Two friends sent me links to a piece by James Ridgeway’s piece in the Guardian about the future of growing old in America.(Bottom line: not looking good. Better to be British, though not for long or by much.) What caught my eye wasn’t the greedy-geezer-rebutting statistics that millions of older Americans can expect to keep working or to be poor – or both. It was the first line: “In her remarkable book The Coming of Age, Simone de Beauvoir observed that fear of aging and death drives younger people to view their elders as a separate species, rather than as their own future selves.”
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When I first learned that the oldest Americans are the happiest, I was skeptical. I was still in the grips of the cultural bias that drowns out positive messages about late life. Also, happiness is notoriously difficult to measure. (Ask me right after I’ve eaten a chocolate chip cookie.) So I was intrigued when a counterintuitive factor behind contentment — at any age — surfaced in a recent study in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
Last month I went up to Boston to give a talk at the invitation of my friend Sarah Wright, founder and director of Social Work in Progress. The organization provides staffing for healthcare and eldercare organizations; the audience was a mix of administrators, directors of nursing and social workers; and I was honored to kick off its community education and professional development program series in Sarah’s beautiful new office in historic downtown Dedham.
photo credit: Gretje Ferguson Photography
Below, the transcript of my talk, to which people responded warmly. From my end, the best part was hearing from one person after another how gratifying they found working with older people.
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.
A friend pointed me towards this insightful article in the Economist about what I’ve been calling the “U-shaped happiness curve." (In Britspeak, that’s “U-bend.”) It attributes widespread corroboration to “a new branch of economics that seeks a more satisfactory measure than money of human well-being,” and observes that the U-bend shows up consistently and globally across 40 years’ worth of data, even when scientists control for cash, employment status and children.
On 9/11, the Animal Rescue League got into Ground Zero faster than Human Services. “They had a plan,” Robert Butler pointed out at the 2008 Age Boom Academy. “How many states practice their nursing home evacuation plans?” The highly safety-conscious Japanese do practice their drills, but it didn’t spare the lives of many elderly residents of tsunami-ravaged Shintona.
I encountered that chilling phrase, “age apartheid,” in a New York Times Magazine piece by Ted C. Fishman, whose book The Shock of Gray was published last month. He’s talking about China, whose older workers have been largely excluded from the economic boom. “No country sorts its population more ruthlessly by age,” writes Fishman.
Conventional wisdom holds that we become “more” who we are — virtues, vices and all — in old age. Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam, who’s been studying the aging process for over 25 years, has observed a very different phenomenon. “The mistake we make in middle age is thinking that good aging means continuing to be the way we were at 50. Maybe it’s not,” Tornstam told the Paula Span in The New Old Age blog.