Ashton Applewhite is a writer who has written a book called This Chair Rocks, and blogs about the advantages and disadvantages of aging in her blog Yo, Is this Ageist? In her writing, line of work, and speeches, Ashton shows that our preconceptions of aging might just be wrong, and that aging doesn’t need to be a disadvantageous, difficult process.
People with disabilities come in all ages, and almost all of us encounter some change in physical or mental capacity as we grow old. Yet, as I wrote in this substantial post, “We act as though old people never become disabled and disabled people never grow old.” Academics and policymakers approach disability and aging as separate fields, as Ann Leahy observed in this post for the International Network for Critical Gerontology (daunting name, terrific resource). Why? Because people in the aging field are understandably leery of seeming to equate aging and disability, and because, as Leahy noted, disability activists tend to be younger and mainly focused on issues that affect people of working age. Because we’re short-sighted and we’re all prejudiced.
This does none of us any favors, something I want to address in a new talk I’m working on. Here’s the passage-in-progress. Comments and critiques very welcome.
Ageism feeds ableism (prejudice against people with disabilities), and vice versa.
Disability and aging are different. They also overlap in important ways. Both olders and people with disabilities encounter discrimination and prejudice. And both groups face stigma. Many olders refuse to use wheelchairs or walkers, even when it means never leaving home. My uncle wouldn’t use a white cane even when he grew completely blind, preferring to rely on the kindness of strangers and taxi drivers. After breaking a bone in her foot, a not-yet-forty-year-old friend likewise declined a cane, deferring to crutches because they signal “injured,” not “old” or “disabled.” Cognitive impairment is even more stigmatized.
Being older or having a disability doesn’t keep us from being ageist or ableist. Age cooties! Handicapped people make me uncomfortable! That’s how prejudice works: it frames the other group—what we think of as the other group, that is—as alien and lesser than ourselves. This makes no sense, because people with disabilities come in all ages, after all, and most of us, if we live long enough, will face changes in physical or mental capacity. Ignoring the overlap also rules out collective activism.
We have a lot to learn from the activists who in the 1970s and ‘80s reframed the way we see disability. They changed it from an individual medical problem into a social problem—bingo!—and then demanded integration, access, and equal rights. We share the same goal: a culture that rejects narrow definitions of “productivity” and attractiveness, finds meaning within limitations—the bull looks different—and takes a realistic and inclusive view of what it means to be human. Let’s join forces.
What affliction do Americans fear most? Alzheimer’s disease. I’m one of them, unless so many bones give out that I have to be carried around in a shovel. But facts comfort me. Abundant new data shows that our fears are way out of proportion to the threat—and that those fears themselves put us at risk.
Fact #1: Dementia rates are falling. As I reported last April, the likelihood of you or me developing dementia has dropped—significantly—and people are getting diagnosed at later ages. That’s despite a surge in diabetes among older Americans, which significantly increases the risk. Numbers remain high—an estimated four million to five million Americans currently have dementia—but that number pales in comparison all the people who are worried about getting it, and about aging in general. Why is that important?
Scientists consider a gene called ApoE to be the primary genetic risk factor in late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, yet many who carry it never develop dementia. How come? Could environmental—and therefore modifiable—factors play a role? The new study, led by Yale’s Becca Levy, worked with a group of 4,765 people over age 60 who were dementia-free at the start, more than a quarter of whom carried the gene. Levy and her team interviewed them regularly over the course of four years, asking them to rank their feelings to prompts such as, “The older I get the more useful I feel.” They found that people with more negative attitudes were twice as likely to develop dementia. In other words, positive age beliefs confer protection against cognitive decline—even among people who are genetically predisposed to the disease.
Both experimental and longitudinal research show that stress, which links to dementia, may be the mechanism. Positive attitudes reduce stress and help us cope with the negative messages about aging and aging that bombard us from all directions. People assimilate cultural beliefs from early childhood on, and as these stereotypes become more relevant over time, we tend to act as though they were accurate, creating self-fulfilling prophecies. (More here about Levy’s theory of stereotype embodiment.) Positive beliefs (e.g. late life is inherently valuable, old age is a time of growth and development, olders contribute to society) help keep us healthy by buffering stress and prejudice: the effects of ageism. Negative beliefs (e.g. it’s sad to be old, old people are ugly, aging means becoming a burden) make us vulnerable to disease and decline.
