Aging--we may get depressed about it, rage about it, accept it gracefully or not, but indeed, we're all aware of it. Our bodies talk to us very clearly and the media is a constant reminder of our place in the world.
Coming to terms with aging presents challenges and opportunities and the way in which we embrace it (or not) reveals much about us. And we can be optimistic about the impact Baby Boomers will have on how we're perceived as we get older.
This page will include pieces to inspire, provide food for thought, and even make you laugh.
The Secret to a Longer Life
Selflessness, says bestselling author Gail Sheehy
What if it isn’t a dog-eat-dog world? What if caring for a dog or for a mom with Alzheimer’s makes you stronger and allows you to live longer? Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley are challenging our long-held belief that humans are hard-wired to be selfish.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was misinterpreted by his male popularizers, the researchers say. Rather than “every man for himself,” Darwin believed that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.
Why has it taken so long for Darwin’s central revelation to be properly interpreted? “We’ve had too many men in social science,” Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner told me in an interview. “Female scientists acknowledge that ‘fight or flight’ is part of human nature, but so is caring for people.”
This is no touchy-feely feminist theory. Hard science is showing how the human capacity to care is wired into our brains and nervous systems.
In my book Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence, I urge women who assume the whole responsibility for taking care of an elderly parent or chronically ill spouse to build a Circle of Care. Reach out to your brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors and community volunteers to help you care, because no one can perform this overwhelming role alone. You will be as stunned as I to learn how the most selfless caregivers are rewarded with greater longevity.
Stephanie Brown, associate professor of preventive medicine at SUNY-Stony Brook, followed a group of older adults caring for family members with dementia and other illnesses. If they offered care more than 14 hours a week, they were less likely to die in a seven-year period than their peers.
“Survival of the Kindest” is not just a theory. It is becoming a revolutionary cultural movement. There are many signs that caring is gaining currency.
Keltner, who has been studying the science of this instinct for 15 years, says we are coming to the end of our Gordon Gekko-Ivan Boesky-Bernie Madoff 25-year cycle of greed. Berkeley and Stanford universities now have compassion centers devoted to the study and teaching of this theory.
It will run up against hostility among the Hobbseians. Ayn Rand wrote, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” As Americans, we have a cultural bias against caring.
Oh, sure, we lavish our families with gifts during the holiday season, but in a capitalist system based on unbridled competition, we worry that if we care, we lose. Compassion is a woman’s word. In men, it’s cast as wimpy, when in fact it makes us stronger under stress and more highly respected by our peers.
For so long we have repeated the careless aphorism “Nice guys finish last.” But the 40 richest Americans who took the Giving Pledge to commit half their fortunes to doing good are no spring chickens. Here is my reinterpretation: Nice guys die last.
Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence. This story appeared in USA Today
Advice From the 90+ Group
Sociologist Tony Campolo told about a study in which fifty people over the age of 90 were asked to reflect upon their lives. "If you had it to do over again," they were asked, "what would you do differently?" Though there were many answers, three responses dominated. Here they are:
First, many respondents answered, "I would reflect more." Do you ever feel that too much time is spent in "doing" and not enough spent thinking about what you are doing and why you are doing it?
Second, they said, "I would risk more." Do you think that important opportunities either have been or might be forfeited because of your fear to take a necessary risk?
Finally, they said, "I would do more things that would live on after I died." Do you feel that you are immersed in something bigger and more enduring than your own existence?
