This weekend I presented my work for the first time, at the annual conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, a group of social scientists and practitioners whose work I greatly respect. The title of the talk was “The Value of Work in Late Life,” but I pulled a slight bait-and-switch, because it turns out that this project isn’t about work any more. It’s about ageism, starting with our own internalized biases. Here’s the ten-minute talk I gave:
For several years I’ve been working on a project called Staying Vertical, about people over 80 who work. It’s timely, since most Americans — even those who can still afford to retire — plan to continue working into their 70s and even their 80s.
Finding people to interview turned out to be the easiest part, blue-collar as well as white- collar. Some of them are:
• Zola Hellmyer, who works the busiest register at a Walmart in St. Louis because “I can’t stand just standing around gossiping.”
• Gemze Delappe: choreographer and muse of Agnes De Mille, who says of her life, “I danced straight on through.”
• Harold Burson, public relations pioneer, who’s proudest of getting the Confederate flags out of Ole Miss stadium.
• Lounge pianist Irving Fields, who used to lie to booking agents about his age but says, “Now that I’m in my 90s I flaunt it.
I learned a lot about the benefits of working:
• It builds the social networks that are essential to aging well. Almost all of these older workers identified their favorite thing about their jobs as “the people.”
• Work exercises brain and body. Sam Adelo’s work as a court interpreter in Santa Fe “takes about 19 cognitive steps,” he says. “It’s like exercising a muscle.”
• It provides income. A troubleshooter at Boeing for 60 years, Angelo Mucci no longer needs his salary to live on and delights in paying two grandchildren’s grad school tuition instead.
• Work staves off depression, and builds competencies: at 86, industrial psychologist Stuart Atkins says, “I’m at the peak of my talents.”
• And work contributes to a sense of identity and purpose. Ophthalmologist Eleanor Faye told me “I meet with patients in despair, they can’t read, and they still have work to do. I keep them going, I really do, and I take pride in that.
No big surprises here. But a strange thing happened as my research progressed: The more people I talked to and the more I read, the greater the discrepancy that emerged between my preconceived notion of late life and the reality.
Here are some things I learned that did surprise me:
• 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. Already over half of the ‘oldest old,’ — 85 and up — can go about their everyday activities without any personal assistance.
• Our fears of Alzheimer’s disease are hugely exaggerated. Current estimates are that no more than ten percent of all elderly people (aged 65 to 100 or more) are Alzheimer’s patients.
• Older people can and do learn new things, and learn them well. The aging brain continues to form new synapses.
• Genes account for only around 25% of our health and longevity. Environment and behavior are far bigger players.
• The oldest Americans are the happiest. A three-decade University of Chicago study of 28,000 people showed the highest levels of contentment occur at the beginnings and the ends of our lives. Other studies confirm this “U-shaped happiness curve.”
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 counter-intuitive realization: the more you know about growing old, the less terror it holds. “Our society is in persistent denial of some important truths about aging,” write the authors of the MacArthur Foundation Study Successful Aging. It goes on to say, “The truth about older men and women is much more encouraging.”
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, to age 77. Sixty isn’t the new 40, but it is the new 60. Living longer does not mean adding dependent years in the home stretch. What’s emerging is an entirely new developmental stage between midlife and late life. It’s analogous to the invention of adolescence at the turn of the 20th century.
Yet, despite how much the baby boom generation has at stake, few of us have begun to come to terms with the prospect of these additional decades. Taking advantage of them means facing the realities of aging and death — something we youth-obsessed Americans are lousy at. And while we’re far more healthy and active than our predecessors, we are not built to last. Frailty, dementia, and pain are terrifying prospects.
Who doesn’t flinch at the ugly aluminum devices that help us stay vertical (or close): the cane, the screechy walker, the lurking wheelchair? Ruth Friendly drives into the Columbia School of Journalism every day but has to ask colleagues to walk more slowly. She doesn’t like it. Skin sags. Joints ache. Hearing goes. “Two student evaluations said, “Why don’t you get a hearing aid,” reports NYU film professor George Stoney, “which I promptly did.” Eyesight fails: Nearly blind from macular degeneration, 101-year-old industrial designer Eva Zeisel uses her fingers to shape balsawood models.
No one reaches 80 without experiencing grief and loss, often on a daunting scale. When I asked Friendly whether it was worse to lose a beloved husband in an instant, or a second one to a series of strokes, she said, “they’re both worse.” While the getting-older bit is looking better all the time, I’m a long way from coming to terms with mortality.
The grace with which we accept these transitions depends upon our ability to adapt to diminishing abilities and options. The more honestly we face them, the looser the grip of the underlying fact that we’re rounding the third turn on the track. Working through the denial is liberating. It’s the first step in confronting our own, internalized ageism: the ugly inner voice that mutters reflexively, “Put me out of my misery,” when we see an incapacitated older person. After all, we call people out for racist and sexist attitudes, but few blink at the suggestion that older people are befuddled or decrepit or even repulsive.
If we’re squeamish about facing our own prejudices, our own aging and death, how can we expect more of our government? It really isn’t interested in looking after our frailest citizens. At Ground Zero there was an evacuation plan for pets, but not for nursing homes. There are no national standards for professional in-home caregivers. There’s no federal elder abuse policy. Society shies away from these issues because, as individuals, so do we.
Let’s look at just a few of the implications of this new longevity for American families:
caregiving: Caregiving is hard on families, especially for the “sandwich generation.” Some 2.4 million Americans, mostly women, provide unpaid care at home for some 5 million older people. The new healthcare bill does set up the first national long-term care insurance program, and benefits can be paid to a family member or neighbor.
— We should reform Social Security to give caregiving credits.
poverty: The income of almost a quarter of the over-65 population is less than $39/day. This is very much a women’s issue. Women over 65 are twice as likely to be poor as men, because they earn less, they’re penalized for time out of the labor force, and because Social Security was designed for single-breadwinner, married couples. This makes single women 4 to 5 times more likely to be poor than married couples, and Social Security is virtually all that many have to live on.
— Social Security should be reformed to remedy the advantage given to couples.
the workplace: We all know 50 year olds who can’t find work, and not just because of the recession. This takes a terrible toll on them and their families, and it’s bad for the country, which faces worsening “seasoned talent” shortages. Yet age-discrimination complaints are skyrocketing, and the Supreme Court recently made it harder for employees age 40 and older to sue their bosses. This despite evidence that that older workers are dependable, punctual, capable, and committed to quality, especially when given the chance to advance on the job. The right to work as long as you are competent should be considered a civil right. What older workers want in addition is flexible hours and the opportunity to work part-time – just like working parents.
Lastly, the family itself: Thinking big, humans are transitioning from a three- to a four-generation species. The new longevity offers new family combinations and two healthy generations to care for dependents at either end of the spectrum.
The new longevity also offers an opportunity to revise the traditionally tripartite life cycle. Betty Freidan put it well in The Fountain of Age: “The aging population has to use its demographic clout to restructure work and education (and combinations of the two) to serve people at every stage of life — enabling those who wish to remain active in a global marketplace of commodities and ideas.”
It’s an enormous and exhilarating challenge. We should look at it through what Donna Butts of Generations United calls “a lens of family and community … [and] should make decisions the way a family would.” We should reject the zero-sum thinking that pits the interests of the old against young and that gives us “greedy geezers” and “death panels.” We should consider how public policy affects all generations, and look at every generation as a resource.
The baby boom generation made this country think differently about race and gender. In the extra years that have been bestowed to us, we ought to be able to do the same about age.