It’s time for an anti-ageism public health campaign.
Reputable researches are careful not to overstate their findings, but the scientists behind this new study note that that their findings have far-reaching social implications. In personalized medicine, for example, education could bolster positive attitudes in people at higher risk of developing dementia. On a broader scale, as Levy points out, the research “lays a foundation for creating a public health campaign to beat back against ageism and negative beliefs about aging.” I’ve been making this case for years.
No matter how you feel about the longevity boom, or just about hitting that next big birthday, everyone wants olders to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible. Imagine the benefits to health and human potential of replacing negative stereotypes about age and aging with more nuanced, positive, and accurate portrayals. The 65+ population of the US is expected to double by the year 2030. Let’s get cracking!
This project began 11 years ago as a project about people over 80 who work. Upbeat! Inspirational! Safe! I didn’t realize it at the time, but the project epitomized an approach that has dominated gerontology since the 1980s: “successful aging”— also known as “active,” “healthy,” or “productive” aging. For most of human history, aging was seen as a natural process largely beyond our control. Enter the “successful aging” model, which posits something close to the opposite: eat right, stay fit, choose well, have a good attitude, be “productive,” and we can craft the old age we want. The model emerged to counter to the prevailing narrative of aging as loss and decline alone, and it’s deeply appealing.
Something about this way of thinking made me uneasy, and I was lucky to get a gentle course correction early on from geriatrician Robert Butler, the inventor of the term ageism and one of the older workers I interviewed. “If you get up in the morning and get yourself dressed, you’re being productive,” he told me. Or, as I put it more bluntly years later, “If you wake up in the morning, you’re aging successfully.” As I came to realize, healthy behaviors and “can-do” strategies are terrific, but they can’t hold aging at bay—nor is that something we should aspire to. An active, healthy 65 is still 65, not “the new 50.” Imagining otherwise is denial—a high-end version that overlooks the very important role of socioeconomic class, along with race, gender, and just plain luck, in shaping how “successfully” we age. It leaves behind those who aren’t wealthy or healthy enough to age the “right” way, and it feeds the denial in which ageism takes root.
The model is problematic in lots of other ways as well, as I learned from reading Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession: Global Perspectives, a new collection of essays edited by Sarah Lamb. Lamb points out a central irony in the introduction: although “successful aging” came into being to counter aging’s negative image, this hyperpositive way of thinking “is, in ways that can be hard to recognize, in some respects profoundly ageist—resting on a deep North American cultural discomfort with aging, old age, and being old.” To age “successfully” is essentially to not age—to stop the clock—despite the fact that very few of us are going to drop dead without experiencing some kind of diminishment, whether physical, cognitive, or social. As Lamb writes, glossing over those normal transitions not only makes it all the harder to learn from and adapt to them, it sets us up to fail.
In any case why should aging be something to succeed or fail at? That’s the why-didn’t-I-think-of-it question posed by Toni Calasanti and Neal King in the book’s first essay. We don’t talk about successful infancy or “teenagehood” or adulthood, after all, and understand that those life stages come with both pros and cons. “No other stages are treated as if they had no value unique to them, as if no positives resulted from entry into those stages, or as if we needed to justify their existence by minimizing what is unique to them,” they observe. Why should later life be the exception? Calasanti and King also argue that urging people to take responsibility for their own aging ignores the inequities that give rise to ageism in the first place. “It does not confront the notion that old age is worse than middle age, that old people should find ways to be more like their younger selves, [and upholds] other life stages as the models against which elders will be assessed.” In other words, the successful aging modelleaves ageism unchallenged or contributes to it.
What else is problematic about “successful aging”?
It’s classist. Because aging “successfully” requires education, leisure, passports, and access to good healthcare and nutrition and exercise—all of which are expensive—it overlooks social inequalities. The successful ager is an assertive patient-consumer, upholding their civic duty by taking good care of themselves! The emphasis on personal responsibility dovetails with neoliberal and very American ideals of self-governance and independence. This relieves the state of responsibility, which in turn makes it less likely that the less well-off will receive the public support that make it possible to age well—or even to age at all.
