Friday, September 27, 2013

Aging and Breaking Boundaries

Now that I'm 62, the government officially classifies me as old for purposes of Social Security.While I realize that I could be old for, say thirty more years, my initial response to aging is one of disappointment. Where is the wisdom that is supposed to come with experience? Where are the young folks gathered to hear about the tumultuous era we boomers instigated in our adolescence? Instead the main thing I'm finding in my sixth decade is that the abyss between my generation and society seems to grow wider and deeper with each passing year.

Coping with medical problems increases individual isolation. I always knew that aging came with wrinkles and new rolls of fat, but somehow no-one warned me that getting old is like trying to keep a much-used car in running condition. The carburetor gets clogged, the engine begins to sputter, there are too many dents to bother with body work and decorative pieces of the interior begin to fall off.

I see fewer and fewer reflections of who I am in the media. I get tired of seeing twenty or thirty-somethings doing whatever with no hint that others exist. Racism, heterosexism, and just plain sexism were always problematic in media depictions of society, but now even young LGBT folks see me as their mom or granny and society encourages this behavior.

What does aging really mean? I just had an intake interview for a therapy group around transitioning into retirement. The two facilitators are late thirties/early forties women. That shocked me. In the old women's community we would never use people from outside an oppressed group to facilitate it. When I expressed this sentiment to my interviewer she claimed that she understood aging issues. If she had rolled in in a wheelchair or was missing an arm, perhaps I could buy this. But it's strange that she is dealing with something she has never experienced. I have been her age, but the reverse is not true. 

So what doesn't she feel? Invisibility would be the main thing. This is not always a negative. The fly on the wall gets to witness life happening minus the self-conscious obsessiveness of the elephant in the room. But, beyond the circus element here, we all desire to be full participants up until the moment we expire.

The granny syndrome is something that seems to happen only to aging women and it is a major factor in this invisibility. I rarely read a "human interest" article about a sixty-plus woman that doesn't refer to her as a grandmother. This is because the main socially-sanctioned pursuit of women's lives is still reproduction. So, what becomes of us non-breeder broads after we pass through menopause. The answer is that, in the eyes of mainstream consumer-culture, we disappear.

So families become the default refuge of the old although, just as with the young, not necessarily a safe one.  Unfortunately for us childless types, the rugged individualism and capitalist mystique that we were weaned on takes its toll as well. Competitiveness separates us from each other. It often seems that we can no longer connect with compassion and without animosity and suspicion. Our years have scarred us. Thus, as people age, their worlds are in danger of getting smaller and smaller.

The best remedy for a shrinking personal universe is to think outside of preconceived boundaries. Activists and artists who embrace a larger focus have the right idea. We can build an alternative elderly community just as we built the social movements and non-traditional communities of our youth that changed the world. As long as we live, we have to age but we don't have to settle for the same old routine, the same obsolete stereotypes. My hope is that we can age in unique and unprecedented ways, just as we have done in every other stage of our lives.