my knee-jerk response is research.  Gather, read, process, and because it’s usually some aspect of history, write about it to understand it, put it in context, and file it with the familiar and known.    Retirement has kicked this approach into gear.  And I am building the retirement bookshelf – the books and articles that will help me make sense of life without the department and the office (and the paycheck).  In the past few weeks I’ve picked up three additions, each viewing retirement and aging with a different lens, but each with useful messages about managing the late years of life.

Finances, as many earlier posts attest, scare me.  So I am always on the lookout for helpful guides to 403(b)’s, Social Security, and other assorted post-paycheck income sources. (The bookshelf contains more than one “Dummies” book on the subject). How to Make Your Money Last by Jane Bryant Quinn is a godsend.  A clear explanation of finances for folks like me…with retirement savings (but definitely not wealth) and a terror of having to organize and spend it.

Quinn begins where many finance books do, with advice to make a budget and gather records of all income sources.  It’s a dose of realism…most of us will likely have to reduce some items on the budget debits list to live within our new means.  Her recommendations, however, go beyond the platitudes that tell me I will no longer need “professional clothes” and I won’t have the expense of a daily commute.  (I teach at a school where jeans can occasionally be professional attire and the commute is 2.5 miles one way.  Not likely the changes here will be cost-saving.)  And her advice does not foster the fear that bubbles up whenever someone mentions downsizing.  Instead Quinn talks about “rightsizing,” a word that captures positive changes to address myriad needs – health, family, lifestyle, and yes, the budget.  Rightsizing requires some imagination; it also asks me to prioritize needs and wants.  Rightsizing lets me entertain the idea of moving from house to smaller unit, shedding maintenance expenses and taxes.

Along with “rightsizing,” “simplify” is the second word that shapes Quinn’s approach to retirement.  Collapse, consolidate, make it easy to see where the money is in order to create a familiar paycheck-like structure for taking money from retirement funds.  Thanks to Quinn’s clear explanations words like “annuity,” “reallocation,” and “RMD” make sense. Having absorbed her discussion of “bucket” investing, for example, I think I now understand the relationship between stocks and bonds and the place of each in my “retirement portfolio.”  (You can grasp here just how truly ignorant of the finance world this near-retiree is.) Picture my retirement stash in 3 buckets – one with liquid assets for emergencies, one with stocks, one with bonds.  Her explanation of how to decide from which bucket to make annual withdrawals was for me worth the price of the book!   Given my Pennsylvania Dutch farmer ancestry, I can understand buckets.

Quinn isn’t talking off the top of her head; her advice comes from years of writing about finance (her columns appear in AARP publications among other venues) and she builds her advice on the work of other researchers. There’s much more in this book than I’ve described here, and it is likely one I will go back to often in the next few years.

My second read was recommended by an acquaintance met at a talk I gave to psychiatric personnel at the Salem Veterans Administration Hospital.  This woman, about to retire herself, told me to check out How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free by Ernie J. Zelinski.  Zelinksi says his book provides “retirement wisdom that you won’t get from your financial advisor.”  And it is certainly retirement for a different perspective! His message:  retirement is the last chance I will have to “remake” myself, and deciding in advance what that identity will be is crucial to creating a retirement with a “purpose” but one that is free of the workplace-generated “need to achieve.”  The upbeat motivational approach to the “active retirement” can be a bit over the top at times, and Zelinski has aimed his advice for folks whose retirement age seems to be far younger than my own.  Nonetheless, his suggestions for list-making resonate with this academic’s approach to making order from chaos,  my need to prioritize activities and choose which activities to prioritize!  Zelinski identifies “boredom” as the number one enemy of a happy, wild, and free retirement – the retiree must not allow retirement leisure to be defined by “the couch, the TV, and the fridge.”   Not much here that can’t be found in many other guides to surviving the transition from work to retirement.

