So, what’s it like growing old in America? Forty years ago, Dr. Robert Butler in his Pulitzer Prize winning book titled, Why Survive Being Old. declared, “Old age in America is often a tragedy.
Back then aging was a conflicting subject. On one hand writes Dr. Butler, “We pay(ed) lip service to the idealized images of beloved and tranquil grandparents, wise elders, white haired patriarchs and matriarchs.” On the other hand, aging in America stirred up images of decay, decrepitude and dependency.
Dr. Butler, who went on to head the National Longevity Center issued a challenge: “When we talk about old age, each of us is talking about his or her own future. We must ask ourselves if we are willing to settle for mere survival when so much more is possible.”
And it’s apparent we’re not inclined to settle. The number of Americans now over the age 65 has increased by millions - 25 percent of the population. And chances are, with proper exercise and diet, most of the folks will live a healthy life well into the 80s, even 90s.
And it’s untrue that most older folks are decrepit, dependent and in decay.
Some are, but look around. The standard of living has improved - fewer older folks in poverty and America finally is recognizing that older folks are not all alike, in fact they become more diverse as they age. There’s work to be done: substandard housing, physical limitations creating job loss and a health care system that often may mean a serious illness can cause instant poverty. These all are significant issues our political leaders must consider.
But we’ve come a long way, baby!
Research on folks over 50 dwelled on disease, impoverishment and loneliness - things that can go wrong with us. But as Gaily Sheehy pointedly wrote in her book, “New Passages”, “It’s high time we look at what goes right with us.” Including, she writes, “sustained well being that so many people are discovering in second adulthood, much to their surprise.”
America, in fact, is coming of age.
As Dr. Butler puts it, “One’s life does not have to have been a “success” in the popular sense of that word in order to be gratifying. People take pride in a feeling of having done their best, of having met challenge and difficulty and sometimes from simply having survived against terrible odds.”
I got to thinking about all of this, strangely, after listening to a song by Willie Nelson, called “Don’t be ashamed of your age”. The lyric that caught my ear was, “Don’t mind the gray in your hair, just think of all the fun you had puttin’ it there.”
Have a great big happy 2014.