I’ve long been leery of the way wisdom is bandied about as an auto-accessory of old age, like spryness and shrinking. It doesn’t come with the territory, and its association with passivity has political repercussions. (See “against wisdom.”) But I just came across a wonderful definition from a San Francisco-based psychologist named Todd Finnemore, whom I interviewed in May, 2010, when I was investigating why medical practitioners choose to work with older populations.
I first encountered this phrase of geriatrician Joanne Lynn’s in 2008, andI liked it right off the bat. It’s a straightforward way to bridge the us/them divide, to connect empathically with our future selves. As Simone de Beauvoir put it: “If we do not know who we are going to be, we cannot know who we are: Let us recognize ourselves in this old man or in that old woman. It must be done if we are to take upon ourselves the entirety of our human state.”
I attended my first Age Boom Academy for journalists in 2008 and have returned several times since. This year was particularly rewarding, because now I’m able to put the speeches in context and because I’m honing in on a specific question: why are Americans, individually and collectively, so deaf to all but the negative messages about old age? After all, no one wants to die young, and no one disputes that the elimination of premature death is a remarkable achievement.
When I posted about becoming an “old person in training,” I was talking the talk. Participants in a three-hour sensitivity training program called Xtreme Aging are walking the walk. Handicapped by glasses that blur vision, cotton that blocks hearing, and gloves that impair dexterity, they find out how hard it can be to carry out routine tasks like dialing a cell phone or fishing change from a purse.