That was the title of a really excellent piece in the Sunday New York Times the week that Ringo Starr celebrated turning 70 on stage at Radio City (and that gerontologist Robert Butler died) . Mercifully, the point of the article was that boomers need not aspire to rocking and rolling their way though old age — “a stereotype almost as enduring as ageism itself.”
When it comes to describing late life, the media predictably gravitates towards one extreme or the other. As Anne Basting, the director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center on Age and Community put it, “It’s either the stories of young-onset Alzheimer’s, or it’s the sky-diving grandmas. We don’t hear enough about the huge middle, which is the vast majority of folks.”
I thought about this when I met up with my college friend Virginia the other morning, still sweaty from her workout at the 92nd Street Y. She’d joined an aerobics class with a median age way north of 70, and gotten her butt kicked. “They knew all the steps!” she moaned. I salute her classmates, albeit slightly nervously, since I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have kept up for five minutes. But those nonagenarians in the know are the exceptions; many more are too frail to kick up their heels, or even to leave their homes. Yet that may be their version of “aging successfully,” as Robert Butler gently pointed out the first time I met with him, when I was starting out on a project about older workers. As valid as aerobics or onstage antics is “taking care of yourself — improving your balance, for example — in ways that help you be an independent citizen. These bear upon our concept of productivity, though not in our usual terms. And,” Butler added, “I’m not condemning of people who can’t take care of themselves.” Citing Butler and other gerontologists, the Times reporter wrote, “The risk, is that in celebrating the remarkable stories, we make those not playing Radio City, and certainly those suffering the diseases that often accompany old age, feel inadequate.” In looking for models of aging well, we need to consider the full spectrum of human activity and of engagement on every scale, private and public.
Those who do rock and roll through old age, the Clint Eastwoods and Betty Whites and many of the people profiled on this blog, deserve their good press. As outliers, they are brave and important. Then again — the implicit paradox of aging — if our society improves its attitude towards old age, there’ll be a lot more outliers.