Leave a legacy
Inside every older person is a younger person -- wondering what the hell happened. Cora Harvey Armstrong
The hardest years in life are those between ten and seventy. Helen Hayes (at 73)
Things are going to get a lot worse before they get worse. Lily Tomlin
A male gynecologist is like an auto mechanic who never owned a car. Carrie Snow
Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry with your girlfriends. Laurie Kuslansky
Old age ain't no place for sissies. Bette Davis
A man's got to do what a man's got to do. A woman must do what he can't. Rhonda Hansome
The phrase "working mother" is redundant. Jane Sellman
Whatever women must do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult. Charlotte Whitton
Thirty-five is when you finally get your head together and your body starts falling apart. Caryn Leschen
I try to take one day at a time -- but sometimes several days attack me at once. Jennifer Unlimited
When I was young, I was put in a school for retarded kids for two years before they realized I actually had a hearing loss. And they called ME slow! Kathy Buckley
I'm not offended by all the dumb blond jokes because I know I'm not dumb -- and I'm also not blond. Dolly Parton
If high heels were so wonderful, men would still be wearing them. Sue Grafton
I'm not going to vacuum 'til Sears makes one you can ride on. Roseanne Barr
When women are depressed they either eat or go shopping. Men invade another country. Elayne Boosler
Behind every successful man is a surprised woman.
In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman. Margaret Thatcher
I have yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine marriage and a career. Gloria Steinem
I am a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house. Zsa Zsa Gabor
My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first being, hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint. Erma Bombeck
"Sitting On A Bench"
used to moderate focus groups and I did a lot of work among people over
60. And sometimes I heard a story that moved me, as this one did, from
an elegant, sharp 60ish woman from Manhattan.
…The other day I went to Bloomingdale's. Usually I would go to Bloomingdale's, then I'd take the bus and I'd go to 57th Street, then I go up 5th Avenue and then I'd go to more stores…
this point, I don't allow myself this huge chunk to bite off. I only do
certain things that I know I will be able to do and then just come
home. I went to Bloomingdale's and I came home.
did walk there and I did walk home, which was good…As I was walking
down 2nd Avenue, I saw a man sitting on a bench, and I went over to him
and I said, 'Would you mind if I sit next to you?
My knees are so weary.'
he said, "Oh yes, sit down, this is the weary knee bench." So you meet
people that are in the same position you are. They're sitting on
benches. It's really funny.
"Who Are You?"
By Nora Ephron
New York Times, August 12, 2007
I KNOW you.
I know you well. It’s true I always have a little trouble with your name, but I do know your name. I just don’t know it at this moment. We’re at a big party. We’ve kissed hello. We’ve had a delightful conversation about how we are the two last people on the face of the earth who don’t kiss on both cheeks. Now we’re having a conversation about how phony all the people are who do kiss on both cheeks. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. You’re so charming. If only I could remember your name. It’s inexcusable that I don’t. You’ve been to my house for dinner. I tried to read your last book. I know your girlfriend’s name, or I almost know it. It’s something like Chanelle. Only it’s not. Chantelle? That’s not it either.
Fortunately she isn’t here, so I haven’t forgotten both of your names.
I’m becoming desperate. It’s something like Larry. Is it Larry? No, it’s
not. Jerry? No, it’s not. But it ends in a Y. Your last name: three
syllables. Starts with a C. Starts with a G? I’m losing my mind.
a miracle occurs: the host is about to toast the guest of honor. Thank
God. I can escape to the bar. I will spend the rest of the night
scrolling through the alphabet in an attempt to come up with your name.
If I fail, there’s always Google. If only I could remember what that
last book was about.
Have We Met?
Have we met? I think we’ve met. But I can’t be sure. We were introduced, but I didn’t catch your name because it’s so noisy at this party. I’m going to assume we know each other, and I’m not going to say, “Nice to meet you.” If I say, “Nice to meet you,” I know what will happen. You’ll say, “We’ve met.” You’ll say “We’ve met” in a sort of aggressive, irritable tone. And you won’t even tell me your name so I can recover in some way. So I’m not going to say, “Nice to meet you.” I’m going to say, “Nice to see you.” I’ll have a big smile on my face. I won’t look desperate. But what I’ll be thinking is, please throw me your name. Please, please, please. Give me a hint.
husband is likely to walk up, and I’ll have to introduce you, and I
won’t be able to, and you’ll know that I have no idea who you are even
though we probably spent an entire weekend together on a boat in 1984.
And even though I have a secret signal with my husband that involves my
pinching him very hard on the upper arm, a signal that means, “Throw
your name at this person because I have no idea whom I’m talking to,” my
husband always forgets the secret signal and can’t be counted on to
respond to my pinching, even when it produces a bruise. I would like to
chew my husband out about his forgetfulness on this point, but I’m not
exactly in a position to do so since I myself have forgotten (if I ever
knew it) the name of the person I’m talking to.
