Always asking, “What’s next?” “Why?” and “Why Not?” solo, sassy / Barbara Rady Kazdan / @achievingchange / loves back roads travel and forward thinking. Find this empty nester and lifelong change agent enjoying her weekly writing workshops and open-hearted friends in Silver Spring, Maryland, en route to far-flung family, and online at here.
Truth or Dare: make 10 statements that are true of all so-called “seniors.” No easy task, right?
But as the world began grappling with a virulent virus, suddenly my gray-haired friends and I found ourselves lumped into that ill-defined at-risk group labeled “seniors” by medical experts, reporters and talking heads. Everyone at or approaching mid-life seemed to agree that my friends and I, like motherless baby birds, needed their help. They spoke in hushed tones about watching out for “our seniors.” In the midst of all the talk about “our elderly” – sensitive, yes, but condescending, too – a friend in her 70s said, “I’ve never felt ‘elderly.’ I think that should apply to 85+.” I wonder if she’ll feel that way at 85.
I’ve written about this “one-size-does-not-fit all issue before, in “Don’t Lump Me In,” an essay I wrote years ago. Nothing’s changed, so I’m speaking up again. Now, in the midst of a plague, let’s get a grip on reality: People don’t age at the same pace. When you visualize someone 80 or older, do you picture a fragile, enfeebled individual on the sidelines of mainstream society? Now consider Nancy Pelosi, Colin Powell, and Warren Buffett; or Dr. Anthony Fauci, about to hit that milestone.
Of course the frail elderly merit concern and assistance. But old age is not like infancy
Of course the frail elderly merit concern and assistance. But old age is not like infancy; we buy a “onesie” for a baby with a high degree of confidence that it will fit. Not so with us oldies. We come in all shapes and sizes, with a myriad of life experiences and a wide range of competencies. Some have lost a step but have much to offer; some have fallen behind; many are forging ahead, lending their expertise to non-profits, transforming their neighborhoods into cooperative villages, serving on government councils, tutoring children, helping non-native speakers learn English…the list is long. Society has a funny way of viewing its “elder statemen.” Does the Catholic world want a middle-aged pope? Are we glad Tom Brokaw’s still offering his perspectives on the news? If supreme court justices had to retire at 65, among those whose wisdom we’d have missed are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thurgood Marshall, and – may she live and be well – Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At 103, ecologist David Goodall was Australia’s oldest scientist. He remained heavily involved in his field long after he stopped teaching, editing Ecosystems of the World, a 30-volume book series, in his last years. Citing risks to his health, when the university tried to force the centenarian to work from home, he refused, noting, “People are staying healthier for longer, and if a person wants to work and is able to work and contribute then I think each case should be judged on its merits.”
Let’s be clear: age is not a number.
Let’s be clear: age is not a number. When DC’s transit authority deemed me eligible for a senior card I was directing a national non-profit, working 60 hours a week, traveling the country, planning events and speaking at conferences. A grandson born back then is driving now. He’s changed a lot. So have I. Another grandchild is heading to college. Guess who edited her college essays? The grandma who discovered a flair for writing as her first career was winding down, and now studies the craft and “works” as a writer, without a paycheck or benefits but with talented colleagues, some published authors.
Even when the years take a toll that sends many to society’s sidelines, many others pass 65 with jaw-dropping flair – think Norman Lear, my personal hero, who’s creating new TV projects at 97, and stays engaged in People for the American Way, the organization he founded to challenge the religious right. At 86, Jane Goodall is still traveling the world, urging people to take action on behalf of all living things and our planet. She continues to serve as an inspiration and role model, while building a global organization that will carry on the work.
When you think of older people and aging, what comes to mind? Are they helping others or receiving help? Are they actively engaged in life or biding their time, most often alone? Do you picture them as the power source of the volunteer workforce, the mom and pop still running the corner store, the college instructor, or the lonely, infirm recipients of meals on wheels, nursing and social services?
When you think of older people and aging, what comes to mind? Are they helping others or receiving help?
Both images are true. Why can’t we address the needs of active elders for meaningful work and purposeful community engagement and perhaps even engage that still vibrant cohort in helping those struggling through their so-called golden years?
Consider this: On July 5, 2018 the Washington Post reported the highest number on record of Americans 85 and older working full time. Reporter Andrew Van Dam explains:
Baby boomers and their parents are working longer as life expectancies grow, retirement plans shrink, education levels rise and work becomes less physically demanding. Labor Department figures show that at every year of age above 55, U.S. residents are working or looking for work at the highest rates on record.
Perhaps society will erase the arbitrary line that pushes people out of the workforce at one particular chronological age. I’m not holding my breath till that happens. At the very least, in the spirit of “don’t judge a book by its cover,” let’s update our workplace policies and social mores to allow individuals to engage at their own pace.
In my field of non-profit leadership, when I celebrated my 65th birthday, younger wannabees were impatient for me to step aside. Was I ready? No. But I left a job I loved. Now, a decade later, I’m glad I don’t have to commute 2 hours a day to a demanding job, bring work home with me, even dream about it. But why did it have to be all or nothing? In the midst of a pandemic, no one checked the age of the retired doctors, nurses and medical workers who reported for work – over 50,000 in New York City alone. Surely many of the patients they serve are as old or older than they are. So there we have the dichotomy: some so-called seniors helping; others needing their help.
And those who need help – during a pandemic or when life returns to some version of normal – are not blank slates. At Live Oaks in Oakland, California, a pioneer who’s been changing the culture of elder care facilities for years created an “institution run by the inmates” – the residents make the administrative decisions, including hiring and firing the director. Their guiding principle is this definition of an elder:
An Elder is a person who is still growing, still a learner, still with potential whose life continues to have within it promise for and connection to the future.
Gerontologist Dr. Bill Thomas describes a duality that occurs in late life: a person can grow intellectually and contribute to society in new ways while also needing an extra measure of support. Think for example, about youth leaving the parental nest. Some move into adulthood confidently, finding their way in the world with little or no support. Others flounder, needing various kinds of support as they stumble toward independence. Old age is no different. Betty Friedan famously said, “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” Most of us find new interests and social connections – some more easily than others, but we get there. Are age-related physical or emotional changes challenging? Sure. But, as noted by Mark Stibitch, Ph.D. in a medically reviewed article, “Embracing Aging with Positive Thinking,” (Verywell Mind, February 2020):
Findings show that positive thinking about aging can increase a person’s will to live, making them more resilient to illness and more proactive about health. Those with a positive outlook are also likely to experience less stress, reducing their likelihood of developing chronic diseases or disorders.
A song from the musical Pippin conveys what science is proving to be true about the importance of having a positive attitude and sense of humor about aging. The lead character sings, “Here is a secret I never have told. Maybe you’ll understand why. I believe if I refuse to grow old, I can stay young till I die.”
Please don’t tag me with a label that lumps me in with an enormous, amorphous generation-spanning segment of society.
Please don’t tag me with a label that lumps me in with an enormous, amorphous generation-spanning segment of society. At 66 I launched a consulting practice but switched gears when I discovered writing. Now, at 78, I’m writing essays for publication and working on a book. Is a cross-country move in my future? I’ll get back to you on that. I’m an individual who, with help if needed, will find my own path through old age.