The Ecphorizer

It's Later Than You Think: A Few Remarks on Ageism
Polly Pitkin Ryan

Issue 12 (November 2008)

Every human being in the world, including you, is either going to die young or grow old. Take your pick.

In spite of all the recent effort and fuss in the media, it is still not socially desirable to be old. The image of old age is plagued by long-standing stereotypes of poverty and illness, and by new stereotypes of affluence and vigor, imitating youth. Our society still sees no value in just being old, as it does in just being young. What we old ones need is a fresh, new stereotype.

In these interesting times, you have to make it in the "media" or not at all. So how about a new name? We need a new name with pizzazz, one that sounds good in a gossip column or on a TV talk show. "Retirees" and "Seniors" are not all that happy with those titles, but there aren't many others to choose from. ''Elders'' connotes authority, which is not welcome these days. ''Long-lived'' is awkward in English. The French term, les ancients, is not likely to eradicate ageism.

Herb Caen once wrote of durable movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, "The public loves survivors who have 'go to hell' written all over their lived-in faces." He could say the same for Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. I think "survivors" would be a good name for the long-lived people. If it sounds like survivors of a disaster, so? It has the twin virtues of being true, and of jolting the seats of those who scorn the old.

Most of the public aversion to "old" and all its euphemisms is a shining example of culture-conditioning. To eradicate ageism, the public must perceive age as acceptable, but I would go further than that.  The public must perceive age as fascinating, as a triumph. We won't have to worry about eradicating ageism if we can present age as a desirable condition, so intriguing that young people will envy and try to copy us. If you are scoffing already, read on.

Many old men and women are handsome in appearance, keen of wit, and have a quality of elegance, ease, and valiant spirit that I like to call patina. Patina has a powerful impact face-to-face, but Madison Avenue and television shows haven't discovered it. Patina doesn't have a bad press, it has no press at all.

Making age attractive doesn't mean to copy past cultures, which honored their elders as teachers and preservers of knowledge. In this era, most of what the old have learned is obsolete, and young adults are perfectly capable of making direct observations themselves. It doesn't mean to revive the historic roles of age in the corridors of power, insuring continuity of culture and hierarchy in a stable society. For our unstable society we need a different concept. A new concept will not use age as a power/authority trip. Neither will it pressure the old to act young nor see age as a stagnant decline from maturity to death, with no present value to mankind.

We need a concept that sees age as a thing-in-itself. To paraphrase the Desiderata, age is a child of the universe. It has a right to be here. Age is a final but fully dramatic and essential act of a three-act play. How would an audience react to a three-act play if the third act were omitted? Or if it were weak and faltering? The show would close, and it would deserve to close. If any human being is to get his money's worth out of life, the final act has to be a climax, a fulfillment of the other two.

Psychiatrists have used the term ''life script" to describe the way individuals react to the events in their lives. By our own expectations and reactions, we shape the expectations and reactions of other members of the cast, and in effect we write the play. In our culture, when we come to the third and final act, what happens? Everybody gets hold of the same script, and it seems to have been written by Samuel Beckett or Kafka. Why so? Is this the only script in town? No wonder so many old people kill themselves!

We need a new script for survivors, one which will present age as fascinating to look at, exciting to be in. and desirable to have around. If you don't think this is possible, you need to get outside the paradigm. Think in terms of beautiful old things in nature, with the marks of long existence upon them. Ancient trees, moss-covered boulders, water-carved canyons. Even man-made things—old barns, antique furniture, stone walls. These elements acquire a beauty and mystery in age which they never had in youth. Painter Andrew Wyeth understands this quality, and so do his admirers. "Nothing that doth age but doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange."

In our culture, women are the social arbiters. It falls to old women, then, to create an image of age that will be socially desirable.

Many of the young Mensa women who go to parties are conspicuously chic. They make a good showing with their looks as well as with their brains. They were not all born beauties; they learned their craft from "charm schools," from the manufacturers of fashion and cosmetic products, from the media. What about the old Mensa women? Why can't we invent a new style of beauty for aging women, a visual magnetism that will excite the admiration of the larger society? When enough aging women make the most of their own patina, followers will create a market, manufacturers will catch on, Madison Avenue will promote it, and voila—a new perception that "old is beautiful." Certain women in the arts are already ahead of us: Georgia O'Keeffe, Louise Nevelson, Barbara Tuchman, Jessica Tandy, Lauren Baca11. These women don't look young, they look vital, transcendent, memorable.

When old women become fascinating to look at, that will encourage old men to be gallant and charming, and the scripts will come alive. Unlike the current theater of the young, Act Three won't be a blood and sex terror show. Instead it will be a drama of ideas, values, ethics and personalities. I t will pose the eternal questions of life and love, and maybe show the way to richer answers. In time, this will change the paradigm. Ageism will fade away when the public—and the survivors themselves—perceive that being old is not only acceptable, but that it is a complex and significant climax of our lives.

Then, when the final curtain closes on the play, the audience will come away refreshed and satisfied, perhaps with new vision and insight into the meaning and value of their own lives. 

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Polly Pitkin Ryan




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