I knew about this class bias, but hadn’t given any thought to how it plays out in the arena of caregiving. In an essay about older Chicagoans, Elena D. Buch writes, “Efforts to promote successful aging that focus on increasing self-determination and independence implicitly prioritize the well-being of vulnerable older adults over the well-being of their also-vulnerable care workers, strengthening existing social hierarchies based on race, class, and gender.” Oof.
it’s ableist. The “successful aging” model assumes that olders are healthy and just have to stay that way. There are no canes or wheelchairs in sight. Where does that leave those with chronic conditions, or with a disability, whose numbers inevitably increase with age? An essay by Jessica Robbins Ruszkowski describes Poland’s Universities of the Third Age, a popular educational and social institution in Europe that promotes active aging. Because illness would mean entering the Fourth Age (dependence and decrepitude), “The concept of the Third Age thus makes illness unthinkable.” The result is exclusion, instead of inclusive visions of aging that “go beyond binary constructions of activity and passivity, success and failure, productivity and unproductivity, and health and illness,” Ruszkowski writes. As an alternative, what if funding weren’t restricted to “programs focusing on active aging as such, but toward ensuring that people have the ability to support whatever kinds of social activity they find meaningful?”
As Janelle S. Taylor writes in an essay about friendship in the face of dementia, the conventional “successful aging” narrative requires stopping the clock: achieving physical, cognitive and social stasis. This presupposes an “entire social world … in which other people are also not aging in complicated ways alongside one,” and in which it makes sense to step away from friends who become incapacitated. Do so and we forfeit participation in what Taylor calls a “moral laboratory.” Those who hang in “describe friendship after dementia that is capable of changing rather than simply enduring; and they describe dementia as an impetus for personal and interpersonal transformations that can involve learning, growth, and unexpected gifts in addition to very real experiences of sadness and loss.”
It’s shame-inducing. If we’re responsible for the way we age yet unable to control its course, aging becomes a source of shame and embarrassment. As Abigail T. Brooks writes in an essay about why North American women have cosmetic surgery, this “can give rise to the blaming and shaming of olders for simply being and growing old and for failing to do anything about it.” We experience natural physical transitions as betrayal. It’s an embarrassment, or worse—a moral or political failure—if the trajectory changes, as in the case of a high-achieving, active woman in her 70s who experienced her cancer diagnosis as a personal failure.
It perpetuates gender stereotypes: The advertisements and products that promote “successful aging” “reinforce white, middle-class heterosexist norms of male performance and female beauty,” writes Lamb. Women are supposed to focus on maintaining beauty and men on their capacity to perform, whether in bed or at the gym, which reinforces active and passive stereotypes—desire on the part of men, desirability for women. “Successful aging” “means accepting that how you look (i.e. having a youthful appearance) matters,” writes Brooks. This requires both personal responsibility and hard work, although the women she studied didn’t describe it as work. Those who rejected this equation of youth with beauty and appearance with value—hard work in itself—“reap rewards as they forge new relationships to their aging bodies and as they realize new avenues for self-expression outside of the body altogether.”
It medicalizes the aging process. In an essay about selling youthful sexuality as “successful aging,” Emily Wentzell defines “lifestyle drugs” as “pharmaceutical treatments for conditions that range from baldness cures to eyelash lengtheners that cause social distress rather than physical harm.” The emotional relief they provide is real, she observes but the sources of that pain are not medical conditions but social expectations for how bodies should be—expectations that advertising and medical practice aggressively promote. “So, rather than questioning or challenging cultural expectations, people who cannot meet them increasingly turn to pills that will change their bodies,” writes Wentzell, which is dangerous, increases healthcare costs, and promotes unrealistic expectations, once again setting us up to fail as these strategies inevitably fall short.
