Growing old isn’t new. What’s new is how many people routinely do it. The institutions around us were created when lives were shorter, and the culture hasn’t had time to catch up. The way we respond to this demographic shift has critical social implications.
A good friend passed on a DVD of my This Chair Rocks talk to a filmmaker acquaintance, who had a serious critique. She found the talk compelling and called me “a smart and wise cheerleader for this next passage,” but continued, “What I felt missing in her talk was death. She moved quickly over it, saying that her big surprise was how little older folks feared death. I think she is wrong, but she has been immersed in this research far longer than I have. I think we [all] fear death; it is the great unanswered question.
People often suggest that I give a TED talk, and of course I hope this opportunity comes my way. In the meanwhile, I searched all TED talks tagged with aging. Nine come up:
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.
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.
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.”
It’s always good to encounter work that pushes back against the prevailing “it’s-all-downhill-from-here” narrative, and Wendy Lustbader’s Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older does just that.