One of the nice “keep up the good work” responses to my mass email last week came from my friend Robin. Her note went on to say that, “Even my mom, who just died at 95, wasn't an ‘old lady.’ Up until the last few days she really fought like a tiger . . . until her body just gave out. She simply died of old age.” She had lived with debilitating arthritis that set in in her late 40s, and “found a lot of meaning knitting baby items endlessly for the City of Hope and other charities.” Female, in her ninth decade, yet not an old lady?
In October 2010, demographer Philip Longman warned of a “’gray tsunami’ sweeping the planet." The phrase summons a frankly terrifying vision of a giant wave of old people looming on the horizon, poised to drain the public coffers, swamp the healthcare system, and suck the wealth of future generations out to sea. Journalists jumped on it, and “gray tsunami” has since become widely adopted shorthand for the socioeconomic threat posed by an aging population.
That offending phrase, and offend it did, appeared in a group email, the group being a bunch of college classmates who pass around photos of get-togethers and nostalgia-based music recommendations. The context was a boating foray in which food, fun, and alcohol were dispensed, the latter “not like gin and juice at DKE but as fun as we 60+ers could manage.”
In a society that still accepts ageism, denial takes many forms. It’s time to challenge this damaging bias against older adults and signal ‘the beginning of the end’ for ageist practices.
I’ve just attended the 2012 Age Boom Academy at the Columbia Journalism School: five days immersed in expert presentations on all aspects of aging, from healthcare reform to new developments in cognitive science. Excellent stuff, and more about it soon. The conference was sponsored by Atlantic Philanthropies, where Pulitzer-Prizewinning writer and New York Times veteran Jack Rosenthal is now a Senior Fellow. On the first day he asked us a question: what should we call the population we journalists are writing about?
Makes up for all the "stills" and the patronizing "25 years younger" quip. Some set of wheels, too.
In the pile of mail awaiting my return was the Fall Fashion issue of New York magazine, with a chic young woman on its cover. Yawn. “When it came time to cast the cover, we decided . . . to embrace a more expansive view of beauty,” writes Amy Larocca. “We came up with four cover subjects: an 81-year-old woman; a 19-year-old man who can pass quite convincingly as a woman; a mother and daughter . . ; and an old-fashioned yet newfangled muse.” Turned out that my copy just happened to sport the muse, and I stopped yawning.
Given my new tack, I thought it would be handy to understand the terms “geriatrics” and “gerontology” clearly. I knew that geriatricians were medical doctors, and Wikipedia puts the distinction clearly: “Geriatrics is a subspecialty of medicine that focuses on health care of the elderly. … The term geriatrics differs from gerontology, which is the study of the aging process itself.” But check out the how Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, 11th Ed., defines “geriatrics”