I can recommend, however, two take-aways from this one:  the “Get-a-Life Tree” and Road Scholar.  Why have I not heard of Road Scholar: Education Travel and Learning Vacations? For someone who has always said “travel and explore” would be part of retirement…and quaked at the thought of how to make it happen…this program might be a solution.   It is definitely on my list of necessary retirement information to gather sooner rather than later.  The “Get-A-Life Tree” is a mind mapping exercise to identify and draw my attention to interests that somehow got lost as I was creating the historian’s career, interests that can be rediscovered once the “career building/maintaining” demands have been put aside.   At the center of the map – a box labeled “options for retirement” with lines branching out for:  current activities I want to continue;  activities that “turned me on in the past” but haven’t had a place in my life recently; and new activities I’ve thought about doing but haven’t tried yet.   Zelinski recommends putting at least 50 leaves/activities on these three branches.   It’s an engaging exercise for my pre-retirement stage—helps to visualize (and organize!) the swirling mass of thoughts about how I want to shape living after work.   And has very much made me aware of how much I have allowed the demands of work to narrow choices and possibilities.

If Quinn and Zelinski construct “retirement” as something to pursue, something to embrace, and definitely not something to fear, Susan Jacoby provides the reality check to their optimism.  In Never Say Die; the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age she reminds me that while retirement is a social and political construct, this stage of life is also bounded by the physical experiences of growing old.  Advertisements and commercials have created a model for “successful aging.”  Actors are vibrant, fit, active, often look far younger than the age group they supposedly represent.   It is a concept sold in many guises, and I’m guessing that includes books like Zelinski’s.  And while our “success” is dependent on a marketable product, nonetheless, these ads tell what our “senior” years will look like. As Jacoby interprets the ads and the advice, however, successful aging “means only that a person has managed to put on a happy face for the rest of the world” smiling through the physical aches and pains, hiding memory loss, and demonstrating “a consistent willingness to try anything new.” To age successfully we must never “voice any fear about future dependency,” or show too much need for companionship (just as we must never be content to be alone), and we must not display strong emotions, passion being a privilege of youth (xii-xiii).

This book shows how our emphasis on successful aging  is reinforcing an untenable image of “old age” as a single stage of life (an image equally promoted by the idea of “retirement years” I might add).  A stage that marks only the first years of being “old.”  It is preventing us, individually and as a society, from addressing directly and creatively the problems of “old” old age, or even acknowledging that they are painfully real.   “The reality” she writes, “is that we are all capable of aging successfully – until we aren’t” (xii).   There is a time between this new-style successful aging (“young” old age) and death when a retirement of independence, leisure, and a need to counter boredom will likely become a period of frailty and dependency when physical care trump other needs. “As a people,” Jacoby admonishes us, “we need to face reality and base both our individual planning and social policy on the assumption that by the time men and women reach their eighties and nineties, not the best, but the worst years of their lives generally lie ahead” (5).

As I processed Jacoby’s sobering chapters (and there’s much more to the book than recounted here), this baby-boomer, about-to-retire, still physically fit reader really needed the soothing tones struck by Quinn and Zelinski.  But wishing it weren’t so only works in fairy tales, and so as I create my 3 retirement finance buckets, and draw my “Get a Life Tree” I will remember the difficulties faced by my parents and my neighbors in “old old age,” berate myself for being less understanding than I could have been, and hope that Jacoby’s optimistic prediction has merit:  that as we grow older, we baby boomers (raised in a spirit of social activism) who are now coming into young old age will demand a political response to  the problems attending those who have reached  “old” old age, the problems that face us in the future.

The Bookshelf:

  • Jane Bryant Quinn. How to Make Your Money Last;  The Indispensable Retirement Guide.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.
  • Ernie J. Zelinski. How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free. Edmonton: Visions International Publishing, 2015.
  • Susan Jacoby. Never Say Die; the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.

 

Punk Rock Granny

An NPR story about aging women and self-image made my day: “Gray-Haired Granny?  An 85-year-Old Writer Goes Punk Rock Instead.” The blue hair, the writer Anne Bernays says, was to protest “the passage of my own time here….While young people like diamonds, old folks are invisibel — except, as I discovered, if you have bright blue hair.”  So I’m thinking that perhaps dying  hair red (and green) for the Christmas holidays might be in the cards!  A defiant visible acknowledgement that many physical changes will accompany the aging body into retirement.