Viagra exemplifies this trend, which, Wentzell notes, has “a range of social consequences.” While it counters the damaging stereotype that olders should not be sexual, it promotes a narrow vision of what connotes “healthy” sex and suggests that people should want to have sex the same way throughout their lives. She found a very different attitude in the working-class Mexican men she studied, who perceived erectile dysfunction drugs as dangerous and even absurd, and were content to shift from “macho masculinities” to “being faithful, caring, and emotionally present for their families.” Many of their wives experienced the transition as “a beautiful change.” Wentzell ends the essay with an appeal to question Euro-American ideas of aging as a pathology. “We can fight against this trend by basing our ideas of successful aging on people’s diverse and culturally specific social needs, rather than on the expectation that healthy aging means ‘staying as young as possible’ for everyone, everywhere.”
it’s ethnocentric – The prevailing “successful aging” model is deeply linked to deeply American cultural ideals about productivity, independence, and control over our bodies and our futures, even in old age. Anna I. Corwin’s study of Catholic nuns describes a very different value system. The nuns ceded control and agency to the Divine, which helped them accept changes with equanimity; they valued interdependence over independence; and they saw “being good” as more important “doing good,” so retiring or becoming disabled carried no stigma. As a group, Catholic nuns are happier, healthier, and have fewer cases of Alzheimer’s.
A “new paradigm for well-being across the life course” proposed by Meika Loe likewise “emphasizes learning to ‘be’ in a culture of doing.” She calls it Comfortable Aging. This model requires interdependency, is about accepting vulnerability and limitations, and involves coming to terms with mortality. “While we can fail at being ‘successful’ or ‘productive,’ personal comfort is subjectively defined and attainable,” Loe points out. “Importantly, most structural issues linked to Comfortable Aging are non-age-specific—social respect, affordable housing, community-oriented neighborhoods, access to transportation, dependable services, and care that honors all stages in the lifecycle—these are universal needs.” In other words, a society in which it’s OK to age comfortably is one that supports all its members all along the life course.
Another valuable aspect of Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession is its global perspective. Many in the majority world find these ultrapositive images of aging unrealistic and counterproductive. Lamb has done extensive fieldwork in West Bengal, where, far from being idealized, “too much independence is commonly regarded as the worst thing that can befall one in old age.” More than 80% of India’s 65+ population lives with their families, embodying “a relationship of lifelong intergenerational reciprocity.” There’s nothing demeaning about receiving care and support of all kinds, including with toileting. Imagine that!
As Lamb points out, we have much to learn about aging well from some Buddhist, Hindu and Catholic ways of thinking, which “highlight transience as a fundamental part of being human” rather than denying or stigmatizing the changes that accompany us along the life course. “Can we not accept signs of aging—even if they include declines, vulnerabilities, and ephemerality—as in some ways a meaningful part of life?” Lamb asks. “Shouldn’t it be possible to regard old age and death not as intolerable outrages, nor as failures of medicine and self, but rather as inevitable facets of life, defining in part what it is to be human?” That less “successful” world would be a better one for all: less fear-filled, more communitarian, and more open to the transcendent possibilities of life itself.
Last week, in Santiago, Chile, I had a fantastic dream. I was in a little shop run by two younger women. Our conversation turned toward physical capacity, and I told them I was lucky to be very healthy except for my bones. “I can still run faster than you!” I quipped, and hightailed it down the street. Of course they caught up with me within seconds. Each took an elbow and up we went into the air—fast!—a three-wonder-women rocket on an exhilarating mission.
That’s the sisterhood I envisioned in a piece in the New York Times this fall, a call for women to quit competing to “stay young” and come together across the generations to challenge ageism, sexism, and patriarchy. The dream perfectly captures my hopes for 2018: that the outrage behind #MeToo continues to build, helping fuel the Black Lives Matter movement and resistance of all kinds. That just as different forms of prejudice compound and reinforce each other, so do different forms of activism.
We’re only going to reach this tipping point if we follow the advice of historian Barbara Ramsby: “Always ally yourselves with those on the bottom, on the margins, and at the periphery of the centers of power. And in doing so, you will land yourself at the very center of some of the most important struggles of our society and our history.” She was speaking on the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement, written by radical black feminists to address what they felt was the failure of white feminist organizations to address racism in the US. In 2016 fifty-four percent of white women voters chose a racist rapist. If we want a movement against ageism that leaves no one out, we need to do better. The women of the Combahee River Collective identified the necessary tools as solidarity and coalition-building. I’m just starting the awkward-conversation stage, dreaming of allies of all colors and backgrounds taking flight together.
