Section C:
What Does It Really Mean to Grow Old
In my late fifties, and then my sixties, I heard, "I can't believe you're that old. You don't look that old." At first that felt like praise. Then I became a bit uneasy. It reminded me of early pre-feminist days when I was complimented by some men for being "smarter", and "more independent" than those "other" women.
Slowly other experiences began to accumulate, reminding me of a real change in my life status.
First, I moved. And while I found easy acceptance among older people in the community, when younger people talked to me they invariably would say something like, "You remind me of my grandmother." Grandmother?! I felt like I had been given a label and my position lowered somehow.
Recently, I have, in fact, become a grandmother. I found most young friends expected me — automatically — to "be" a certain way. Many of those expectations were in accord with what I felt. Some were not. I did not instantly fall in love with my grandson. I was much more drawn to my daughter and what she was experiencing. I must admit that I am now a devoted grandmother, but being put in a particular category about that bothered me, as though all of my reactions could be known in advance and belonged to the general group "grandmother" rather than to me.
I lost some money recently through bad judgment and suddenly had the realization that I would never be able to replace it. I do not have enough time left to be able to earn that money again.
I looked in the mirror and saw lots of wrinkles. I had a hard time fitting that outward me with the me inside. I felt like the same person, but outside I looked different. I checked into a face lift, with much unease. What a piece of marketing took place in that doctor's office! He told me he would make me less strange to myself. I would look more like I felt! I became frightened by the whole process. Who was I then? This face? What I felt like inside? How come the two images were not connected? My own ageism told me that how I looked outside was ugly. But I felt the same inside, not ugly at all.
Finally, death entered my life as a direct reality. My oldest friend died of cancer three years ago. My father died two years ago after what turned out to be needless surgery. Another close friend died last month after a year of struggling with cancer. My mother is dying slowly and painfully after suffering a massive stroke. The realization hit me that I can expect this kind of personal contact with death to occur with greater and greater frequency.
Not just my age, but life itself was telling me that I was becoming an older/old woman!
Think of all the adjectives that are most disrespectful in our society. They are all part of the ageist description of old women: useless, powerless, complaining, sick, weak, conservative, rigid, helpless, unproductive, wrinkled, ugly, unattractive, and on and on.
How did this happen, this picture of old women? To understand this phenomenon we must look at our society's insistence that women are only valuable when they are attractive and useful to men. Women spend their lives accepting the idea that to be beautiful one must be young, and only beauty saves one from being discarded. Women's survival, both physical and psychological, has been linked to their ability to please men. It is small wonder that the prospect of growing old is frightening to women. By denying our ageing, we hope to escape the penalties placed upon growing old.
Old people are sent off to their own prisons. Frequently they will say they like it better. But who would not when, to be with younger people is so often to be invisible, to be treated as irrelevant, and sometimes even as disgusting.
We have systematically looked down on old women, kept them out of productive life, judged them primarily in terms of failing capacities and functions, and then found them pitiful. We have put old women in nursing "homes" with absolutely no intellectual stimulation, isolated from human warmth and contact, and then condemned them for losing their mental abilities. We have disrespected and disregarded old women, and then dismissed them as uninteresting. We have made old women invisible so that we do not have to confront our society's myths about what makes life valuable or dying painful.
Having done that, we then attribute to the process of ageing per se all the evils we see and fear about growing old. It is not ageing that is awful, nor whatever physical problems may accompany ageing. What is awful is how society treats old women and their problems. To the degree that we accept and allow such treatment we buy the ageist assumptions that permit this treatment.
What then does it really mean to grow old? For me, first of all, to be old is to be myself. No matter how society may classify me as invisible and powerless, I exist. I am a person, a sexual being, a person who struggles, for whom there are important issues to explore, new things to learn, challenges to meet, beginnings to make, risks to take, endings to think about. Even though some of my options are reduced, there are new paths ahead.