A few weeks ago I started working with a trainer. My goal was simple: learn how to use the nautilus machines in my community center’s fitness room so I didn’t injure myself if I wanted to play with them occasionally when walking grew tiresome. Walking has been a satisfying activity for the past two years, but it seemed time for something new. Then too, everywhere I turned, advice suggested that resistance training was a good thing for “older adults.”   Surely muscle strength would: 1) let me heft with ease that 40 lb. pails of cat litter into and out of the shopping cart; 2) help me pick up and hug the one grandchild still small enough to be picked up and hugged; 3) prepare me for the next summer’s mulching and mowing routine and make sure that if it snows I can free the car in the driveway; and 4) just keep me moving toward retirement with resolve and a semblance of control.  So, a little light exercise and someone to make sure I didn’t hurt myself along the way…a pleasant way to spend time at the gym.

Instead…I have become an addict – feeding my addiction twice a week with an hour of brutal work and a coach whose “just one more rep” refrain and insistence on increasing the weight I work with is encouraging and infuriating at the same time.   These sessions have introduced me to new aspects of my aging body. It recovers from the pain and exhaustion more quickly than I imagined. And, with my trainer’s monitoring, I begin to see new energy – physical and mental energy.

I should confess that for most of my life I’ve been guilty of the sin of …sluggity. (A word not recognized by Webster’s but surely it’s in keeping with other sins –vanity, gluttony, etc., etc., etc.) Exercise was always something I intended to do, and sometimes kept at until something happened…a muscle that hurt, a book to write, a syllabus to design.   Now, however, I find myself atoning for my years of sluggity (or is it sluggerhood?) and damn if it doesn’t feel good (as it awakens that other sin of pride).

And so, as a way to both express and contain pridefulness…I think a dye job just might be in order.   Thank you NPR for a most entertaining story, and thank you Anne Bernays, the story’s punk rock granny.

Here’s the link — you’ll enjoy the content. http://www.npr.org/2015/11/18/456349585/gray-haired-granny-an-85-year-old-writer-goes-punk-rock-instead?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=2044

“Medicare and You”: A Review Essay

Disclaimer: I support government-provided health insurance and would vote for anyone committed to a single-payer system. I’ve always thought of Medicare as the doorway to a single-payer system for all.

Disillusionment: Medicare is not a “single-payer system” (and I am no longer in Kansas); it is a public/private hybrid of base and supplemental coverage premised on the participant’s ability to anticipate health needs and compare incomprehensible descriptions of private insurance plans.

Discovery: Medicare is decidedly more expensive than the health care coverage provided by the university to its employees, and navigating the costs and benefits of health care post-retirement it is unimaginably more complicated than my current insurance.

