About four decades ago I wrote an introductory essay to Humanistic Perspectives on Aging and co-wrote Growing Old. My words then were based mainly on the experiences and thinking of others, whether living or dead, real or fictional. Now, however, I’ve come to more personal conclusions about aging and about our culture, which sustains so many myths about it.
Myth #1: We should resist aging. Mr. Dooley, a fictional character of author Finley Peter Dunn, once said, “I'm just as young as I used to be” is our national anthem and it’s a good one. Truth: By trying to look younger we buy into—literally buy into—all the gimmicks our consumer culture is trying to sell us: hair dyes, face lifts, wrinkle removers, etc. We should not resist looking older, but like African Americans who in the 1960s chanted “black is beautiful,” we should insist that old, like blackness, can be beautiful. What we should resist is not such signs of aging as baldness and wrinkles, but any physical and mental decline that we can stave off. We should not equate staying fit with staying young. The first is possible. The second is not. It is a losing and self-defeating game. We are not doing anyone—ourselves or members of younger generations—any good by equating old with bad and young with good. Every age has its plusses and minuses and should be embraced with all the joy and aliveness we can muster. Many of my contemporaries hate being called old, oldster, senior citizen, or golden-ager. But we should not reject any such words, just any stereotypes that others might associate with them.
Myth #2:The old people who should be most admired are those who act “young.” I dislike movies where old people are held up as admirable simply because they look and act like they’re much younger than they are. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age, but it can, and it is wise oldsters whom I most admire. I’ve written about some of them, such as poet and Abraham- Lincoln-biographer Carl Sandburg, helper-of-the-poor Dorothy Day, writer Wendell Berry, and Howard McClusky, the first president of the Adult Education Association and a man I knew personally. One of Howard’s favorite quotes about how to live in one’s latter years was the following:
To live so generously and unselfishly that the prospect of personal death—the night of the ego, it might be called—looks and feels less important than the secure knowledge that one has built for a broader, longer future than any one ego ever could encompass. Through children, through contributions to the culture, through friendships— these are ways in which human beings can achieve enduring significance for their actions which goes beyond the limit of their own skins and their own lives.
Myth #3: Youth, not old age, is the time for adventure, bravery, and courage. Truth: Such goals are appropriate for all ages. As the poet Tennyson had his hero say in “Ulysses”:
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done.
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
What other age requires as much courage as the one in which we are most likely to face diseases like cancer and alzheimer’s, perhaps a nursing-home existence, and certainly death? And without the consolation of hearing any talk about our “wounded warriors,” “fallen heroes,” or being honored with any medals or parades.
Myth #4: Sexual desire and activities are inappropriate for old people. Most oldsters know that this myth is nonsense, but many younger people think that old people having sex is gross. This is partly because of cultural conditioning that depicts aging bodies as unattractive: How could anyone get sexed up looking at a wrinkled face? But despite such conditioning, sex between a loving couple, regardless of age, can be one of the great human experiences.
Despite our conditioning, sex between a loving couple, regardless of age, can be one of the great human experiences.
Myth #5: There is nothing special that the old can teach the young. Truth: In our consumer culture of ever-changing technology, of planned obsolescence, of one new gadget and fad after another, we need a sense of history and to hear wise older voices like those of Sandburg, Day, Berry, and McClusky. Each of us should develop a philosophy of life that brings meaning to our lives, and such wise elders can help us do so. Otherwise, like Auden’s “Unknown Citizen” we are just passive consumers of goods, media, and opinions. In the words of poet T. S. Eliot, we are only “living and partly living,” or in danger of doing what his character Prufrock says he has done: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”
Myth #6: It is appropriate for old people (and gerontologists) to be overwhelmingly concerned with health, fitness, and financial wellbeing. Truth: As important as these areas are—and they are important—we should not become obsessed with them. Old age is one last chance “to get our act together.” When we were younger we had numerous family and work obligations. In our retirement years we generally have more leisure. Thus, not only more time for needed exercise, but also for reading, thinking, and reflecting. Howard McClusky believed that one of the basic needs of older people was that of transcendence in order to rise above declining physical powers and decreasing life expectancy. The psychologist Abraham Maslow often wrote about such transcendence and the “self-actualization” that accompanied it, which was most evidenced by older people.
Individuals such as Sandburg and Day achieved transcendence partly with the help of history, literature, and music—Sandburg won Pulitzer Prizes for both history (1940) and poetry (1951) and was an accomplished collector and singer of folk songs; Day was a great lover of literature and opera. But the two of them, who admired each other, were not just great readers and music appreciators, but also great doers and seekers.
In 1959, by then in his eighties, Sandburg addressed a Joint Session of the U. S. Congress on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, and the next year he campaigned for presidential candidate John Kennedy. Two years later he wrote the Forward to the Kennedy speeches gathered together in To Turn the Tide, and in 1963 came out with his last book of poetry. In his last published poem, he referred to himself as “one more seeker.” Into her eighties, Day continued aiding the poor and writing a column for The Catholic Worker, the paper she had co-founded almost a half-century earlier. Both he and she continued, in Tennyson’s words, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”