I’m still figuring out the structure of the book, but I know what I want its message to be. Here’s a draft of the new Introduction:
The demographic good fortune of the baby boom generation has its dark side. Privileged and powerful, Americans came of age in an era of youth movements (never trust anyone over 30!) and we’ve worshipped at the shrine ever since. We’re obsessed with chronological age and panicked by being beached on the shores of diminishment and decline. In October, 2009, at the tender age of 44, New York Times blogger Judith Warner bemoaned the fact that it was all downhill from here. “I now see the passage of time more as a kind of bell curve,” she wrote. “Years of ascension, soaring anticipation, followed by a plateau — which is not so bad, really — and then, no way to sugar coat this: a rather precipitous decline.” So long forever to “excitement, discovery, intensity.”
I’d drunk the Kool-Aid too. Born in 1952, I was barely squinting through my graduated lenses at the writing on the wall — and what sensible person would? After all, conventional wisdom held that life after 65 would be a dreary, lonely, slide into white sneakers, disability, and death. The fact that Warner’s gloomy scenario was excerpted in the Sunday Times a few days later shows how powerful its grip. But has Warner never met an older person who’s embraced a cause, fallen in love, seized the day? Her scenario is not just biased, it’s profoundly ill-informed. Worse, such thinking reinforces the destructive myths that underlie this country’s pervasive ageism.
The national conversation needs to change, because old age is different than it used to be. For starters, there’s a lot more of it. Since the beginning of the 20th century, American life spans have increased by a staggering thirty years. Seventeen percent of that increase (to 77.6) is above the age of 65, and those over age 80 make up the fastest growing subset. Yet, despite how much the baby boom generation has at stake, few of us have begun to come to terms with the prospect of the additional decades granted us by better nutrition, exercise, healthcare, and technologies.
It’s what sociologists call a structural lag: the tendency of social institutions to change more slowly than social conditions. The lag is reflected in the dearth of research into the basic biology of aging. It’s buttressed by an alarmist media, which rolls out the standard fallacies to portray this exciting demographic shift as either crisis or burden. Social Security bankrupt! Medicare exhausted! Greedy geezers clog nursing home corridors in drool-drenched wheelchairs! Since conflict sells papers, the media perpetuates the myth of intergenerational competition, a zero-sum scenario in which the old benefit at the expense of the young. Older workers are criticized for not making way for the next generation, but labeled as leeches if they retire. The economic value of their many contributions (financial assistance, caregiving, babysitting, and countless volunteer services, to name a few) goes unacknowledged.
We call people out for racist and sexist attitudes, but few blink at the suggestion that older people are befuddled or disabled or dependent or creepy, even repulsive. After all, that’s how people over 65 tend to be depicted in entertainment and advertising (if they make an appearance at all). At the other end of the spectrum are the tanned, silver-maned couples in Cialis or portfolio-management ads, playing tennis or waltzing shipboard. That, too, is a stereotype. And as media researcher George Gerbner observed, “Representation is of course not just a question of numbers . . . [but] of the variety of roles, opportunities, life chances, and images most people see.”
The truth is of course more nuanced. Some 70- and 80-year-olds are close-minded, miserly, disorganized, cranky — just like some people of all ages. Older people are extremely heterogeneous, a fact that tends to be obscured by clichés about “what old people are like” but which is a cornerstone of gerontology — and blindingly obvious in hindsight. Shaped by a lifetime of diverse experiences, why wouldn’t any group of 75-year-olds be far more diverse than a group of, say, twelve-year-olds?
Another significant demographic change is that older people are way healthier; living longer doesn’t mean adding diminished and dependent years in the home stretch. According to the MacArthur Foundation’s Successful Aging study, “The common view of old age as a prolonged period of demanding support from an ever-diminishing number of overworked providers is wrong. The truth about older men and women is much more encouraging.” In fact, the vast majority of older Americans live independently, enjoy their lives, and are healthy until they come down with the illness that does them in. But I didn’t know that when I embarked on this project.
It was a chance comment from my mother-in-law, Ruth Stein, that got me started. Following their demographic destiny, she and Bill had tied the knot as soon as he returned from piloting a B-17 in World War II, and kicked off the baby boom a year later with Bob’s arrival. In their mid 80’s, they were reps for a slew of book publishers. Every so often, usually after a 12-hour stint at a trade show, Ruth would admit to being bushed. That was my cue to chide her: “It’s no time to retire, Ruth — you’ve got children to support!”
“I’ve got a book I want you to do,” she said over dinner one night. “It’d be about something people ask us all the time: ‘So when are you going to retire?’” Since I couldn’t imagine swapping keyboard for shuffleboard and was hoping that not too many ghastly compromises lay ahead, a project about work in late life appealed deeply. I started interviewing, reading, and recording the process in blog form. When I told people that I was writing about people 80 and up, they’d ask, “But isn’t eighty awfully, uh, old? Don’t you want to include people in their 70s?”
