Life’s common core: ageist!

Life’s “Common Core:” Ten requirements for teens that won’t get them into college but will make them better people, by Kristin van Ogtrop, was first published in Time Magazine and then reprinted in several places.

The #7 item reads: “Write a heartfelt thank-you note to someone over the age of 70. Even if this person hasn’t given you a holiday or birthday present, find something to thank them for.”

Are 70-year-olds just waiting around for a thank you note from a strange teen or young adult? This idea is SO insulting.

Like many people, Kristin van Ogtrop patronizes 70-year-olds as cute little people who need help. Why thank someone for something they didn’t do?

Better have the kids return to #6 and head to their local animal shelter to offer help. Or find a neighbor of any age who needs a dogwalker.

Actually this whole article is filled with silly assumptions. The #10 suggestion suggests that if you’ll race to the top you’ll knock people out of their way. Some do, some don’t.

And while a few 70-year-olds might welcome a thank you letter (I can’t imagine what the content might look like) I bet the vast majority will want to shove that letter up someplace the sun don’t shine.

If it were REALLY good to get old, we wouldn’t need to say it.

I’m SO sick of those cheery posts “What’s good about getting old.”

If it were REALLY so good, would we have to keep making the point? You don’t see anyone writing about, “It’s great to be a man,” or even, “It’s great to be a woman.” Nor does anyone write, “It’s great to be black,” or, “Why I like being gay.”

Like this one from a mom blog:

There are so many good things about getting older:

1. You stop trying to impress people
2. You see things more clearly
3. Others tolerate your idiosyncrasies

When you stop trying to impress people, you’re giving up. You’re saying you’re not going to advance socially or professionally, so why bother?

Then again, I’ve never worried too much about impressing people with my wardrobe. When I was attending an academic conference several years ago, one guy came up to me to say, “You don’t care, do you? You’re wearing shorts to the opening event!” I hadn’t thought about it, frankly.

Seeing things more clearly can be painful. I shudder when I read a news article about anything medical. It’s usually wildly inaccurate. Anyway, what’s the good of seeing clearly if you aren’t taken seriously because you’re “too old?”

Finally, the reason people “tolerate your idiosyncrasies” is that they’ve bought into the stereotypes of aging. I’ve had my idiosyncracies for a years. People just thought I was weird. In fact, I discovered that one colleague who wrote reference letters for me (reference letters remain a quaint custom in academic job hunting) began each letter with, “Cathy may be somewhat eccentric, but …”

Now when I do something out of the norm, people assume it’s due to age. Sorry, folks: I was a maverick before I knew what it meant.

They think it’s “normal” when you lose thing or bump into walls.

Anyway, everybody ages differently.

Recently a young woman came up to me in the locker room at my gym, right after zumba. She said, “You are amazing! I want to be like you when I’m your age.” Thankfully she was about 20 years off when she guessed my age.

So on the one hand, I showed off a little. I told her my secret: work out 3-4x a week religiously and stay away from doctors.

But on the other hand, there area lots of women as fit as I am or more. What about that 90-year-old who ran marathons? If I did more age-appropriate things I’d be surrounded by women who were equally fit. But I like zumba.

What’s different about 60, 70 and 80

I’m tired of hearing that 50 is the new 30 and 60 is the new 40. Here’s what’s different as you get to the 60 mark and beyond.

1 – It’s harder to predict where you’ll be 5 or 10 years from now – sometimes even one year.

When you’re 40 or 50, if you’re healthy, the odds are very high that you’ll be the same for another five to ten years. You can make plans. It makes sense to invest in long-term growth stocks and your new business.

When you’re in your sixties, with each year, you’re less sure. Sure, some 70-year-olds and 75-year-olds are running marathons and businesses. But it’t not unheard of to keel over with a completely unexpected stroke or heart attack. Often, says a cardiologist I know, the first symptom of heart disease is a fatal heart attack.

2 – You stop saying, “Never say never.” Some things just won’t happen. You don’t have enough time.

3 – You realize you won’t outlive everything you own. Why buy more clothes? The t-shirts I have now will last another 10-15 years.

4 – You become comfortable with the idea of dying. It’s gonna happen. It’s more about dying a good death than living a long time. I’m more scared of going into a nursing home than I am of dying.

5 – You realize your days are limited and you want to make each one count. So you resent sitting around in waiting rooms or wasting your time on things that don’t contribute to your welfare or anybody else’s. You don’t have time to suffer fools gladly.

And, if you’re like me, you don’t hesitate to tell them, using language as colorful as possible.

Nobody likes being old

Today on the train from the airport I showed my SEPTA pass. The conductor, who’d been quoting fares of $8 and $9, said, “Something nice about being old.”

Me: That’s the only thing.

Conductor: Yeah, my dad is 75 years old. He says, “These are supposed to be my golden years. Forget it.”

Me: “I think we need to hire a hitman from South Philly.”