“There comes a tipping point when the ‘frame’ changes,” notes sociologist Michael Kimmel in an article in the New York Times called “The ‘Click Moment: How the Weinstein Scandal Unleashed a Tsunami. It’s about culture change. ”One day, segregated water fountains seemed ‘normal’ if you were a white Southerner. It’s just how things were. Then they’re illegal, and a few years later you say, ‘Wow, how did we ever see that as O.K.?’”
#MeToo is creating a tipping point around sexism. It wouldn’t have happened under Hillary. Here’s to more outrage in 2018—that it unite us across age and race and class and catalyze more, much-needed tipping points.
I’m a lifelong New Yorker addict, so when I heard they were running a piece on ageism, I got excited. That was a mistake. Tad Friend’s article in the November 20th issue, “Why Ageism Never Gets Old, is glib and disappointing on many fronts. Here’s my Letter to the Editor, followed by letters from other dismayed colleagues:
Should we learn to live with racism? Quit pursuing equal rights for women? That’s the position Tad Friend takes regarding discrimination on the basis of age , which he describes as “hardwired,” “probably inevitable,” and remediable only via immortality.
Older people are indeed closer to death, but even if that’s partly to blame for the stigma, why should we give it a pass? The reason hundreds of thousands of buff boomers can’t land a job interview isn’t because they have one foot in the grave, it’s because they face entrenched discrimination—and not just in tech. Ageism is no more embodied or “natural” than other forms of prejudice. They’re all socially constructed: they’re not about biology, they’re about power. Much about aging is difficult of course, but much of that difficulty is constructed or compounded by ageism. Just as social movements emerged to challenge other forms of oppression, an Age Pride movement is underway. Our world is growing old fast, and it’s high time.
* * *
from age scholar Margaret Gullette, author of Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People and other books
The New Yorker has been open to the #MeToo campaign in powerful ways. After a joint editorial, “Autumn of the Patriarch,” and another by David Remnick, Alexandra Schwartz told a brief history of the movement, concluding “Its power lies in its simplicity: the whole poisonous spectrum of misogyny covered in two mundane words.” Sexism is everywhere. Nobody wrote in #NotMe. And now the New Yorker is opening its readers’ minds to ageism. It’s good to see “Ageism” in the title of Tad Friend’s article, and recognition that this plague is a historical, cultural, economic phenomenon, gathering ominous strength in our era. And this overview follows Rachel Aviv’s brilliant narrative of the laws in Nevada that take power of attorney away from competent old people (“How the Elderly Lose Their Rights“).
#MeTooAgainstAgeism, by contrast, is a concept waiting for its inevitable campaign. I think of the silent women in 1991 bitterly watching Anita Hill not being believed. In resisting ageism’s assaults, American society is still back in 1991, waiting for the humiliated, shamed silences to end, waiting for the vast spectrum of age-related grievances to speak. We are far from admitting that ageism is everywhere.
Deciding what counts as an ageist attack is a complex empirical, philosophical, and political first step. One fresh example, in front of our noses this week. Not everyone will be homeless in the streets if Congress cuts Medicaid’s support for people in nursing homes; some of them will go live with their adult children. But knowing that the Republicans’ enmity toward people in nursing homes is also a form of ageism, that’s a leap worth making. Americans would spend less time worrying about aging if we eliminated some of the worst ageists. Anti-ageism’s biggest promise right now? A good fight.
* * *
from Chip Conley, entrepreneur and author of the forthcoming Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder:
I appreciated Tad Friend’s deep dive into the fountain of ageism [“Getting On, November 20th], but found his pessimism misguided. The concept of the three-stage life (learn, earn, retire to your pasture), an ageist construct that consigns half the population to premature obsolescence, is rapidly losing its grip on society. As our obsession with digital intelligence cedes power to the young, the value of wisdom and emotional intelligence, embodied by a movement of “modern elders,” will grow.