No, I didn’t. I wanted that lift of the eyebrow. I wanted my subjects to seem old to those for whom 70 is no longer such a distant shore. While this book is about the generation born into the Depression years, the 80-and-up-year-olds known as the “old-old” demographic terms, I’m writing it for my cohort: the 73 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, who will be joining their elders in record numbers. And I bet that it wouldn’t be hard to find people all kinds of interesting things.
Sure enough, finding people to interview — many in their 90’s, along with a 101-year-old industrial designer with a list of commissions — turned out to be the easiest thing about the whole project. My criteria were that the employment, paid or unpaid, had to involve a fixed commitment to a specific enterprise: doing or making something on a regular schedule. I called it Staying Vertical because that’s been a saying of mine for years. It’s an exhortation to get up, keep up, stay out late — to resist inertia. It’s not a physical position, it’s a state of mind.
Although only some of the people I’ve interviewed work because they have to, all work because they want to. Work gives them a sense of purpose; it bolsters social networks; and it holds senescence at bay by keeping them mentally and physically active. Retirement is barely in their lexicon. They plan to keep working until they can’t anymore. Labor trends indicate that they’ll have more and more company. More women over 60 are staying in the job market, and after a 30-year decline, the proportion of men started inching up in the last few years. That was before the economy tanked, at which point four out of five boomers had already declared their intention to keep working and earning in retirement. (What, then, does retirement become?) Of necessity, the numbers will grow.
Working is not essential to a good old age. The key is remaining engaged in the world, whatever form that engagement takes, whether teaching or traveling or talking with friends. Not all baby boomers will be able to work into their eighth and ninth decades, and not all will want to. But all of us, I bet, would like the choice. We may want to work fewer hours, or do something different, but we’re not prepared to hand over the wheel and scuttle into the back seat. I figured that these octo- and nonagenarians could teach me a lot about the traits and circumstances that made for a happy — or at least non-dismal — old age.
I was right about that, but a lot of surprises lay in wait. The more people I talked to and the more research I did, the greater the discrepancy that emerged between my preconceived notion of late life and the reality. The belief that aging is an inherently grim and immutable process was simply wrong.
It took a while for the scared boomer in me to catch up with the social scientist, but when the two converged it was exhilarating. It came in the form of a wildly counter-intuitive realization: the more you know about growing old, the less terror it holds. I arrived at this epiphany on my own, as each of us must, because it’s a leap of faith in the face of a tsunami of ingrained prejudices. That made it all the more exhilarating to encounter in other writing about “the new old age,” including Betty Friedan’s splendid tome, The Fountain of Age. “What was everyone so afraid of?” Friedan wondered, once she’d gotten over her heebie jeebies about turning 60 and done a little legwork.
Friedan and I aren’t anomalies. A 2004 survey conducted by AARP and researchers at the University of Southern California established that “less knowledge about aging is associated with greater anxiety about the aging process.” Most respondents (89%) were aware that older Americans can learn, are either working or want work to do (88%) and feel healthy (79%) — all fairly accurate. Yet misconceptions abound. More than two thirds thought that the majority of older people are “senile,” “pretty much alike,” and “have no capacity for sex.” No wonder they’re nervous! “Contrasting these myths with scientific fact leads to the conclusion that our society is in persistent denial of some important truths about aging,” write the authors of the MacArthur Foundation Study Successful Aging. The reality, as a number of recent studies show, is that the highest levels of contentment occur at the beginnings and the ends of our lives.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s more fun to be young. Old age involves losses — of acuity, of mobility, of choices — that each of us must acknowledge, internalize, cope with as best we can. Many older people turn inexplicably to puffy white footwear. Skin sags. Joints ache. Friends and family fall away and then we follow, in that order if we’re lucky. But while I’m a long way from coming to terms with mortality, the getting-older bit is looking better all the time. Some data points:
• Only 5 percent of people over the age of 65 live in nursing homes, and that percentage has been falling for at least ten years.
• Disability rates continue to decline for persons 65 and older. Already over half of the old-old, those over 85, report no significant physical disability whatsoever and require no assistance in their everyday lives.
• Our fears of Alzheimer’s disease are hugely exaggerated. It is indeed a terrible disease, but current estimates are that no more than ten percent of all elderly people (aged 65 to 100 or more), are Alzheimer’s patients. Incidence does increase in those over 85.
• Older people can and do learn new things, and learn them well. Aspects of brain function decline with age, but contrary to long-held assumptions, current research shows the aging brain continues to form new synapses. We already know that even brains with Alzheimer’s-type abnormalities can work just fine if people draw on what neuroscientists have termed “cognitive reserve.” It’s there if we build it.
• Genes account for only around 25% of our health and longevity. Environment and behavior are far bigger players. Higher levels of education, and thus income, correlate with better health at any age.
• The oldest Americans are the happiest. A three-decade study of 28,000 people conducted by Yang Yang, a University of Chicago sociologist, showed older Americans to be the happiest at every stage, and other studies confirm her findings.
