The Third Third

Uncertain Perceptions of "A Certain Age"

I recently found a fascinating article about the impact of federal policy on our perception of what it means to be old in this country (\"Old-Age Policies, Politics, and Ageism\" by Robert H. Binstock) on The American Society on Aging website ***(***. It was, frankly, nothing I had ever thought of before. For me, from childhood on, old was, well, old: Grandma and Grandpa. Thick glasses. Sensible shoes. Gray hair. Retirement. Social security and pensions. Medicare. And worse. This was the Old I knew I didn’t want to be, and yet because it seemed “old” had always been that way, the chances of changing it -- despite better health, increased fitness, enhanced standards of living, and greater wealth -- were slim. It was almost as if I were merely railing against the natural passage of time itself. But old is not merely a state of mind and being with a prescribed set of accoutrements. Old, it turns out, is a demographic construct defined relatively recently by our government. Societies do this. Adolescence, for example, was not a recognized stage of development in early American life: instead you were a child and then you went to work. Adolescence is a product of leisure in an industrialized nation, the time between childhood and work, the time now dedicated to growing up. With the enactment of Social Security in 1935, the nation’s elderly likewise became a new demographic caste, one looked upon far more benevolently than most teenagers, to be sure, but one, like adolescence, defined initially in relation to external social exigencies rather than mere chronology. Suddenly, as society advanced, health improved and cures were found for disease, more people began living longer, even if they had not planned on it. At the same time, family structures shifted dramatically. The aging and aged showed up more alone and in greater numbers than ever before. . . and no one knew what to do with them. They were a sympathetic group, though. They’d lived through tough times. They’d paid their dues. Thus, the country voted to honor thy grandmother and thy grandfather with, initially, social security, and then with a panoply of age-centered welfare programs to address most, if not all, of their perceived needs. These generous policies and the government’s explicit assumption of responsibility for “taking care of” the elderly had a profound collateral effect on our perception of old: if you were old, you were deserving. . . but also poor, frail, dependent and vulnerable. And this may have been a small price to pay for Medicare, public housing, energy assistance, and income tax breaks, among other benefits. Eventually, however, beginning in the late 1970’s, Congress began to look at alternative demographic measures within the aging population and, finding a fuller than anticipated spectrum of economic and social wherewithal, began refining its requirements for all this compassionate aid to the elderly. Competing calls for government spending, especially on education and health care for younger constituencies, invited closer scrutiny of those expenses supporting the elderly which, by then, represented a quarter of the entire federal budget. This “elder power” – as represented in budgeting terms and as reported in the media and by various advocacy groups – began to change the perception of older people. No longer the derserving, frail, poor, the aged began to be seen as more selfish “greedy geezers.” Policy changes followed this shift, but even when the government made the able elderly pay more of their own way, the portion of the budget dedicated to care of the aged, especially health care, grew to fully one-third. And the stigma of ageism stuck. Old was old. And often, now, a burden. Like all monolithic stereotypes (racism, sexism), ageism erases differences in the name of one easily codified unifying factor, in this case, chronological age. The perception ignores, in fact denies, the reality of a variety in physical condition, expected lifespan, economic security, political affiliation, religious involvement, work background, job status, educational level, participation in family life, involvement in the community, and/or interests – and invites prejudicial treatment, some advantageous, and some not. This is why, I think now, media portrayals of the aging and the aged are so shallow and limited and, in their oversimplification, so limiting. This is why we who stand on the threshold refuse to enter that “old age home.” This is why, too, it is so easy to feel out-of-step, so uncertain as a person \"of a certain age\" about your place in the world today. And finally, this is why we must work to change the perception of what it’s really like to be who we are as we engage the third third of our lives. How we do that, I’m not quite sure. But I’m sure you have some great ideas – and I hope you’ll post them online.
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