Birthdays usually remind us to take our aging seriously. I just reached 68. While it is now often said that 70 is the new 50, 50 is the new 30, silver is the new blond, etc., the dominant US culture often marginalizes people as we age, particularly women.
Ashton Applewhite, in her new book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, points out that “You look great for your age.” is an insult. Any of us can look great at any age. Rather than being mean, biased, ageist, and insulting, just say, “You look great.”
So much of what Applewhite says is so well put, that rather than quote her extensively, I urge you to get her book.
An insight that I received about aging at the beginning of my gerontological career is that there is a point in our lives where we feel like ourselves, regardless of age. Our identity stays steady over the decades. Revered gerontological social worker Wendy Lustbader wrote a poignant tale about a 90-something woman in her book, Counting on Kindness.
When the woman agreed to let Wendy visit and be her social worker, the woman held up a photograph, perhaps a prom picture, of a lovely young woman in a gorgeous red dress. She said something like “I want you to remember that this is who I am.” The next time Wendy visited, she looked deeply at the woman and remembered her in the red dress. The woman sensed it immediately and said, “You know who I am.” I am paraphrasing, but the scenario has stayed with me over the years.
Often staff in health care settings, retirement communities, and especially nursing homes see a frail, compromised elderly person who may have trouble communicating. It can be so hard to learn who the person really is. Staff are often rushed and it can be emotionally exhausting to recognize every single person for who he or she is. But it’s crucial to good care and good relationships. In fact many experts posit that good relationships are the key to good care.
Some gems from another of Lustbaders’ books, What’s Worth Knowing:
- “A good listener is someone who’s not talking.” Harold Jones, age 76.
- “Retirement is a ridiculous idea.” Ben Rail, age 92.
- “When in doubt, try the truth.” Martha Eastman, age 80.
- “Don’t hide your age.” Henry Horton, age 90.
- “All that matters in the end is that you are loved.” Edna Whitman Chittick, age 101.
- “Doing good gets you out of bed in the morning.” Grace Stanchfield, age 96. I had the great fortune to get to know Grace well. She lived in an assisted living community where I took a group of UW Medical School graduate students every year. She was always ready to help, to interact with students, or to do any kindness.