This adage turns up periodically, usually as a title for an article that bemoans the physical infirmities associated with age.
It’s not clear exactly how the expression started. The Quote Investigator found an anecdote in Reader’s Digest in 1968, suggesting someone said this at an informal gathering. The site further notes that Bette Davis displayed a pillow with the saying. However, I’ve never seen any discussion of the source of Bette’s pillow.
About half a dozen books appear on Amazon with some version of the expression as a title, most notably Art Linkletter’s book Old Age Is Not For Sissies, published February 1989, almost 35 years ago.
What’s wrong with the saying?
(1) It’s homophobic.
Wikipedia says Sissy (derived from sister), also sissy baby, sissy boy, sissy man, sissy pants, etc., is a pejorative term for a boy or man who does not demonstrate masculine traits, and shows possible signs of fragility.
Merriam Webster agrees but says the term can more generally mean “a timid, weak, or cowardly person.”
(2) Sayings suggesting “old age is not for the faint of heart,” or ‘old age is not for wimps” refer to physical infirmities.
Articles in a blog about serene living, titled Aging Is Not For Sissies, laments that:
Aging feels like a vase full of pretty flowers where the petals are slowly falling off.
Each day there seems to be a new ache or pain.
A new diagnosis.
I remember when my calendar was filled with fun activities.
Now it seems to fill up with medical appointments.
Frankly, this author needs a new medical team. When old age is associated with illness and pain, a lot of “older” people, their families, and their doctors assume it’s inevitable.
A doctor once told me, “You have an average knee for someone of your age.” I got a second opinion from a doctor who recommended exercises and offered physical therapy.
(3) The expression doesn’t leave room for the alternative.
A Medium article says the expression means that aging “requires a willingness to confront the inevitable challenges of advancing years.”
First of all, as I say in my book, most “challenges” are not “inevitable.” Geriatricians have the saying, “If you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year old.”
An 80-year-old could be stuck in a miserable nursing home…or could be running marathons, running a business or even running a country. Many negative outcomes associated with “getting older” are caused not by age, but by the physical and social environment.
Another article titled “Aging is not for sissies” went on to point out that, in Canada, 80% of Covid deaths occurred in retirement homes and long-term facilities without palliative care and dementia care support.
In another Medium article, I’ve argued for a spurious correlation between Covid deaths and aging, noting that one-third of US Covid19 deaths took place in nursing homes.
But what if you’re not willing to face these challenges? What if you’d rather do a Final Exit?
Elsewhere I’ve pointed out that getting old is not “certainly better than the alternative,” as the New York Times likes to say.
I much prefer Ezekiel Emanuel’s approach: “I want to die at 75.” He doesn’t encourage actively seeking death, but rather recognizing that there’s not much point in taking action to prolong life. Things could get a lot worse. He’s a respected academic physician, currently on the UPenn faculty.
And I support a saying attributed to Billie Burke: Age doesn’t matter unless you are a cheese.