A decade or more ago, when I was still in my fifties, I was walking across an icy Vermont parking lot on a dark snow-bright night with Jim, a thirteen-year-old boy of my acquaintance, when I slipped and came down hard on the ice. Since I was unhurt I got up quickly, a habit of independence I picked up long ago. Jim was staring at me wide-eyed. “I never saw an old lady fall down before!” he exclaimed. “Jim,” I snapped at him, “I am not an old lady.” I think he was surprised: why had I denied something that was as obviously as true as the snow was white?
Of course, to Jim I was an old lady, and when I was thirteen any woman of fifty or more would just as certainly have been one. I’ve wondered since, what did both Jim and I think an old lady was? Why was I so quick to refuse the description?
I’ve had time since then to observe my growing older, to notice how my first senior discounts made me squirm, and squirm again when more and more people junior to me jumped to open doors. My mother was also aging over this period of time and, needless to say, had a good many years on me. I scoffed inwardly when she worried whether she still looked younger than her several years younger sister. Why couldn’t she just accept that she was old? When she began to show symptoms of dementia and moved to her first assisted-living residence, I found myself surrounded by very old people and noticed with some chagrin, that they often assumed I was one of them, just as I had assumed I wasn’t that far removed from Jim in years, just an adult to his kid. I was fighting off old age the way I had many years before pushed away my lesbianism. Acting young was like acting straight. Don’t let anyone see that you’re not quite as agile, not quite as infatuated with the hunk in the office, as they are.
There’s the obvious thing about age, of course – that it’s closer to death. But what is it that makes us hate it so, when we will probably spend decades of our lives being old? Again, of course, there’s ill health. Even though we’re told now that old age is not a disease and that, as we learn to cope with illness, being elderly will seem more attractive, most of us know that we are terribly vulnerable to all sorts of micro-organisms, cancers and god-knows-what.
Nonetheless, more and more of us are leading productive and interesting lives. And for at least some artists, there are definitely benefits that come with being elderly, and that will enrich all of us – which is what this blog is all about.
I think we can assume that we hate and fear getting old because of illness and death. We live in a culture consumed with the worship of youth and fear of death. We believe every malady should be curable. Recently, Ronnie Bennett, the proprietor of Time Goes By, the most comprehensive blog about aging on the Internet, decided to sit down and watch TV two or three hours to see whether or not there were as many ads about care and cure as she thought:
That much time was not needed. I was shocked to find that in the period of one, three-minute commercial break, remedies for the following diseases and conditions were advertised: COPD, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, dry skin, headache, insomnia, allergies, nasal congestion, foot problems, heart disease, constipation and depression.
We don’t want to feel vulnerable, and that’s exactly what the culture assumes old people are, almost by definition. We were all raised to be independent, self-determining adults. So, when someone is of a certain age, we assume they’re doddering and assign them a certain vulnerability. That’s why there was an automobile accident; that’s why she fell down. The stereotype becomes grotesque. The irrational old lady and her house full of cats. The absent-minded old gent who can’t find his way from point a to point b. Less is expected of old people, since we’re on the very brink of decrepitude, if we’re not already there.
So many of the programs for the old condescend. When my mother was in her last residence, she was cared for by feeling, kind people. But the same people, in particular the director of the program, had a bad habit of exclaiming, “She’s so cute,” when she sat down to play the few tired chords she could still muster on the piano, when she threw her food across the room, when she fought taking a shower. Sometimes, it was “She’s so sweet.” And I knew my mother was neither, just a human being in a bad situation.
I think that what we fear in old age even more than death is the condescension that’s reserved for the vulnerable. Like my mother before me, but I hope with fewer strikes against me, I intend to battle it to the end.