Despair: My years of training in research, critical analysis of data, deconstructing texts, and questioning arguments are woefully inadequate for the task of navigating Medicare. Sorting out health insurance options for retirement has reduced me to a level of wall-punching frustration usually reserved for reading the nth draft of a student paper (that has yet to incorporate the comments made on draft #1).

~~~

I am fortunate that my primary care doctor is also a “senior” because that’s how I learned about the need to sign up for Medicare when I turned 65. (Apparently – based on a sample [not random] of 2 friends who, if they had not been recipients of my Medicare rants, might have missed the date –this component of Medicare is not widely known.) Not signing up would have resulted in a “penalty” of higher payments. Since I have continued to work after age 65 in a job that offers employer-covered health insurance, I am only a member of/recipient of Medicare Part A. Just a toe in the insurance pool. I have not yet had to unravel the mysteries of parts B, C, and D. But, retirement looms in less than two years. So when the letter carrier dropped in my mailbox a fat booklet from medicare.gov with the promising title “Medicare and You” it seemed like a good idea to investigate my future relationship with government-supported health insurance for “seniors.” Oh, big mistake! Opening that book was like opening for the first time anything written by Foucault: Anticipation, excitement, insight, confusion, irritation, hostility, and the weighty realization that like Foucault’s influence on the historian, medicare.gov will not go away and will frame all future health care decisions. So, I will have to unpack its meanings and learn to use its framework to structure future relationships with illness and medicine.

“Original Medicare” offers participants like me some percentage of coverage (of many services) for which I will pay a monthly fee, that, I learn, will be deducted automatically from my monthly social security payment (and reduce my monthly retirement income by a bit more than $100). The fee covers Medicare’s “share” of the cost of health care (this connection is not drawn in the book…rather, “Medicare” pays a share and the Medicare-insured individual pays a share). Before Medicare pays its share, I will pay a “deductible” or set amount I pay only after which will Medicare kick in its share. Once the deductible is paid, the “sharing” begins. My share of the cost of medical care is my “coinsurance” – and for most services described in the book, the coinsurance is usually 20% of the fee Medicare has contracted to pay for the service (with a service provider who has agreed to provide services at the Medicare-determined rate). With me so far? I visit a physician; first I remit a “copay,” Medicare and You” says its usually $10 to $20/visit). The cost of the service is paid a) all by me if the “deductible” hasn’t been met; or b) 20% by me – my coinsurance share – if it has. But, good news. I don’t have to write the coinsurance check until Medicare has paid its share. This fee structure isn’t terribly different from the private health insurance plan offered through the university. The cost of any service is negotiated by Medicare, and presumably it is substantially lower than what I would be charged without insurance. This is Medicare part B – my interaction with the services provided by a physician or other medical personnel. (Part A, that’s for hospitalization and “Medicare and You” suggests I’m “fully covered” for these services.)

“Medicare and You” provides a long list of services “covered” by Medicare Part B, but in an aside (no big deal, right?) mentions that key body parts are either not covered or the “fix” isn’t covered. That would be the things likely to “go” as I age: teeth, eyes, and ears. Not part of the Medicare package: dental coverage; the hearing aid likely to be prescribed after the hearing exam; and eye exams for prescribing glasses (but one pair of glasses – per year or per lifetime? not states — seems to be partially covered? I put a question mark here because eye information is found on pages 54 and 71 and what exactly is an eye exam “for prescribing glasses”). Apparently I don’t need to chew, see, or hear well. But I can definitely get a colonoscopy, “depression screening,” and “obesity screening and counseling.” And if I “have a question or a complaint about the quality” of services covered? “Medicare and You” advises calling my “Beneficiary and Family Centered Care Quality Improvement Organization,” a number not provided in the booklet but one I can retrieve by “visiting” Medicare.gov.

But, you ask, what about all the drugs prescribed to keep the aging body going? That would be Medicare Part D; though it seems drugs are not really part of Medicare (with a very few exceptions). If I want Medicare’s level of prescription drug coverage, then, as the booklet states, I “ must join a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan.” Where do I get this plan? “Available only through private companies under contract with Medicare,” each of which has a “formulary,” with drugs divided into different pricing “tiers.” So I’m to understand that the state, representing all retirees, has contracted with private companies to make drug coverage ‘more affordable.” (And I’m urged, as with Medicare Part A, to join a Prescription Drug Plan as soon as I’m eligible, or risk a late enrollment penalty.) But this information is on page 83, and a quick glance tells me that later in the booklet I can read a  whole chapter on part D. Sigh….

