When we’re young, the masses on the far side of some distant threshold are Old. This habit – sorting people into Old or Young - sticks with us as we grow up, and it’s too bad. In an ageist society, the old/young binary consigns two thirds of the population to the less desirable side. The divide also belies experience, because it doesn’t exist. We’re always older than some people and younger than others. Age is a continuum.
I loved Up the Down Staircase, the story of an idealistic teacher learning the ropes in a tough urban high school, which came out in 1965 when I was just learning how to be a vile teenager. It turns out that Kaufman's still in the classroom, having been hired last year by Hunter College, her alma mater, to teach a course on Jewish humor.
This week the science section of the New York Times had a big feature on "Secrets of the Centenarians." It was full of the inevitable truisms about the secrets of a long life, this time summed up by Jane Brody as the Three R’s: resolution, resourcefulness and resilience. Importantly, it emphasized the fact that genes account for only about 20 to 30 percent of how long we live.
The poster child of this story on CNN.com today is Jack Borden, a 101-year-old attorney who practices fulltime in Weatherford, Texas. Retirement is the last thing on his mind. “I have to use a walker because of old age, so there's not much else I could do except sit in my house. Why do that when I can not only enjoy life, but help some people?" In Borden’s view, as in Bill and Ruth Stein’s, limited mobility is a catalyst for staying on the job rather than a reason to take a load off.
"There is no brick wall." So speaketh the noted demographer and biogerontologist Jay Olshansky, referring to the fact that humans have no “death genes”, nor “aging genes” that regulate the process of making you old. He was speaking at the 2009 Age Boom Academy at the International Longevity Center, tp which director Bob Butler was kind enough to welcome me back as an alumna. Some other compelling facts from Olshansky’s talk, which was titled “The Demographic Perspective on Longevity”:
Yesterday, eminent composer Elliott Carter celebrated his birthday with a concert at Carnegie Hall. It was also the premier of a 17-minute composition — and “not some chestnut written when he was a student in Paris in the 1930s,” as the front-page New York Times tribute pointed out. Carter wrote the piece last year, at 99, along with five others.
At 102, Ivy Bean has become the world’s oldest person on the social networking site. The New York Post’s “Weird but True” column published the news item, snarkily citing it as further proof “that Facebook has grown utterly uncool.” Gee, thousands of Facebook members disagree.
Renowned industrial designer Eva Zeisel is still at it at 101, despite macular degeneration that means she can only see bright objects, and only indistinctly. That hasn’t dimmed her sense of style: when I ask permission to take a photograph, she instructs me to move a pot of pink impatiens closer to pep up the background.