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The importance of taking the subtle language of agism out of circulation;
The personal tragedy and the irrationality of age discrimination;
Why we are our own role models (nobody has ever admitted to getting old);
Ways in which old people are ignored, and Nothing changes overnight (particularly entrenched attitudes).
I. The Language, Beliefs and Experience of Aging
Julia Valentine: Ronni, thank you so much for your time today. I spent quite a bit of time on your blog, and I must say that you’ve changed my mind. One of the ways in which you have changed my mind is that I will never say anything like “feel young” again. You’ve really convinced me! My first question is, when an eighty-seven year old friend of mine says, “I’m eighty-seven years young,” what is your reaction to that?
Ronni Bennett: The word "young" that I object to—aside from the agism connected with it—is entrenched to mean that somebody doesn’t behave in a way that is the agist view of old people. I go both ways on that word. I do not like to hear [someone say], “I’m eighty-seven years young.” On the other hand, what she really means is, “I’ve still got all my buttons!” It is language that is pounded into us—that young is good and old is bad—so that even old people use that language because that is what they have heard all their lives, even though it perpetuates the idea that young is good and old is bad.
Julia: I think that your blog TimeGoesBy.net is setting a standard for taking subtle agism out of circulation. Why is it important for us to get our language straight?
Ronni: Because language affects beliefs. If you hear every day of your life—in hundreds of newspapers and on television—the subtle references that keep perpetuating the idea that to get old is a terrible thing, you will believe that. One of the words I dislike the most is “still.” It is used in news stories about old people in this way, “at eighty-seven, she still cooks her own breakfast.” Why shouldn’t she? You wouldn’t say about a young person, “at 16 she can still dress herself.” People do not even think about it when they write this, because they have heard it all their lives. It keeps perpetuating the idea that old is decrepit, frail, not too bright, and it affects so many other areas of our lives, when everyone believes that old is a bad thing to be.
Julia: When I think about equating everything that is good with being young, and all the negative qualities (that any teenager might have) with being old, I have to ask myself this question: how could we have been so duped?
Ronni: I am not sure it is duped, but I think that a lot of it has happened in my lifetime, I am sixty-nine. I just had a new thought that I’ve never had before: the idea of teenage years as a stage of life is only a hundred years old. Before that, throughout history, people were children and then adults. In tribal worlds there were then elders. There were only three stages of life. Now, about a hundred years ago, we stuck adolescence in there, in between childhood and adulthood.
Then, in our lifetime, youth culture seems to have taken over media. I think celebrity culture adds to that, too. It grew from there, and it starts in the cradle. When you begin to understand language, the offhand language used in print in everyday life continually reinforces the idea that youth is the gold standard of life, and it is not. I suspect, although I haven’t seen any evidence yet, that as the baby boomers start getting really old, the older boomers are coming up on sixty-five in a year or so, they’re not going to let the language continue. But, I don’t see a lot of evidence of it yet.
If you google the word aging you get millions of returns. The vast majority of those returns will be about anti-aging. It will be about potions and snake oil that is supposed to make you younger. I got an email last week, of some new pills of Resveratrol, claiming that these pills reverse aging. There is nothing in the world anywhere that will reverse aging, period. But there are millions of ads out there for all kinds of potions.
I attended the Age Boom Academy at the International Longevity Center in New York last year. The major scientist who is working with Resveratrol in the lab made the astonishing statement that although Resveratrol appears to extend healthy life into old age in mice ... you would have to drink one thousand bottles a day of red wine to get any effect that we’re seeing in mice. My point is that aging that is primarily being written about is anti-aging, staying young forever. I like being old, and given that I cannot do anything about it, I certainly do not want to be sitting here until the day I die hating who I am.
Julia: Certainly. Do you think most people are in denial, and then employ magical thinking to get out of it?
Ronni: Well, yes. I don’t know numbers, but given the amount of advertising for plastic surgery, wrinkle creams, Botox, all of those other things that people pump into themselves, yes, I guess a lot of people are in denial. They believe that to get old is a terrible thing. I think to get old is a wonderful time of life. I am smarter, I feel better about myself, I’m not as afraid of so many things that I was when I was younger. I don’t worry as much. I have a lifetime of information that I seem to be putting together in different ways than I could when I was younger. And by younger I mean fifty, you know. It’s a wonderful time of life.
II. Retirement and Age Discrimination
Julia: One of the reasons I started thinking about aging was because my experience of getting older was positive, but the messages about it were negative. I was puzzled by the cognitive dissonance. When I think about what the media portrays, it seems that we oscillate between the extremes. What is a healthy, balanced attitude towards aging?
Ronni: The ones you are talking about, the eighty year olds who climb Mount Everest, ex-presidents who go bungee jumping, or somebody jumping out of an airplane—somebody I read referred to them as supergezers. Early on in my blog I reported on a few of them. I don’t anymore, except to question it. The very few people who can run a marathon at seventy-five or eighty are extremes, the outliers. What they are doing is not something ordinary people can aspire to, nor could they when they were thirty. There’s so much reporting on them it feels like I’m supposed to aspire to that. If an old person isn’t running a marathon or climbing Mount Everest, they are somehow slacking off. So, I do not report on them anymore.