I am now barely half-way through “Medicare and You,” and I’m floundering, but by now I’m convinced that unpredictable medical costs will drive my retirement budget. The teacher in me thinks…where’s the multiple choice exam that checks my understanding of “Original Medicare” before I tackle the rest of the booklet. Such an exam would likely be an assessment nightmare for the authors of “Medicare and You.” I suspect it would reveal high levels of confusion, misunderstanding, and definitely a failure to grasp the intricate balance between public and private medical insurance that is the cornerstone of Medicare. In lieu of an exam, readers are instructed to direct their confusion to medicare.gov or a Medicare expert at the end of Medicare helpline. Oh authors, surely you jest!

Since I do not have to make insurance decisions immediately, I am closing the booklet for the moment before tackling the authors’ discussion of Part D and Medicare Part C, the supplemental and simplified way to confront medical expenses post retirement. Since I’ve already learned from TV commercials that my Part C decision “all depends on what you need and what you want to pay,” surely there’s not much more to figure out!

“Medicare and You” promises to demystify the retiree’s health insurance structure. My review….it’s hard to imagine the authors could have written a less user-friendly guidebook. And I’m not convinced that my summary of the book’s information accurately expresses Medicare or the discussion provided by “Medicare and You.”

Should I invest in the 2015 edition of Medicare for Dummies? (Yes, Amazon.com offers this publication and several others that promise to clarify things.) Please, all of you out there who have tamed the Medicare demons and turned them into your servants, HELP! I need your reassurance that eventually the proverbial light bulb might shine, despair might pass, and Medicare, like Foucault, will become just another tool in the coping-with-retirement toolbox.

Marking Time

August 16. Preparing for the start of a new school year, sorting the desktop clutter that accumulated over the summer, filing away the .docx icons that sprout up and fill the screen no matter how careful I am about organizing files in folders. It’s an annual ritual that serves as one marker of the “beginning of the year.”   Among those files is one from May labeled “marking time.” Opening it exposes an unfinished blog entry, and as the new semester is about to begin, the questions pushed from consciousness over the summer are again jostling the psychic equilibrium.

May 16. Another semester is over. Another group of MA students have graduated. And the fall semester will bring another group to begin the cycle once again. It has been this way for me for more than two decades. Not as long as some of my colleagues who were not such academic late-bloomers, but long enough to count as one of life’s recurring patterns.   I’m struck by how ruled I am by this cycle of commencement and graduation. I plan other activities around this schedule. It’s the reason photos of visits with my grandkids are collected in albums labeled “Summer 20xx.” And so, as I ponder retirement I also ponder the years ahead not guided by such a rhythm. When I retire, when will my year begin? New Year’s Day? My birthday? The deadline for filing income tax forms? At the commencement of a knitting project? Will retirement years even have beginnings or does each month or day mark its own form of newness?   I am eager to hear how others mark time once no longer ruled by the semester system?   Does abandoning the academic cycle create a sense of freedom or a feeling of chaos? How have others navigated these waters?

September 16. Another semester, another year of teaching has begun. I continue to think about replacing in retirement the academic structure that has ruled life since age 5. I am committed to this job for two more years…and then what?

Today I am attending a Human Resources workshop on “emotional readiness for retirement.” When responding to questions about loss of structure, the workshop coordinator suggests that we make a pre-retirement plan, a to-do list that substitutes book club meetings, exercise dates, and Lifelong Learning Institute classes for the weekly teaching schedule.   Planning, she assures us, is key to an emotionally “successful” retirement.   What she means – we “pre-retirees” must search for and discover the hidden identity behind the active academic with research and teaching agendas that fill our days, weeks, and years. Once revealed, this subconscious identity (for decades it’s yearned to breathe free?) will guide retirement and generate its own sense of structure.

My mind balks at the idea – I do not want to re-experience adolescent identity angst.   And, I suspect that much like peeling away the layers of an onion only to find more onion at the center, I will find at my core only a historian. This revelation is not what the workshop coordinator has in mind. She is definite that I cannot achieve retirement “tenure” (or, a “successful” retirement) while holding on to a pre-retirement version of me. Little does she know that I am already picturing retirement emotional readiness as a tenure clock!

This planning business is going to be more complicated than expected. What I once framed in terms of financial readiness is now a psychological conundrum – the historian of psychiatry thinks perhaps she should hold on until a pill to help the retiree structure time hits the market. Big pharma should see a golden opportunity here and I’d bet the 403(b) plans would find it a profitable investment.

The Faculty Activities Report: A Retirement Guide?

A few weeks ago I submitted my annual “activities report” to the department and the college. Completing this report is the dreaded and hated and tedious chore of recording what I accomplish each year. The 2014 report, however, has led to some reflection on the difference between productivity and “satisfying work” at this stage of life/career. That book about youth suicide…it languishes in boxes of notes, inside desktop file and folder icons (dutifully color-coded by chapter numbers), and on shelves full of “essential” readings for the project. Each year the activities report reminds me how long I’ve been trying to produce a manuscript. (The electronically-generated report dutifully fills in “starting” and “end” dates for my entries!) This year the report suggests that I should think carefully about why my knitting needles seem to accomplish more than my computer keyboard! Writing is still a pleasure; writing within the confines of academic research, I’m finding less and less so. If I could pursue the joy in writing, what would I write? The activities report expects me to write for other scholars; for whom would I write if satisfaction rather than productivity guided my efforts?

