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aging and fighting ageism and sterotypes of aging

Image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

I’ve stopped reading stories with titles like, “At 70 It Takes Less To Make Me Happy.” Or, “What I’ve Learned About [something] At 60 [or 50 or 70]” Or even, “How to do [something] when you’re 60 [or 50 or 70].”

In each of these articles, the author implicitly claims to speak for all people of that age. They say things like…

“I’m sleeping less.”
“I’m eating more [or less or more selectively].”
“I can’t bend over to pick something up.”
“I feel wiser.”
“I don’t get angry as often.”
“I’m depressed and lonely as my friends are dying.” 

The problem here is, each article is written by one person who’s identified by age alone.

I want to respond, “Speak for yourself, dude!” I’m pretty old myself and…

“I sleep like a log.”
“I eat the same way I always did. I haven’t given up bacon, chocolate and ice cream.”
“I do yoga. We do ‘forward fold.’ I bend over all the time.”
“I don’t feel any wiser. I do dumb things almost every week…sometimes every day.”
“I swear more than ever, especially in medical settings.”
“I’m busy all the time – I have to carve out time to be alone.”

If I wrote that up, you’d think I was fairly egotistical and obnoxious. But my reality is just as likely as theirs.

Willie Murphy, the bodybuilder who drove away a burglar, can bench press 250 pounds at age 82. She could certainly write an article, “What I’m Like At 82.” Her first sentence would be,  “I go to the gym every day for a power-lifting session.”

These articles are dangerous.

They’re just plain wrong. As I write in my book on aging, geriatricians will tell you, “If you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.” That’s true whether you’re 40, 50, 60, or more.

They don’t just support stereotypes (“Old people don’t sleep well”). They support the whole idea of stereotyping. They say, “It’s okay to generalize from one person’s experience of 60, 70, or 80.”

So now your doctor thinks it’s okay to decide that if you’re 55 or 65, you are supposed have trouble sleeping.   You can’t get a job or a freelance gig because “we can’t hire a low-energy person who hasn’t been sleeping.”

If you do have a problem (such as not sleeping) you figure, “It’s just age.” You don’t try to get at the root cause, such as lack of exercise or increased stress. Maybe you just need darker window coverings or earplugs. 

Can’t bend over? You may have a physiological problem that could affect anyone of any age. Otherwise, you can hire a personal trainer or take some exercise classes.

The most productive way to write an article about how you feel as you get older

Option 1: Write as a well-known person with a following.

May Sarton, the author who enjoyed a cult-like following, wrote At Seventy and At Eighty. Her followers wanted to know what she was like. Frankly, when I read her books, I vowed I’d be different at those ages. But it was all about May Sarton the author, not about being 70 or 80. If you’re well-known for something besides your age, go for it! 

Option 2: Share a unique experience and claim it as your own. 

“Starting a new exercise program after 20 years of avoiding the gym.”
“Being the only uncoupled person at your aunt’s memorial service.”
“What I learned about managing my anger with my grown children.”

Notice that each of these experiences comes with a story you can tell. Present the story as an experience. not as one that applies to everyone your age.

Don’t bother with a moral or a lesson. We’ll figure it out.