January 2012

“When you become old, you become black.”

This afternoon I heard an interview with Walter Mosley on NPR. Among other things, he talked about how his latest novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, was informed by caring for his mother as she progressed through dementia.  The novel tells the story of a 91-year-old black man who’s beginning to deal with dementia himself, and of a young girl who comes into his life and tries to help. The interviewer had heard Mosley speak about caregiving at a recent conference, and recalled him saying  “a very interesting thing.  You said, ‘When you become old, you become black.’”
 
“Well it’s true.” Mosley responded. “The experience that black people have had in America forever, now anybody that’s poor, who gets really old, anybody who suffers some kind of traumatic physical ailment, they realize what it is to be pushed aside, to be ignored, to be isolated by a society that’s moving ahead only with what they believe is good.  If you’re old, you’re not good; if you’re paraplegic, you’re not good; if you’re black you’re not good.”

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Get a Midlife

That’s the witty title of an opinion piece by journalist Patricia Cohen, who’s just published a book called In Our Prime: The Invention of Midlife. I’ve been struck by how much her undertaking resembles the one I’ve set myself. The review in the New York Times opens with “An upbeat look at middle age? Patricia Cohen had her work cut out for her.” Sounds familiar.



Despite her dreary topic, nothing puts the author in “the grumpy mood she could so rightly claim,” the New York Times reviewer observes.  That’s because, as Cohen writes, a narrow focus on disease and dysfunction skews our perceptions of midlife, which “continues to be used as a metaphor for decline or stasis.” Sounds familiar.

According to Cohen, middle age was invented around the turn of the 20th century, when people first began living decades past their child-rearing years. Capitalism, vanity, and fear of mortality all swiftly combined to pathologize this grim development and commercialize the remedies. Cohen rejects this view, instead finding grounds for optimism in the better health, creative and economic productivity, and neuroplasticity of middle-aged Americans.  Sounds familiar.

The point, of course, is that all of the above applies to late life as clearly as to our middle years. Age is a continuum. Yet the punishing young/no-longer-young binary has enormous power.  “When does middle age begin?” was always the first question asked of Cohen, with everyone anxious to be on the right side of that imaginary line in the demographic sand.  

Middle age begins whenever we think it has, perhaps the first time we feel “not young,” or that death appears closer than childhood. Those markers are fluid, not chained to chronological age. As reviewer Laura Shapiro writes, “surely the elasticity of the concept [of middle age] is its best feature. After all,” she continues gloomily, “not much follows middle age except joining the ranks of the ancients — or, as geriatric specialists now say, ‘the old old.’”  I suppose that’s a backhanded way of saying age is a continuum, and guess what, Laura?  The view from there ain’t as bad as you think either.

Cohen’s other important point is that middle age is as much an invention as adolescence: “a cultural fiction, a story we tell about ourselves.” This script shapes us, but it’s also ours for the rewriting. She’s hoping today’s midlifers rise to that challenge.  In fact, this critical task of reimagining the life course falls to people of every age.  

Old age as staircase (maybe with one of those electric lifts)

One of the extensions of the TED brand is TEDWomen, and in this talk Jane Fonda describes her “third act.” She’s been thinking about aging for some time, and seems to be less conflicted than last spring, when Showbiz Spy reported “Jane Fonda Writing a Book about Plastic Surgery and Aging!” Her look is better too: love the wonky black specs.

Rejecting the old paradigm of life as an arch that peaks at midlife and then degrades, Fonda proposes a lovely new metaphor: old age as a staircase, “bringing us into wisdom, wholeness, and authenticity — not at all as pathology.” Like me, (and Betty Friedan and so many others), she was taken by surprise by the promise and pleasures of late life. “And guess what? This potential is not for the lucky few. It turns out most people over 50 feel better are less stressed, less hostile, less anxious. . . . even happier,” she says, adding wryly, “this is not what I expected, trust me.” Her forties were filled with apprehension, “but now that I’m smack dab in the middle of my own third act, I realize I’ve never been happier. . . . I realize that when you’re inside oldness instead of looking at it from the outside, fear subsides.”

Well put. And the fear Fonda refers to is the heart of the matter. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Coming of Age, “that fear of aging and death drives younger people to view their elders as a separate species, rather than as their own future selves.” As I’ve observed at length, this view of the old as “other” is what creates and sustains ageism. The remedy lies in disseminating a more accurate, and therefore more positive, picture of late life. Ideally we’d be enlightened during life’s first or second acts, instead of having to learn it by living it, from “inside oldness.”

Fonda proposes a different remedy: a life review in which we come to terms with our past and “finish the act of finishing ourselves.” A little woo woo for me, and not political enough.  But she does conclude by pointing out that older women are the largest demographic in the world.  “If we can go back, and redefine ourselves, and become whole, this will create a cultural shift in the world” says Fonda, “and it will give an example to younger generations so they can reconceive their own lifespan.”  There’s a vision I can get behind.

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