When I examine the “activities” on my report, I see many entries documenting my involvement in the department’s small graduate program. Some of these activities relate to teaching and mentoring graduate students. Most, however, get recorded as “service,” and they do not count as productive output. Running a small MA program that is educating fewer than 20 students each year — when I write that line, I’m reminded that others may think the effort involved must be minimal and secretarial, not evidence of productivity. Certainly I did as recently as a few years ago. Yet as I recorded each activity from 2014 it was with an awareness of how deeply rewarding it is to provide a forum where a new generation of historians, many of whom will teach or find careers in public history, will hone their skills and graduate ready to keep alive and pass along an appreciation of the past and the value of connecting it to the present. Aiding new scholars to find joy in research and writing, helping them to turn vague ideas into meaningful words – that work is far more satisfying now than producing yet another conference paper. It deserves my time.

When and how did this change in perception happen? Perhaps when I began to create an alumni list for the graduate program and discovered where past generations of graduate students had landed? Perhaps when I found I’d rather blog than “write?” Perhaps after the deaths of my parents, as I began to think about legacy, about the footprints left behind as we journey on?

Letting go of the guilt generated by the empty boxes on my “activities report?” Letting wash over me the “evaluation” of my end-stage activities by colleagues who are not there yet? It’s a slow and painful process – but one I find I want to embrace as I “transition to retirement.”

And by the way, I’m tagging this post “superannuated professor and increasingly proud of the title.”

What Not to Wear–Fashion for the Over-60’s

A new wardrobe – one of the pleasures of losing weight. As I adjust to the changes and work (and walk) to maintain the new look, shopping for clothes – lady professor clothes Suzanne Lebsock called them when I was starting graduate school – has had me pondering what (not) to wear and what a retirement wardrobe might contain. At the moment I’m particularly fond of turtleneck sweaters, because they cover the chicken folds that have joined my flabby arms and gray hair, but chiefly because it is a very cold, windy winter this year. In the search for new clothes, however, I have not purchased any shirt embroidered with chipmunks or sweet, plump sparrows (and now I regret immensely giving those gifts to my mother!). All this puzzling about wardrobe (which surely is part of my personal effort at a social construction of old age) does make the historian wonder when “senior” became a special fashion category that did not refer to high school.

And then, on FB this morning was a link to “What Not to Wear After 50: The Final Say,” a Huffington Post piece by Michelle Combs (self-described as “blogger, mother, wife, drinker of tequila”). Combs dismisses current fashion guidance and urges us to adopt instead six basic rules. DO NOT wear: 1) the weight of the world; 2) shame and regret; 3) rose-colored glasses; 4) a stiff upper lip; and 5) too many hats. But (and if it weren’t in such an esteemed publication she’d probably add a smiley emoticon) wear as often as you like: 6) a “resting bitch face.” Oh yes, I heartily approve and intend to adopt – particularly #5, since with all my hats, I’m wearing none with pizzazz. It’s time to pack up a few and send them to the thrift shop (or donate them to younger colleagues!).

Combs also suggests googling the topic, where advice seekers will find much to gnaw on and reject. With curiosity now piqued, I put the words into Google…using 60 as a more appropriate age. Google tells me I have my choice of “about 295,000,000” results! From a “budgetfashionista” website (don’t shun your past and embrace pant suits and color) to an article from AARP that tells me to rid my closet of tight jeans and mini skirts (as if!), and one that advises no Uggs, make-up, or showing skin, and that’s just the first page. I’m thinking there must be someone, some place, wearing a caftan and tuque this morning in an effort to be fashionable over 60.

Of all the links (at least those in the first 10) the one I most appreciated was the Huffington Post page of columns on the subject of “Fashion for Women Over Sixty.” In one, Margaret Mann advises learning to “love your tailor,” as she writes, “Women over 60 are special. Each of us has earned the right to be ourselves and express our individuality.” Another column publicized a a BBC documentary, Fabulous Fashionistas, described as a show “Exploring the art of ageing in the company of six extraordinary women with an average age of eighty.” There’s a clip from the program on YouTube; it’s worth a look at how these women chose to outfit their aging bodies.

And so, as I weed from my closet ill-fitting pants and shirts, I plan to fill the hangers with happy, colorful, feel-good, pieces that show no shame and regret and definitely don’t call for a stiff upper lip. I’m also going to cultivate my “resting bitch face” and choose hats wisely, wearing only the ones that reward me for being “over 60.”

Will be interested to hear if, and how, others have constructed an “over 60” closet.

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.”