Old friends? We must be. You’re delighted to see me. I’m delighted to see you. But who are you? Oh, my God, you’re Jane. I can’t believe it. Jane. “Jane! How are you? It’s been — how long has it been?” I’d like to suggest that the reason I didn’t recognize you right off the bat is that you’ve done something to your hair, but you’ve done nothing to your hair, nothing that would excuse my not recognizing you. What you’ve actually done is gotten older. I don’t believe it. You used to be my age, and now you’re much, much, much older than I am. You could be my mother. Unless of course I look as old as you and I don’t know it. Which is not possible. Or is it?
"Aging Well:The Triumph of Authenticity"
An Interview with Jonathan Young, Ph.D.
Overview: There are many positive benefits to aging. Aging is not all about losses. In this interview, Dr. Young strives to re-balance the perspective on aging and offers encouragement in point out advantages of aging and contributions that elders offer to a culture. He offers guidelines for aging well and supports his recommendations with stories and myths. He observes that deeply rewarding experiences can more than make up for the capacity to do less.
The foundation of his perspective is based on a Jungian viewpoint which values the later portion of life as offering the prospect of greater fulfillment. Dr. Young notes that as we age we are less inclined to mask or hide our imperfections. We can enjoy a greater authenticity. Aging offers the incentive to stop trying to impress others and to be who we are. The interview is a recommended read for those who realize that they are older than they once were.
What was the impetus for your coming to study aging?
reason is that I am growing older myself. Another is that I am often
invited to speak or conduct workshops for religious groups. No matter
the group, the congregations tend to be older than the community at
large. As I worked more with elders I noticed that they have different
interests and perspectives.
began to research aging and read the popular books and articles. I
noticed that I was unhappy with what I was reading, but initially
couldn't identify what was wrong. As I found some of the more obscure
books, mostly by Jungian authors, I noticed a distinct difference. That
was my moment of epiphany. The popular and better known books and
research were in unison. I would sum up the current American attitude
toward aging in three words: Don't do it.
of the current literature does not deal with aging but rather, it
focuses on slowing the rate of physical losses. I view this as
meritorious and believe the view is worth much attention. But that was
all they had to say. Many of the books cited successes and fame that
came to the elderly. I am not saying that those ideas are unworthy. The
problem was that all of the focus was upon staying forty. There was
precious little about the benefits to being old.
work that moved me most was James Hillman's book, The Force of
Character: And the Lasting Life. He noted that if you see an older
friend, you might comment, "You look much younger than your age." The
person making the comment may mean well and be trying to make a
compliment; but in reality the person is offering an insult. A true
compliment would be to comment on something that they are gaining, not
on something that they are losing. There is a double side in basically
saying to someone, "You don't look like you really are."
Hillman suggested rather saying, "I love hearing stories of what happened before I was born" or "There is so much wisdom that you have to offer" or "I appreciate the perspective that you bring to our conversation." Referring to what one is gaining or has of value is more encouraging and complimentary.
From previous interviews I know that you often incorporate stories or myths to emphasize your point. Are there particularly poignant stories related to aging?
that contain "the journey" as a plot usually apply. Joseph Campbell
stated that the reason that the hero's journey is found in all times and
cultures is simply that it is the story of human life. The story that I
use in my seminars on aging is the Russian tale of Vasalisa the
Beautiful. She goes on a long journey through a dark forest to meet a
scary sorcerer named Baba Yaga. The story deals with facing our fears
and going into our inner life. We emerge wiser for the experience. The
tale reflects the long journey to psychological maturity. At each point
in our life, we are too close to the immediate details to see the
overall adventure. Stories help us get the big picture.
you speak about the process of coming to an acceptance of losses so
that one may be free to realize and pursue opportunities associated with
aging? I know that one of the major issues in psychotherapy and in
dealing with loss is to first come to accept reality, or what is.
aging comes acceptance. The radical self acceptance that many elders
attain is a huge reward. With longevity we come to know ourselves
better. We become less interested in acting to impress others and
conform. We become our own property. The levels of satisfaction can rise
even as people are physically able to do less, especially for people
who have engaged in inner psychological or spiritual work or a creative
reason the level of reward goes up is that elders know who they are.