A healthy attitude is the same as it was at previous times in our lives. Little kids always want to be bigger. When you ask them how old they are, they hold up their hand, and they say, “I’m five years old and one half!” What’s funny is that when people get really old, let’s say past eighty-five, they start to do that again! I think a healthy attitude about getting old is that it is just another time of life.
I got curious about it one day. I was about fifty-five. When I looked around the office of about thirty people I worked with, I realized for the first time in my life, that I am the oldest person in this room by decades, and some of the people I worked with could be my grandchildren. I realized I knew nothing about what getting old was going to be. It’s not discussed, except those extreme examples in the media. What is it supposed to be like? Who are the role models? There are none. You get extreme role models of Hollywood actresses that at seventy still look fifty because they have a lot of surgery. And what am I supposed to do?
I was forced to retire at sixty-four, because of a bunch of layoffs where I was working. My younger friends who were laid off were getting jobs in six, eight, ten weeks. A year later, I had interviews and still did not have a job. It was very hard to say to myself that my working days were over, and now, six years later, I would be working still if I could be hired. Now we’ve got this recession that makes it hard for people at every age, and that’s a different problem. Nevertheless, age discrimination in the workplace begins at forty, and these days people do not get out of college until they are twenty-four, if they have taken graduate degrees. That gives you only fifteen years of good working life. That’s just nuts.
Julia: That is insane, because we expect to live for eighty-seven years.
Ronni: It’s just silly. Studies show that for women, age discrimination in the workplace can begin as young as thirty-five. It’s funny that the examples we have of people working well into their elder years are the same as the people jumping out of airplanes, they’re the extreme: a few CEOs of giant companies, Wall Street people who continue to work, but not ordinary people. We’re not allowed to work. One of the things I have been laughing about during the recession, laughing ruefully though, was that people who were laid off in their fifties realize that they are never going to work again. Aside from the personal tragedy of that, think of the experience that the country and business are not getting. It takes a long time to make a lot of mistakes and know better. Those people are valuable in the work place.
III. Role Models
Julia: They have a wealth of experience, knowledge, better social skills that develop with time. One thing you mentioned was role models. Who are your role models for aging well?
Ronni: I suppose it’s my great aunt Edith. Long before women were common in the workplace (she was born in 1885), she went to work and worked until she was seventy. She started out as a dancer when she was fifteen and became a businesswoman. I think if she had been born later she would have run a corporation, but she had responsible jobs in organizations.
She was just who she was. She had a lot of style, she was outspoken, she did what she wanted. I remember when she was well into her eighties, I was visiting once and we had gone to a vertical mall. She could not walk so well, or for any length of time by then, so she told me she would get coffee and I should do my shopping. I was gone about an hour and when I came back, I spotted her at a table with four or five teenagers. I go over there and they are all laughing, having a good time, some of them were making notes. They were four young college students just starting their freshman year. They were at the mall shopping for the apartment that they had rented, and she was giving them recipes and advice on the best things to buy that would serve them well. They became friends, these four young men and aunt Edith.
She is a wonderful example of just being who she is, open to whatever happens. She could not walk very well so she was quite willing to wait for me downstairs, and had a wonderful time. She’s who I want to be when I get that old. Who’s still active within the limitations of her physical problems, who’s still... there, I used that word! That’s a perfect example of how ingrained it is in all of us!
There is nobody whose name everybody would recognize that I can say was a role model. I think at my age, anyone who is getting old now, we are our own role models, unless you’ve got a relative like my aunt Edith. We don’t have someone to look to because nobody has ever admitted to getting old. Alright, Betty White, who is an actress in her eighties or close enough. I do not see show business people as models to me. Their life does not relate to mine at all.
IV. Ways in Which Old People Are Ignored
Ronni: One of the things I haven’t written about in a long time is that nobody designs clothes for older bodies. You don’t necessarily get fat when you get old, but your body changes shape. But there are no attractive clothes for that. There are a couple of catalogs I get that are sort of for older people, although they use models that are too young in the photographs. But then they cover them with junk, a whole lot of cheap embroidery, cloth flowers stuck on the shoulder, things like that. Nobody has addressed the issue of how to make attractive clothes for older woman. But all you have to do is look at any of those award shows. People like Judy Dench, when she’s all dressed up for a fancy evening, she’s not wearing form fitting dresses like the twenty-something actresses. Someone is designing something very attractive for her, but that works with an older body. Try to find that in a store, you can’t! We’re stuck with whatever we can find and adapt to our older bodies. Old people are ignored in a hundred different ways that matter like that.
V. Nothing Changes Overnight, Particularly Entrenched Attitudes
Julia: Ronni, are you optimistic about our ability to change the system?
Ronni: You have to be optimistic, you can’t not be.
Julia: How do you remain optimistic that change will come?
Ronni: I have my down days, now more about how the country is being run as opposed to elders. You keep pounding away and things get better a little at a time. Absolutely nothing changes overnight, particularly entrenched attitudes. You pick away, and pick away, and pretty soon people join you. When I started TimeGoesBy.net, I couldn’t find a single blog about aging; there were none. Now there are more and more, not a lot but they grow a little bit at a time, each making different kinds of points, and each gathering readers. A little bit at a time, things change.