Conductor laughs. I don’t. So much for the pollyannas.

The 80-year-old bodybuilder

I’m totally sick of Facebook postings like this one:   “70-Year-Old Bodybuilder: He changed his life and started working out at the age of 44. A true inspiration for all of us. Another example that age is NOT an excuse.”

This type of posting is the opposite of postings about typical aging but is just as stereotypical. Many people could be more fit than they are, but there are limits to (a) how fit they can become and (b) whether fitness translates into overall health and a longer life that’s free of debilitating illness.

At any age, health is a combination of luck, genes, and motivation. Some people can’t go full out and exercise in their 40s and 50s because of conditions they can’t control. For instance, extreme weight-lifting has been linked (anecdotally) with eye problems among people who are heavily nearsighted and at risk for floaters and retinal detachment.

Let’s also recognize that you may not achieve the body of a body builder even if you do work out. Muscle development has a genetic component. Luck plays a part, too: I once knew a woman in her 80s who had smoked all her life and ate what she wanted; her family all died of heart disease but she was doing great.

Also see this book: What makes Olga run? Lessons from a 94-year-old Track Star. The author concluded Olga benefited from genes, luck and a reasonably healthy lifestyle. Her genetic background meant that a Mediterranean diet wouldn’t be especially helpful for her.

Lots of resources are out there. Here’s one good article.

Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister

Reading Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister

I’m impressed to learn that this book was written by a 70-year-old Benedictine nun, which gives Gift of Years both strengths and limitations.

The book reads like a series of sermonettes. We get the “what” but not the “how.”

And I think the author assumes her audience shares her values and opportunities. She seems to have a solid grip on the spiritual dynamics of growing old. But she writes about areas where her lack of experience seems obvious: dealing with health issues (especially the health care system), finding meaningful work after retirement, and making friends when you don’t have time or opportunity to develop a shared history.

Not everyone finds meaning in helping others. Some people are better suited to working and donating to charities rather than taking a hands-on role in the charities. Some people want to relax and be door-greeters at Wal-Mart or (as she suggests) teachers’ aides at a local school (not an easy job to get). But a lot of people will find those roles meaningless, degrading and more stressful than the high-powered jobs they’re denied.

A good book if you’ve got strong spiritual values, a solid support system, most of your health and financial sufficiency.

If you’re 80 years old and still running marathons between visits to the grandchildren, you’d probably love this book.

When I read books like this, I’m reminded of the benevolent attitude of slaveowners from the pre-civil war days. “Of course they’re happy,” they would say. “They have everything.” It’s about convincing yourself that oppressed, disenfranchised people in some way deserve what they get; can change their experience by changing their mindset; and ultimately feel happy because they’re determined to be cheerful and optimistic.

Makes me feel a little ill.

To say this book is “optimistic” is like saying the sun is a little warm on a July day in Florida.

On page 24: “Most older people retain their normal mental abilities, including short-term memory, their entire lives.” Actually the rate of cognitive impairment is something like 40% at age 80 and 50% at 85. More than half stay competent, but barely.

p 25: “Only the old can make age a bright and vibrant place to be.” p 60: “First the job goes, then the house goes, then the precious things begin to go, one little piece at a time to the children one old box after another to the thrift shop folks. Then the privacy goes, then the dog and the cat, the desk and the papers, the trips and eventually the car. Then, finally, for the first time, the self goes.”

Her answer is that we have a choice about coping well or poorly. That’s news? For some of us, the loss of privacy, cat, dog and independence define who we are. Encouraging people to “make light of” these changes seems condescending. It’s one thing for someone to downsize from a large house to a small apartment gracefully.

It’s one thing to adjust to “retirement living” by saying, “There are people I can help here,” although this statement is exactly what many educated people say when they are about to enter a federal prison. But it’s another to decide you will cope gracefully with abusive treatment in nursing homes and even in families.

The author trots out the old party line about cultures that value aging and honor their elders. Few of those cultures exist anymore.

And if you’re going to look at those cultures, look at the societies where elders were left behind when they were too weak to keep up on tribal journeys. Some societies killed their elders during times of famine. That’s kinder than keeping them in nursing homes.

But the biggest complaint I have is that this author encourages us to become our fullest selves – but only if we happen to have selves that are suited to charity work and children. Volunteer work can be very rewarding for many people of all ages.

However, some of us prefer to work for money and donate to the charities; in fact, some of are pretty lousy volunteers! And it is simply not true that nonprofits are looking for volunteers. It’s nice to have the choice to be a volunteer, but one of the frustrations of being over 50 is that you’re often not valuable in the world of work. Those who are denied the experience of contributing by earning a paycheck won’t feel satisfied with volunteering.

A much better view of aging comes from Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die. She’s not afraid to come right out and say it. Sometimes aging is worse than dying. Less spiritual, perhaps, but a lot more realistic.