Also, having more time to spend with a pet or to raise a garden can be
rewarding. While by a certain age we are doing less, deeply rewarding
experiences can more than make up for the loss. The ratio of fulfillment
to frustration can actually improve.
I am emphasizing the positive, I do not minimize the losses. Losses are
deep and can be very painful. The loss of physical strength and
vitality and the loss of loved ones and dreams produce much sadness. The
point is that loss is not the only experience associated with growing
be a triumph of authenticity as we grow older. Often we desire to be
more genuine and honest with ourselves and others. Our highest values
prevail. Another component is exhaustion. It takes energy and effort to
fake it. With age, people are less willing to go to the trouble.
people, who did not stand out in the community in earlier years, begin
to be noticed. Sometimes they were secretly rather quirky and spent
great effort to disguise or mask their quirkiness. At a certain age they
turn loose and expose parts of themselves that can be fascinating.
Parts of ourselves that we may have hidden for years can be intriguing
Hillman's book he speaks of the force of character. As we grow older we
more firmly establish our integrity. However, another part of this
later life stage is becoming a character. A touch of eccentricity can be
marvelous and attractive.
who have done inner work earlier in life's journey are at a great
advantage. Those who have suffered significant losses early such as the
loss of loved ones in their 30's and 40's and have had those moments of
grief and have had to reconstruct the fabric of life are in a favorable
position. These losses often involve a sort of ego death. There is a
tendency in industrial cultures to worship control. Those who have coped
with setbacks have had to deal with moments when matters were out of
that we can survive losses and reverses brings an awareness that we
don't have to possess as much control as we thought, or as the culture
suggests. This is a huge lesson. Learning to deal with losses early in
life can be a gift in that it can prepare us to deal with the long
string of losses which we will experience later. It can help people deal
with bereavements with a sense of grace.
too much emphasis is placed on being as engaged or as sharp as we were
in our prime, then aging becomes sad. But if we accept the process,
accept where we are, it can be fascinating and, in its way, rewarding.
Would you address Jung's psychological ideas that apply to aging and the latter years?
model is the perfect psychology for later life. He thought that the
first half of life was mainly preparation for the latter half. In the
first half we lay the foundation. It is about establishing a strategy in
terms of personality and establishing affiliations which involve
family, love life and friends.
these years, we tend to put great energy into making a living. While
all of that is worthy, it is just the foundation. When the foundation is
in place then the adventure begins. It is then that we usually develop
the true, unique aspects of our gifts.
How would Jung's archetypes relate to aging?
idea of the archetypes, which is so fascinating in Jung's writings,
suggests that we each have a number of personalities or agendas or
energies. We shift from character to character or role to role. As we
proceed through life stages, the constellation of archetypal energies
and the pattern that we are drawing on at a given moment shifts.
the well known archetypal qualities the mentor, the magician, and the
sage would be particularly prominent in later years. Also, there is the
trickster who has a wily ability to experience fun at your expense. For
example, having a senior moment of forgetfulness can be very amusing if
you decide to have a good laugh at yourself. Laughter also helps because
it distracts us from the pressing effort to grasp what we can't
sage archetype reflects a calm quality in a personality. It allows us
to detach, if necessary. We have losses, disappointments, and grief in
our later years. The ability to experience them and be reflective, that
is have a little distance, is a sage quality. We may notice two people
at the same stage of development experiencing similar losses. One may be
torn apart while another, though grieving, realizes that it is part of
the big picture. Our sage energy would be the ability to deal with
changing circumstances gracefully.