* * *
from social gerontologist Jeanette Leardi:
I take great exception to some of the points made by Tad Friend in his study of ageism (“Getting On,” November 20th). While the topic is broad and often difficult to analyze in a magazine article, it’s precisely the vastness of the issue that the author fails to consider as ageism’s chief impact on contemporary life. He chastises writers Ashton Applewhite and Margaret Morganroth Gullette as “tend[ing] to see ageism lurking everywhere.” The truth is, ageism is everywhere, often presented under the most innocuous circumstances and linguistic guises.
Recasting ageist language isn’t a futile, Botox-like “sort of cream concealer” that “deepens the frown lines it’s meant to conceal.” All Friend had to do was consider the impact of reframed language on the feminist and civil rights movements. Children brought up to hear more respectful, inclusive terms grow up to be more respectful and inclusive. It’s how education works. Furthermore, by reveling a contrarian’s view about the need (let alone the merits) of disrupting ageism, Friend reveals the myopia of his perception. He devotes no space to a discussion of the accrued assets of aging, especially concerning the development (and not just the deterioration) of the older brain. While speed of processing and working memory begin to decline with age, the older brain becomes more adept at bi-hemispheric problem-solving as well as more accurately discriminating between relevant and irrelevant information when performing a task.
Because of these omissions, he unconsciously justifies his argument that there’s really not much to defend concerning the dignity and value of old age. Ironically, by suggesting that fighting ageism is an exercise in futility, Friend strengthens the prejudice he seeks to uncover and dispel.
* * *
From Felicity Chapman, Clinical Social Worker and Gerontological Psychotherapist, University of Adelaide:
Stereotypes of older adults are indeed too stark. We need to see older adults like everyone else—delightfully nuanced and full of contradiction. And shame on the New Yorker for supposing that ageism will always stay fresh. Change happens all the time. And it starts with us. Now.
The Washington Post is the latest media outlet to describe population aging as a zero-sum, “kids vs. canes” proposition in which the old profit at the expense of the young (“How the graying of America is stretching local tax dollars,” October 23, 2017). This scenario makes great headlines. But it’s a red herring, and it reduces the new longevity to a problem when it is also a fundamental measure of human progress.
Framing population aging in old vs. young terms:
Is unethical: We don’t allocate resources by race or by sex. Weighing the needs of the old against the young is equally unacceptable. Period.
Fails the common sense test: Olders are not “them;” they are “us:” our parents and spouses, our neighbors and friends. If society doesn’t help support a decent old age, who’s going to end up taking care of your grandparents—and you in turn? Everyone is old or future old.
Is profoundly ageist: The depiction of older Americans as social and economic dead weight is mean-spirited and flat-out wrong. Increasing numbers continue to work and pay taxes well past “retirement age.” In 2032 their unpaid volunteer work was valued at $75 billion. By 2032 the 50-plus age group is projected to drive more than half of US economic activity. Olders do indeed receive a significant amount of government and welfare spending, but isn’t that what the system was designed for—to help those who need it? Resources are not inherently scarce; they are the result of policy decisions in a society that devalues its oldest and youngest citizens. It’s a question of priorities.
Pits us against each other: Communities that are good to grow old in—with social and health care services, safe public spaces, good public transportation, and smarter zoning—benefit everyone, as do workplaces that offer the accessibility and flextime that older workers require. They’re all-age-friendly.
Is unhelpful: We are all aging. Instead of arguing over whose needs come first, let’s develop sensible and economical ways to support the multi-generational society that we all hope to live long enough to inhabit. Examples include engaging Meals on Wheels programs to deliver other social services, co-locating senior centers and day care centers, and developing community-based programs that keep olders living at home and socially connected.
Longer lives represent not just a challenge but a remarkable resource and opportunity. To take advantage of this “longevity dividend,” we need to quit the reflexive hand-wringing, challenge the ageist assumptions that underlie it, and think realistically and imaginatively about the kinds of intergenerational contracts an equitable future will require. It’s going to require all hands on deck—and all ages.
