This summer I became, ready or not, a great-aunt.
When my nephew and his wife gave birth to their first child, Owen Trevor, I flew to Victoria to meet the new addition. There was my younger brother – now a grandfather, of all things – holding his new grandson in his arms.
How did I get here? I thought. Me? A great-aunt?
It’s a cliche to say that we’re only as old as we feel, yet our society’s images of aging are mostly unattractive ones. The vocabulary we use is telling: old age pensioner, senior, the golden years, the downward slope. And we have plenty of negative slang words, too: geezer, codger, duffer, old fart, wrinkly. Perhaps that’s why the word “great-aunt” summons up some doddering 90-year-old with a greying bun and spinsterish glasses.
Yet in an era when people are living longer than ever, often into their 80s and 90s, why do these negative images persist? Now I know what my mother meant, in her later years, when she said it was a surprise to see that old lady staring back at her from the mirror. The dominant “story” of aging in our society seems to be one of decline: loss of mental and physical powers, increasing isolation, diminished interest in the world. Geezers, indeed.
Such negative stereotypes can become self-fulfilling. Dr. Sheree Kwong See, a psychology professor at the University of Alberta, discovered that buying into negative stereotypes about elderly people can decrease their ability to perform everyday tasks.
“If everyone is telling you your memory will decrease when you are old, it will,” says Kwong See. “Often elderly people just won’t try as hard.”
Kwong See also learned that believing in negative stereotypes colours perceptions of the elderly.
“I have found that if older people do something competent, others will ignore it,” she says. “But when the elderly do something incompetent, people will say, ‘Aha, it’s because they’re old.’”
In fact, such negative stereotypes can actually affect the life spans of older people. According to a study headed by Dr. Becca Levy of Yale University’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, older people with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-images. This was true even after other factors were taken into account, such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, and overall health.
These negative views of aging can operate without older people’s awareness, according to the Yale study, because they are thought to be internalized in childhood and are unlikely to be consciously evaluated as we get older.
“Our study carries two messages,” say the authors. “The discouraging one is that negative self-perceptions can diminish life expectancy; the encouraging one is that positive self-perceptions can prolong life expectancy.”
If aging is affected by how we perceive it, then it’s time to reinvent what aging means. We need new images, new stories, new phrases to describe the “third age” of human life. Who in their right mind wants to be called a pensioner, anyway, or be referred to as pensioned off (especially when retirement now often means a change of career or focus rather than a retreat to the golf course)? Why not call a pension, for example, a “wisdom bonus”? Fanciful, perhaps, but a more positive term than the alternative. Such a term also recognizes, as many non-Western cultures already do, what elders can offer in terms of life experience, patience, and resilience.
The media mogul Moses Znaimer coined the term “Zoomers” to describe the aging baby boom generation (a contraction of “Boomers with Zip”). In fact there’s now a magazine called Zoomer, aimed at the over-45 generation, with current articles on former model Twiggy (age 60), activist Maude Barlow (age 62), and Olympic athlete Diane Jones Konihowski (age 58). Such people also belong in a category invented by the writer John A.B. McLeish, who wrote a book about creativity and vitality in later life. McLeish speaks of “the Ulyssean adult,” one who – like the original Ulysses, whose epic homeward journey took him 20 years -“makes a step in a new direction at an age when society expects him or her to continue in well-worn paths (and of course to keep steadily slowing down).”
McLeish gives many examples of both well-known and less famous individuals who continued to lead active, creative lives in old age. The dancer Martha Graham, for example, gave her last performance at age 76 and continued to choreograph into her 90s. The Saskatchewan-born painter Agnes Martin was in her 60s before she felt satisfied with the work she was producing, and well into her eighties was still working in her studio from 8.30 to 11.30 each morning.
Then there’s the Canadian skiier Herman Smith-Johannsen, who at age 99 was still doing an eight-kilometre run each morning, followed by a 6.4-kilometre ski in the afternoon. (He had tried, at age 64, to enlist in the Canadian army ski troops during the Second World War, but was turned down.) His secret, he said, was “the ability to keep from worrying and a will to live.”
My own inspiration includes the French writer Colette, who went tobogganing for the first time at 80, embarked on her third marriage at age 62 (to Maurice Goudeket, then 44), and kept her childlike sense of wonder to the last. After their April wedding lunch at a country inn, Colette and Goudeket were on their way home when snow began to fall, “snow with large flakes of dazzling whiteness,” says Goudeket in his memoirs. “Colette asked me to stop the car and got down to receive this impalpable manna rapturously on her face.”
The ability to sustain that kind of joy and wonder is, it seems to me, a hallmark of aging well. Many folk proverbs recognize this fact. “Everyone is the age of their heart,” says a Guatemalan proverb. Or, as an English proverb has it, “The older the fiddler, the sweeter the tune.” Personally, I’m rather proud of my scars and wrinkles; they represent warriorhood, survivordom. Each, to me, marks the site of a story. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “A man’s age represents a fine cargo of experiences and memories.”
So let’s celebrate the older years, now that we’re no longer under the deluded impression that we’re immortal. Let’s take pleasure, as Colette did, in ordinary moments, remembering that how we speak and think about aging will inevitably affect our attitude to it. As the journalist Doug Larson said, “The aging process has you firmly in its grasp if you never get the urge to throw a snowball.” Or, as Colette herself said, “You must not pity me because my sixtieth year finds me still astonished. To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too
Whitehorse writer Patricia Robertson’s most recent book is The Goldfish Dancer: Stories and Novellas. Her column appears on
the last Friday of each month.