The mentor emphasizes the great need to pass along our learning and wisdom. It is a marvelous thing to draw on the mentors who have given to us and share insights and skills with the people of the future.
is not that we develop an archetypal presence. They appear on their
own. The task is to find ways to be more open. Archetypes can be
welcomed and brought forward. The most effective invitation is to read
stories of archetypes. If you want to develop more sage qualities in
your personality just read stories with wise old characters. Reading
draws the images into our inner lives. That is the first step toward
accepting the characteristics of that aspect of our personalities.
You have made several suggestions about effectively conversing with elders such as asking about the past and avoiding insults. Do you have other suggestions?
A major aspect of appreciating elders is valuing stories. It is about cherishing stories for their own sake and not as a technical means to communicate new information. Communicating information is not the only function of conversation. One may have heard a tale before.
celebrates life. Just as you may play a favorite record over and over,
stories can be savored and enjoyed. To encourage a favorite aunt to tell
a story not only gives them a little attention but it also presents an
opportunity to celebrate life.
narratives that old persons recount have something to do with their
unique perspectives on life. They are trying to pass along something
valuable. There are layers and layers to stories. The hearers may think
that they know a story but they don't know all that it contains. There
is usually more than we originally thought.
Retelling stories can have a ritual quality. To take a narrative and try to break it down and outline and summarize it and arrive at the key elements that are communicated misses the lion's share of what is being communicated. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, a story communicates more than the teller realizes.
of it can be grasped at the moment but, years later, one may realize
that there are more dimensions and greater depth to a story that grandma
used to tell.
are essentially symbolic. They are so richly visual we can think of
them as mental movies. They are rich sources of information. The words
and ideas may only amount to ten percent.
of the content is carried in symbolic images. Just as with dreams,
there are layers and nuances that are perceived consciously, but much of
the significance is at the unconscious level. As we age and experience
life, we gradually gain more of the information contained in the story.
Would you comment upon the role and importance of social activity and involvement as one grows older?
is a tendency to isolate. However a problem is that the staffs of
retirement communities are younger. They are often unaware of how much
they imagine that their own psychology is present in the older person.
They observe an elderly person who lives alone and rush to conclusions.
The elder may call a couple of relatives weekly and visit occasionally
with a friend or two in nearby apartments. The worker thinks that the
elderly person is very lonely. In fact, studies have shown relatively
little loneliness among elders living alone.
point is that the person doing the assessment would be lonely in the
elder's position. The error is called psychological projection. The
younger social workers are imaging what living alone would be like for
themselves. The elder might be active and enjoy watching favorite
television programs, reading, taking care of a cat, chatting with
neighbors, and keeping in touch with the daughter and grandchildren by
phone, and finding it all rewarding.
old theory suggested that as one ages there is a losing of interest in
the activities and accomplishments that one valued more when younger. We
spend a great deal of time in earlier years trying to gain others'
attention and impressing others about how bright or important we are.
That becomes valued less as one ages.
have reported how enormously rewarding creating a modest watercolor
painting is and how the one cup of tea is so pleasurable because they
know exactly the flavor and type to select. One of the rewards of being
older is that we know ourselves better. Limited energy may mean reduced
activity, but the increase accuracy of our choices of what to do can
actually lead to greater fulfillment, often from small things. It is
possible to find ways to savor the subtleties of life which are
marvelous. It is not the quantity or how much we are doing, but rather
the quality or how much we are enjoying each moment. Jonathan
Young, Ph. D. is a Psychologist and storyteller. He was the founding
curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives & Library. His most recent
book is SAGA: Best New Writings on Mythology. Dr. Young assisted
Campbell at seminars and created the Mythological Studies Department at
Pacifica Graduate Institute. He lives in Santa Barbara and has an
extensive website at www.folkstory.com for his current work at the
Center for Story and Symbol.
WE JUST GET BETTER!! (At least in our heads!)
Age 3: She looks at herself and sees a Queen.
Age 8: She looks at herself and sees Cinderella.
Age 15: She looks at herself and sees an Ugly Sister (Mom, I can't go to school looking like this!)
Age 20: She looks at herself and sees "too fat/too thin, too short/too tall, too straight/too curly"- but decides she's going out anyway.