Ashton Applewhite, ThisChairRocks.com
Kevin Prindiville, Executive Director, Justice in Aging
This guest post is by Jeanette Leardi, a Portland, Oregon, writer, editor, and community educator who is changing perceptions about the aging process and helping people appreciate elders’ inherent dignity, wisdom, and unique value as mentors and catalysts for social change. You can read more of her blog posts at ChangingAging, where this post first appeared, and reach her through her website.
As a social gerontologist, community educator, and writer, I am passionate about explaining how language affects –– in good or bad ways –– our perceptions of aging, and vice versa. Three particular phrases raise my hackles.
“Successful aging” is often used to depict the process of getting older as solely an individual’s responsibility rather than to also acknowledge powerful socioeconomic factors that affect a person’s ability to survive and thrive throughout life.
“Silver tsunami” is a phrase that mischaracterizes the arrival into older adulthood of America’s Baby Boom generation as a sudden and catastrophic force that will wipe out national productivity as well as entitlement program funds, without taking into account the potentially vast contributions elders can and do make in our society.
These two terms are regularly employed by the media when covering aging issues. But we hear the third term –– “senior moment” –– all the time, used by practically everyone from youth to the oldest old among us. The phrase is so pervasive that it has taken on a kind of scientific validity, as if the act of forgetting familiar information is limited to the behavior of older people. It’s not.
In short, senior moments belong to us all. Or as Ashton Applewhite eloquently states in her ground-breaking book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, “I used to think that those [‘senior moments’] quips were self-deprecatingly cute, until it dawned on me that when I lost the car keys in high school, I didn’t call it a ‘junior moment.’”
So instead of unrealistically attributing senior moments only to the elder experience, I’d like to offer a refreshing (and more accurate) meme for older brain activity: the “Sully moment.”
Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger
Enter famed airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, hero of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” who made a successful 2009 emergency landing in New York’s Hudson River of a U.S. Airways plane carrying 155 passengers. The inspiring story of his accomplishment can actually be explained by a brain phenomenon known as bihemispheric processing.
This skill fully develops around age 50, when the corpus callosum –– a bridge of tissue connecting our left and right hemispheres –– reaches its maximum maturity of approximately 200 million to 250 million nerve fibers. At this point, our brain reaches a state that geriatric psychiatrist Gene Cohen has described as shifting from two-wheel drive to “all-wheel drive.” Evidence of this shift is a greater ability to approach problem-solving from many different perspectives and to detect more subtle differences in circumstances and viewpoints.
Just catch Sully’s 2009 60 Minutes interview with Katie Couric, and you’ll hear an account of all-wheel drive in action as he ticked off in succession the various factors he had to consider and computations he had to make within seconds. “I was sure I could do it,” he said. “I think in many ways, as it turned out, my entire life up to that moment had been a preparation to handle that particular moment.”
As he also told Couric, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”
All of this is not to say that younger adults can’t process information bihemispherically. Of course they can. It’s just that they get better at it as they get older. Like much of life, we experience many things as tradeoffs. Sure, we may have more tip-of-the-tongue brain stutters, and our reaction times may get slower. On the other hand, as Salthouse has noted, our vocabulary increases and we accumulate and retain more general knowledge at least until we reach age 60. And older adults with healthy brains continue to integrate that knowledge as they apply their skills throughout their lives. Overall, when you think about it, it’s not a bad deal.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll happily trade a “senior moment” for a “Sully moment” anytime.
As a media partner of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, where I spoke in Paris last week, the New York Times commissioned a piece on how women could respond to ageism. “Working to Disarm Women’s Anti-Aging Demon” came out today, in the lean international edition as well. To my delight, they paired it with this photo of the actress Frances McDormand (with son Pedro and husband Joel Coen), who credits Pedro for one of her wrinkles and calls her face a map that carries her history.
The piece makes some very big asks, and I was braced for a slew of comments along the line of “Why should getting old mean looking bad?” Instead the response has been massive, heartfelt, and enthused: “This should be our manifesto.” “Let’s go!” “I’m in!” I hope readers will follow my last suggestion to “come together at all ages and talk about this stuff.” Let’s use Who Me, Ageist? How to Start a Consciousness-Raising Group as a starting point and collaborate on a version for women and allies.
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