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The Golden Years?

We seniors need to be smarter.

Did you know that in 1790 only 2 percent of the population was over 65?  I guess that the small number of seniors defused the issues of aging—they probably got more respect too.

These days the picture is different: in the year 2000 the over-65 population averaged 12.4 percent. The oldest baby boomers are turning 65 and the publishing world is replete with books on aging. Aside from the expected books on finance, health and retirement, the library’s collection reflects a few different takes on the subject:

1. With strict attention to diet and exercise, decrepit old age need not sneak up on us. The sunset years are a wonderful period of life, perfect for spiritual, personal and even professional growth. Remember the old ad: “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better!”

2. Marketers of longevity—pharmaceutical companies, lifestyle gurus and scientific posers—are deceiving us into thinking old age is something that can be conquered.  They’re conning us.

3. There are amusing aspects to aging. Let’s laugh at thickening waistlines, balding and forgetfulness.

Here are a few examples:

When construction workers no longer issue catcalls, when men on the street slide their gazes over you and stare at your daughter, you know you have entered a new phase of life. Stephanie Dolgoff’s My Formerly Hot Life: Dispatches from Just the Other Side of Young mourns the loss of youth. No more all-nighters without misery. But we are reminded of something important. Our waists might be thicker, our hair graying, our memories shot, but we are older and wiser. We no longer care what other people think, so we can follow our own inclinations. We don’t pine for the partner or career we thought would have made everything all right: we’re where we are and we’re comfortable.

Insightful and often hilarious, Dolgoff offers a fresh look at an old theme. See also Between a Rock and a Hot Place by Tracy Jackson and the memoirs of Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad about my Neck and I Remember Nothing.

In Composing a Further Life, Mary Catherine Bateson puts aside practicalities of finance and health and concentrates on the art of living. Adulthood II she calls this stage of life:  a time when freed from the responsibilities of work and family, one can fashion a new life armed with wisdom and imagination. She interviews six older individuals, among them Jane Fonda, to expound on their lives as works in progress.

Marc Agronin echoes this theme of later-life creativity in How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old.

Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, by Susan Jacoby.  The author asserts  that 70 is not the new 50, that all the crossword puzzles, exercise regimes and raw food diets in the world won’t change the fact that medical and financial challenges mount as we age. Falling prey to the blandishments of anti-aging hucksters is tantamount to ignoring a fact of life that has to be faced realistically. After all, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease doubles in every 5-year period over the age of 65.

Jacoby suggests that the lack of planning for our aging population could even be considered a feminist issue: two-thirds of Americans over the age of 85 are women. Women earn less and live longer. Americans, she asserts, can fool themselves into thinking their old age will be magically better than it has been for previous generations, or work for social and political change.  Now, she says, is the time to face the political minefield that is Social Security, Medicare and unemployment among the elderly. Shout out to legislators who advocate raising the Social Security retirement age: Where are older people supposed to find jobs? In a similar vein,  see Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World’s Population and How it Pits Young against Old, Child against Parent, Worker against Boss by Ted Fishman. 

“Old age is the most unexpected of all things that happen to a man.” said Leon Trotsky.

Can’t we expect it?

Julie Farrell March 07, 2011 at 04:44 PM
Beautifully written, Eileen! While I'm not quite at the baby-boomer stage, my mom and I talk about these things often and find humor in many the same places as the authors you mentioned. I will have to have her check out this article....and maybe some of the books :)
Sharon Sultan March 14, 2011 at 03:11 AM
According to research, I am a leading-edge baby boomer hopefully turning 65 in 2012. Often, I feel and think like a kid in my early 40's. And, like many people in our "second act" of life, I am turning author this summer, with a subject I know too well. The book is called Once Upon Our Times: 65 Years Growing Up Baby Boomer, and we're already building a Facebook community at EMHSClassof1965book and www.OnceUponOurTimes.com . We welcome contributions and older memories from local baby boomers born between 1946 & 1964 to author@OnceUponOurTimes.com

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