Age 30: She looks at herself and sees "too fat/too thin, too short/too tall, too straight/too curly" - but decides she doesn't have time to fix it, so she's going out anyway.
Age 40: She looks at herself and sees "clean" and goes out anyway.
Age 50: She looks at herself and sees "I am" and goes wherever she wants to go.
Age 60: She looks at herself and reminds herself of all the people who can't even see themselves in the mirror anymore. Goes out and conquers the world.
Age 70: She looks at herself & sees wisdom, laughter and ability, goes out and enjoys life.
Age 80: Doesn't bother to look. Just puts on a purple hat (or a purple dress with red hat) and goes out to have fun with the world.
DON'T YOU WISH YOU WERE 80 or could, at least, act 80 at whatever age you are?
Lives; Someone's Mother
By Joan Murray
New York Times Magazine
May 13, 2007
Hitchhiking is generally illegal where I live in upstate New York, but
it's not unusual to see someone along Route 20 with an outstretched
thumb or a handmade sign saying ''Boston.'' This hitchhiker, though, was
waving both arms in the air and grinning like a president boarding Air
I was doing 60 -- eager to get home after a dental appointment in Albany -- and I was a mile past the hitchhiker before something made me turn back. I couldn't say if the hitchhiker was a man or a woman. All I knew was that the hitchhiker was old.
As I drove back up the hill, I eyed the hitchhiker in the distance: dark blue raincoat, jaunty black beret. Thin arms waving, spine a little bent. Wisps of white hair lilting as the trucks whizzed by. I made a U-turn and pulled up on the gravel, face to face with an eager old woman who kept waving till I stopped. I saw no broken-down vehicle. There was no vehicle at all. She wore the same broad grin I noticed when I passed her.
I rolled my window down. ''Can I call someone for you?''
''No, I'm fine -- I just need a ride.''
''Where are you going?''
That was three miles away. ''Are you going there to shop?''
''No. I live there.''
''What are you doing here?'' I asked with a tone I hadn't used since my son was a teenager.
''I was out for a walk.''
I glanced down the road: Jet's Autobody. Copeland Coating. Thoma Tire Company. And the half-mile hill outside Nassau -- so steep that there's a second lane for trucks. She must have climbed the shoulder of that hill. And the next one. And the next. Until something made her stop and throw her hands in the air.
''Did you get lost?'' I asked, trying to conceal my alarm.
''It was a nice day,'' she said with a little cry. ''Can't an old lady go for a walk on a nice day and get lost?''
It wasn't a question meant to be answered. She came around to the passenger side, opened the door and sat down. On our way to Nassau, she admitted to being 92. Though she ducked my questions about her name, her address and her family. ''Just leave me at the drugstore,'' she said.
''I'll take you home,'' I said. ''Then you can call someone.''
''Please,'' she said, ''just leave me at the drugstore.''
''I can't leave you there,'' I replied just as firmly. ''I'm going to take you to your house. Or else to the police station.''
''No, no,'' she begged. She was agitated now. ''If my son finds out, he'll put me in a home.''
Already I was seeing my own mother, who's 90. A few years ago, she was living in her house on Long Island, surrounded by her neighbors, her bird feeders, her azaleas. Then one morning she phoned my brother to say she didn't remember how to get dressed anymore. A few weeks later, with sorrow and worry, we arranged her move to a nursing home.
I noticed that the hitchhiker had a white dove pinned to her collar. ''Do you belong to a church?'' I tried. ''Yes,'' she said. She was grinning. ''I'd like to take you there,'' I said. ''No, please,'' she said again. ''My son will find out.''
Things were getting clearer. ''You've gotten lost before?''
''A few times,'' she shrugged. ''But I always find my way home. Just take me to the drugstore.''
As we drove, I kept thinking about my mother, watched over and cared for in a bright, clean place. I also thought about her empty bird feeders, her azaleas blooming for no one, the way she whispers on the phone, ''I don't know anyone here.''
When I pulled into the parking strip beside the drugstore, the hitchhiker let herself out. ''I just need to sit on the step for a while,'' she said before closing the door. I stepped out after her. ''Can't I take you home?'' I asked as gently as I could.