Since Darwin’s done with us once our kids reach breeding age, these new years take place in what biologist P.B. Medawar has poetically termed “the evolutionary shadow.” This means that we do not know the biological limit to human age. Gray hair and reading glasses remind us that the machine will fail “like a cheap car” — the cheery analogy of Dr. Rudi Westendorp, head of gerontology at the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands. “But because this process is not programmed,” he explains, “you can do something about it.” To attribute physical decline to age itself obscures the fact that disease is often the cause. As with heart disease, the model is shifting to prevention (not smoking, a healthy diet, regular exercise, mental activity). Many of the conditions that manifest themselves in late life are caused by behavior and environmental factors over which we have some control. The habits we settle into by midlife will reward or haunt us later on. It is health — not youth — to which we should aspire.
Eighty may not be the new sixty, as MSNBC chirped in a story about octogenarians who run companies, but eighty is very different than it was a century ago for the small percentage that lived to see it. This changing landscape demands that we rethink our notion of what it’s like to grow old in the 21st century. As Dr. Robert Butler, who coined the term “ageism” in 1969, puts it, “The social construct of old age, even the inner life and the activities of older persons, is now subject to review and revision.”
Taking advantage of these new decades means facing the realities of aging and death — something we youth-obsessed Americans are lousy at despite the wealth of evidence that wisdom and serenity are grounded in that acceptance. The sooner we start doing some hard thinking, the better for everyone: our kids, who learn by example; our elders, who merit neither pity nor condescension; and ourselves.
Working through the denial is liberating. It’s the first step in confronting our own, internalized ageism: the little voice that mutters reflexively, “Put me out of my misery” when we see an incapacitated older person, or depict old people who enjoy sex or scuba diving as anomalies rather than as members of a cohort as heterogeneous as any other. As Pogo put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Coming to terms with our own preconceived notions lays the groundwork for taking aim at ageist thinking in society at large: rejecting the equation of personal worth with physical vitality or earning power, and taking aim at prejudiced attitudes, discriminatory practices, and institutional policies that perpetuate stereotypes about old age and older people (to paraphrase Butler’s three elements of ageism). After all, we’re setting the stage, politically and logistically, for the final stage of our own lives — and for a more humane and egalitarian society.
Looking honestly at what lies ahead engages a critical paradox: accepting the inevitable strictures of old age is the crucial precursor to seeing where each of us can hold his or her ground against the tide. In Sister Age M. F. K Fisher says it beautifully: “What is important is that our dispassionate acceptance of attrition be matched by a full use of everything that has ever happened in all the long wonderful-ghastly years to free a person’s mind from his body . . . to use the experience, both great and evil, so that physical annoyances are surmountable in an alert and even mirthful appreciation of life itself.”
The grace with which we manage these transitions depends upon our ability to adapt. The better we do, the looser the grip of the underlying fact that we’re rounding the third turn on the track. Fisher again: “Parts of the Aging Process are scary, of course, but the more we know about them, the less they need be. That is why I wish we were more deliberately taught, in early years, to prepare for this condition. It would leave a lot of us freed to enjoy the obvious rewards of being old.” From a distance, the rewards are less obvious than the terrors, but they are real.
But don’t take it from me. Listen to what the 80- and 90+-year-olds that I’ve met have to say in the pages that follow. They’re unusual, but less so than they used to be, and subsequent generations will be joining them in record numbers. A surprising percentage works full-time or close. Some have been doing one thing all their lives while others have reinvented themselves countless times — an ever more common pattern in a world of downsizing, outsourcing, and “encore careers.”
They have all their marbles, the one absolute prerequisite for an engaged old age. But it’s worth keeping in mind that many suffer from chronic or degenerative conditions, not least my inspiration, the Steins. Injured when his bomber was shot down over occupied Belgium, Bill had his third knee replacement one month before turning 88, while polio plus scoliosis have rendered Ruth unable to walk more than a few feet without assistance. Instead of stopping, they swim, do physical therapy, and run a home office where clients come to them. “Because I am rather physically impaired I cannot do a lot of the things I would want to,” Ruth pointed out. “Golf has never been an option. We would do a lot more traveling.” She sees their disabilities as a reason to keep working rather than a justification to put their feet up.
No one reaches 80 without experiencing grief and loss, often on a daunting scale. The people I’ve interviewed are no exception. Born into the Depression, they stuck out bad marriages, wars, illnesses, and the deaths of spouses and children with fortitude and stoicism. Having come of age before therapy went mainstream, many are not particularly self-aware. Few are brilliant, but many have achieved a particular, inadvertent wisdom. Some are interested in the world around them and others less so, but all feel they’re contributing to it. Whether believers or atheists, most are not afraid of death. They feel lucky, content with what they have, and grateful for whatever time remains. “Come on in,” they’re saying. “The water’s fine.”
Age is a frontier and these are our scouts — hence the “dispatches” in my subtitle. They are the vanguard of the “new old age” that awaits my indulged and potent generation. We challenged racism and sexism in the ‘60s. Now, as we head into our own 60s, we owe it to ourselves and to a planet whose population is aging at unprecedented rate, to challenge ageism as well.