“We’re what we do, not what we no longer do.”

In preparation for a panel on November 29 at the Brooklyn Historical Society on “Old Myths: Confronting Aging and Ageism,” the organizers asked what each panelist would like to focus on. John Leland writes marvelously about aging for the New York Times, and every word of his eloquent answer rang true to me:

I’d like to talk about the myth that some people lead a full and happy life in old age, and some become frail and disabled, as if these were mutually exclusive categories. The truth is that many people who are frail and disabled lead full and happy lives, doing what all of us do at all stages of life: adjusting our lives to our capacities. This myth used to go by the name of “successful aging,” with the unstated codicil that there was “unsuccessful aging.” We don’t define ourselves by our disabilities in old age any more than we do when we’re younger. Yet parts of society, and maybe social science, tend to define people that way. We’re what we do, not what we no longer do. 

 The corollary to this myth is the belief that if I can’t do the things I do now, life isn’t worth living. It’s an obvious fallacy—people all over the world live worthwhile lives without doing whatever it is that you do—but it remains pervasive. 

 One thing uniting these two myths is a view of old age as a postscript tacked on at the end of life, rather than a continuation of what came before. But it’s a stage of life like any other, and we make decisions about how we want to live and who we are. It comes with more experience than previous stages, possibly more wisdom, less stress, and greater satisfaction from small rewards. As at previous stages, we have ways to make it richer or less rich—live with purpose, express gratitude, be generous—and unlike previous stages, it’s free of delusions that we’ll be happy if we get a better job or appease our terrible boss or get that new house.

This is a wonderful example of how those of us who think deeply about aging from a humanist perspective arrive at similar conclusions—the notion that ageism is discrimination against our own future selves, for example. I say that anyone who wakes up in the morning is aging successfully, and take issue with the class bias inherent in the term “successful aging.” (More here—question #6—about why I dislike the term so heartily.)  And I often quote geriatrician Bill Thomas’s take on what Leland calls “the belief that if I can’t do the things I do now, life isn’t worth living.”  In his book Second Wind, Thomas calls it the “tyranny of ‘still’—the delusion that as long as we’re still running up the stairs, or dating younger women, or whatever our “still” happens to be, we can stop the clock—as if that would be a good thing.

Leland’s book, Happiness Is a Choice You Make and Other Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old, will be out next year. (The title echoes a key finding of another age scholar, Karl Pillemer, in his Legacy Project: Happiness is a choice,a matter of personal agency, not a condition.) I look forward to reading it, and to meeting him and the other panelists soon. Ellen Cole, co-creator of 70 Candles, will be focusing on ageism in the workplace; Dr. Ronnie LoFaso, a geriatrician at Weill Cornell Medical center will talk about ageism as a women’s issue; Paula Span, “New Old Age” columnist for The New York Times, will be moderating; and I’ll be tackling as many myths as I can squeeze in.


One thought on ““We’re what we do, not what we no longer do.”

  1. Love Leland’s observation that the end of our interest or ability to engage one facet of life implies some general inability to engage other things. Nonsense. Choosing not to risk life and limb skiing frees up time to pursue my latent interest in making art. OK, there’s a risk of getting paint on my pants, but it doesn’t carry a $6K deductible, so who’s the dummy now?

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