She looked into my eyes for a moment. ''I don't know where I live,'' she said in the tiniest voice. ''But someone will come along who knows me. They always do.''
I watched as she sat herself down on the step. Already she had dismissed me from her service. She was staring ahead with her grin intact, waiting for the next person who would aid her.
I should call the police, I thought. But then surely her son would be told. I should speak with the pharmacists. Surely they might know her -- though they might know her son as well. Yet who was I to keep this incident from him? And yet how could I help him put the hitchhiker in a home?
''Promise me you'll tell the druggist if no one comes soon,'' I said to her with great seriousness.
''I promise,'' she said with a cheerful little wave.
Joan Murray is the author of five volumes of poetry, most recently ''Dancing on the Edge.'' She is working on a novel.
"Being Old, Then and Now"
by David Brooks
New York Times, August 3, 2007
Last week, while driving from a campaign event in Keene, N.H., I stumbled upon a used bookstore that I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager. I stopped in — even though I was rushing to catch a plane — and came upon a sad book published anonymously in 1911.The book is called “Autobiography of an Elderly Woman,” and it’s a description of what it was like to be old a century ago. The woman begins by recalling the stages of her life: the misty days of girlhood; the precious years when she was raising her young; the rewarding times when she and her children were adults together and companions.
But then something changed.
“I do not know when the change came, nor do they, if indeed they realize it at all,” she writes. “There was a time when I was of their generation; now I am not. I cannot put my finger on the time when old age finally claimed me. But there came a moment when my boys were more thoughtful of me, when they didn’t come to me anymore with their perplexities, not because I had what is called ‘failed,’ but because they felt that the time had come when I ought to be ‘spared’ every possible worry. So there is a conspiracy of silence against me in my household.”
She describes how her children baby her. They offer to give her rides in the carriage to run errands when she could just as well walk. They try to prevent her from doing normal housework on the grounds that it’s too taxing. “You count the number of your years by the way your daughter watches your steps; and you see your infirmities in your son’s anxious eyes.”
She describes living in a different dimension. She sees and understands, but her counsel is never sought and she has no ground upon which to act. “We have learned then that we can’t help our children to lead their lives one bit better. There is not one single little stone we can clear before their feet.”
Though writing in the age of the gas lamp, she understands what the latest scientific research is now concluding. “Very soon your children slip from between your fingers. They develop new traits that you don’t understand and others that you understand only too well, for, like weeds, your faults come up and refuse to be rooted out ...
“There came a time when I realized that every child on the street my child stopped to talk with had its share in bringing up my sons and daughters. One week in school was enough to upset all the training of years.”
The book is a lament from a person put on a shelf, bound by convention and by the smothering concern of others not to exert any power on the world, even while seeing more clearly than ever the way power can and cannot be exerted.
It’s a remarkable little book, and when I did some research, I was surprised to learn it wasn’t written by an old woman. It was written by 37-year-old Mary Heaton Vorse, using the voice of her own mother.
Vorse was a bohemian and a radical journalist who wrote for The Masses, hung around Eugene O’Neill, John Reed and Louise Bryant, and she helped found the Provincetown Players.
Using her mother’s perspective, Vorse wrote a sort of “The Second Sex” for the elderly of 1911. It is about a class of people unable to exercise their capacities.
And what she described was real. In “Growing Old in America,” the historian David Hackett Fischer writes that age was venerated in early America. But starting in the first half of the 19th century, youth was venerated and age was diminished.
Thoreau wrote that the young have little to learn from the old. The word “fogy,” which had once meant a wounded veteran, acquired its current meaning. Dinner table seating was no longer determined by age but by accomplishment. Scientific knowledge gained prestige over experience.
Women, who had once rarely lived much past their youngest child’s marriage, now lived on with no clear role. The character in “Autobiography of an Elderly Woman” is a victim of all this.
I don’t know how many of her opinions will ring true to today’s oldsters. Now,the elderly are richer, more active and more engaged than their cohorts of a century ago, but are they still living in a different dimension? Is it now a dimension of their own choosing?