Realizing that this project isn’t about work solved a big ethical problem, of which I’ve been aware since the get-go: the inference that if you can’t work or don’t want to, you aren’t a valuable member of society. That’s the last message I want to throw my weight behind, especially in our hyper-capitalist, work-ethic-driven society. Work turned out to be my safe entrée into distinctly unsafe territory – my “way in” to thinking about old age.
Jettisoning work as the organizing principle didn’t solve the problem of how to move forward. I didn’t want to seek out Especially Wise Elders because a) barf; and b) I want to write about ordinary people, not concert pianists or marathon runners. Besides, most people, and certainly most of the 80ers-and-up that I’ve met, are remarkable in one way or another. Yet the prospect of going back to them to talk about aging in general held little appeal. And few were particularly aware of ageism; they just kept plowing ahead.
So I’m going to leave my sample of octogenarians-qua-octogenarians as is, and interview those who work with older people, from demographers and nursing home managers to physical therapists and activists. I want to know whether they had to overcome an internal bias the way I did. If so, how’d they do it, and if not, why not? Then I’ll extrapolate from what they tell me to how we boomers can come to terms with the whole scary-but-way-less-scary-than-you-think prospect of growing old.
I’m looking for interesting people in the field, from policymakers to nursing-home managers and architects. Not just geriatricians; doctors, as most of us know, aren’t particularly self-aware. As my friend Hilary Siebens writes, “While caring deeply about older adults and our patients, we geriatricians may still be uncomfortable when it comes to our own aging.” I’m starting by sniffing out some of the academics whose work I keep bumping into, and by meeting with Rachel Drolet, a friend in nursing school who switched from emergency medicine to geriatrics. A lot of home health care aides work with the elderly because that’s where the money is (paltry though the wages are), but I doubt that’s what motivated Rachel.